McKenna Clann

What We Know, or Think We Know, About Our Roots

History of the McKenna Clann


Meaning: Son of the Dirk (dagger), Son of Fire (God), or Son of the Weeper (seer)

Most of this is from an article at

Based mainly in North Monaghan County Ireland, this family name has a very long and interesting history, as well as figuring prominently in the annals of the county, and its association down through the years with neighbouring counties, but particularly with the O’Neills of Tyrone.

Legend tells that, in the eighth century, the first McKenna to arrive here was a Hugh McKenna, a minor king or prince from the Kells area of Co. Meath. An avid huntsman, he roused a huge stag on one occasion and pursued it for two full days and nights before finally catching up with it and plunging his dagger into the heart of the beast - at a fort, just north of Emyvale, which, to this day, is still called ‘Liskenna’ (from the Irish ‘Lios Sceine’ meaning ‘the fort of the knife’).

Tired out from his exhaustive hunting and journeying, McKenna was entertained by the local chieftain, a man named Treanor; he then remained on as Treanor’s guest, fell in love with his daughter, and eventually married her. In the interim he received word that his kingdom back home in Meath had been usurped by a fellow kinsman, so instead of returning to Meath he decided to remain on in the north of what is now Co. Monaghan, where he had been made feel so welcome. That lovely legend is still recalled in the McKenna logo or ‘coat of arms’, which depicts a huntsman on horseback, a stag, two hounds, and two crescent moons, signifying the two days and two nights that McKenna had followed the hunt.

Through time, the McKenna offspring and later descendants became very numer-ous, and these ultimately overcame all neighbouring tribes, to eventually establish for themselves a small kingdom between the McMahons to the south and the O’Neills to the north. This little kingdom or ‘tuath’ as it would have been known then, extended from the Blackwater at Aughnacloy to the ‘lesser’ Blackwater at Monaghan, and from the Slieve Beagh mountains in the west to the castle of Glaslough in the east, encompassing the present parishes of Donagh (sometimes called ‘Upper Truagh’) and Errigal Truagh, an area of approximately eighty square miles.

Of course, the story of the hunt was mere legend, but later history records that McKenna’s tiny kingdom was well and truly established by the time of the arrival of the Normans in the twelfth century (1169). It became known as ‘Triucha Chead a’ Chladaigh’, which loosely translated, simply means the ‘Barony of the Ring Forts’. The parishes of Donagh and Errigal Truagh have a greater proliferation of ring-forts than any other area of its size in Ulster.

The McKenna Coat of Arms

The McKenna High Cross

Headquarters of the Clan McKenna was firmly established at Tully Hill, just south of the present Emyvale village, and this would survive for an amazing five hundred years - from the mid-12th century to the early 17th century. Originally, a series of three ring forts stood on this hill but only the inner ring and half of the outer ring of the northern fort remains to this day. The fortifications also included a ‘crannog’ on Tully Lough, below the western slope of the hill, and part of this may also still be seen. The 12th century McKenna High Cross and the McKenna Chieftains grave may also still be seen in the neighbouring Donagh Old Grave-yard.

Through the centuries the McKennas became embroiled in the tribal wars that prevailed in Ulster right down until the demise of the Gaelic Chieftains at the beginning of the seventeenth century. They were frequently at war with O’Neills to the north and with the McMahons to the south, often helping the one against the other, and even occasionally at war among themselves as different branches of the family vied for over-lordship.

They were very much a part of O’Neill’s army at the Battle of Clontibret in 1595 and again at the Yellow Ford in 1598, but, just as they were part of these great victories, they also had to share in the defeats, and they were in O’Neill’s army again at Kin-sale in 1601.

Following the retreat from the tragedy of Kinsale, they were pursued by Mountjoy and the English, who established a new fort for themselves at Monaghan. From there, Mountjoy’s forces destroyed most of McKenna’s fortifications at Tully, Emyvale. The centre fort was completely obliterated and was never restored, but the southern and northern forts were re-built by McKenna who, despite the previous disaster, was again very much involved in the Insurrection of 1641, a war that con-tinued right up until the Cromwellian Settlements of 1652. As punishment for his part in that lengthy war, McKenna’s territory was again invaded and ravaged by English forces under Hamilton in 1642, and again under Stewart in 1643.

Probably the greatest of all the McKenna chieftains was Patrick McKenna who came to power c.1580, but he was unfortunate in that, at that time, the English were encroaching from the south and trying to establish a ‘shire’ in what is now Co. Monaghan.

