The Noonan Name

Ua Nemhnainn



Noonan, Nunan

The Noonan Name

Noonan/Nunan is the anglicized modern form of the well-attested Irish surname Ó Núanáin, which in turn appears to be descended through the Middle-Irish family name O’hIonmhaineáin from the Early-Irish Ua Nemhnainn, the cognomen of one of the three battalions of the 3rd-century Fianna Érieann.

The Irish government recognizes the surname Ó Núanáin as an ancient tuath name. Historically Noonans were the hereditary proprietors of Túatha Ua Nemhnain, a c.50-square-mile Gaelach tuath (clan kingdom) straddling the Cork-Limerick border east of Slieve Luachra. The kingdom’s seat was Castlelishen, ‘Oisín’s Castle’ (Oisín was the poet-warrior son of the famous Fianna leader Find mac Cumail) near Tulach Léis, Tullylease, the County Cork component of the kingdom and home of the Fianna hero Cáel Ua Nemhnainn.

Ó hIonmhaineáin

The Chief Herald of Ireland’s Edward MacLysaght’s Irish Families entries for O’Nunan/Noonan:

Ó hIonmhaineáin Noonan: an-líonmhar: Mumhain & Oir-dheisceart. An leagan bunaidh d’Ó Nuanáin, q.v. Clann a bhí ina gcomharbaí i dTulach Léis agus ina dtiarnaí ar Mhuscraí Uí Nuanáin. Brí: ionmhain (ionúin, anois) = geanúil, muirneach.

Ó Nuanáin Noonan: an-líonmhar sa Mhumhain & san Oir-dheisceart. Claochlú ar an leagan bunaidh Ó h-Ionmhaineáin, q.v. Bhí William Ouhynaunen ina lia ag Rí Shasana sa 14 céad.

 The name Noonan, which is also, but less frequently, spelt Nunan (the prefix O has not been resumed), belongs almost exclusively to the province of Munster [southern Ireland from Waterford and Tipperary west] and particularly to Co. Cork, where it originated. In modern Irish it is Ó Nuanáin: this is a corrupt or contracted form of the older Ó h-Ionmhaineáin, of which the anglicised form O’Hinunane, now obsolete, is approximately a phonetic reading. In early times O’Noonan was a