"The Home of a Friend"

See article at

In 1587 the English kidnapped the prince of the O”Donnell clan and held him prisoner for over 3 years, in the dungeons of the Burningham tower which still stands in the Dublin Castle Yard.

Hugh O'Donnell--"Hugh Roe" or "Red Hugh"--son of the reigning chief of Tyrconnell, was at this time "a fiery stripling of fifteen, and was already known throughout the five provinces of Ireland, not only 'by the report of his beauty, his agility, and his noble deeds,' but as a sworn foe to the Saxons of the Pale;"

The following is a translation of an address presented by the Lord of Truagh (Patrick McKenna) to Hugh Roe (or Red Hugh) O'Donnell, on the occasion of his escape from Dublin Castle, when the said Red Hugh was making his way home to Tirconnell with his fellow prisoner Art O’Neill:

The Truagh Welcome

"Shall a son of O'Donnell be cheerless and cold While McKenna's wide hearth has a faggot to spare?

While O'Donnell is poor, shall McKenna have gold? Or be clothed, while a limb of O'Donnell is bare?

While sickness and hunger thy sinews assail, Shall McKenna, unmoved, quaff his madder of mead?

On the haunch of a deer shall McKenna regale ? While a Chief of Tirconnell is fainting for food?

No; enter my dwelling, my feast thou shalt share; On my pillow of rushes thy head shall recline;

And bold is the heart and the hand that will dare To harm but one hair of a ringlet of thine.

Then come to my home, 'tis the home of a friend, In the green woods of Truagh thou art safe from thy foes:

Six sons of Mckenna thy steps shall attend, And their six sheathless skeans shall protect thy repose."

The McKenna clan will fight against England in all the battles of the Nine Years War (1594-1603) alongside the O’Donnel’s and the O’Neill’s

Patrick, who had fought in all the battles of the Nine Years War (1594-1603) died in 1612 and was succeeded by his grandson Niall McKenna, who was leader during the 1641-52 wars.

By 1652, his territory had been so ravaged that he emigrated to Spain where he joined the Spanish army and later died there. Niall was succeeded by his nephew, Phelemy McKenna, who, with four of his sons, was murdered by English forces in 1666 and is buried in Donagh Old Graveyard. His fifth son, Major John McKenna was later appointed High Sheriff of Monaghan by James 1st, and it was this Major John McKenna who led the Catholic Irish forces at the Battle of Drumbanagher, near Glaslough, in 1688, following which he was executed. He too is buried at Donagh.

The Battle of Drumbanagher is sometimes refereed to as ‘The Opening Shots of the Williamite Wars’, but even more frequently it is referred to as ‘McKenna’s Last Stand’ as it was this battle that really brought an end to the power of this once great family.

Defeated at Drumbanagher, the influence of the McKenna Clan declined rapidly and, with the various Plantations of the 17th century, practically all their lands were confiscated and transferred to alien ownership. Despite this, the McKenna name never died but, on the contrary, increased to an amazing rate, to such an extent that the McKennas far outnumber all other surnames in North Monaghan today and is second only to the McMahon name in the entire county.

Since this original article was written, McKenna has become the most prominent name in County Tyrone. See the recent article...

The Last McKenna Chieftain, Patrick McKenna ...

"was granted two thirds of Truagh in the land settlement of 1591. He was friendly to the English at the beginning of the Nine Years War but after the battle of Clontibret in 1595 he joined Hugh O’Neill and the other Ulster chieftains. Patrick McKenna survived the war and was regranted most of his lands in the 1606 Settlement. He died about 1616 in his home at Tully Lough near Emyvale [and is buried in the Old Donagh Graveyard].

"Before his death he had divided his estates among his family. He was succeeded by his son Niall, then a minor, as head of the family The McKennas refused to pay rent to the English for their land and this meant that much of it passed into alien hands even before the 1641 Rising. Niall McKenna was still the head of the family during the Rising and he lived successively at Tully and Portinaghy. He emigrated to Spain in 1653 ...

"John McKenna, a grandson of Patrick, became high-sheriff of Monaghan under James ll. He was executed by the Williamites after the battle of Drumbanagher in 1689. John’s grandson, William, was called the Bully McKenna. He was a successful farmer and businessman and lived at Aghaninimy in a house which was called Willville where he died in 1816. His son, Don Juan, became a famous general in the Chilean War of Independence." (The McKennas, a brief history - Clann MacKenna Family History Society – Book 9)

Note: Patrick McKenna is buried in the historic Donagh Cemetery.

Read more about the land-settlement in The Clogher Record.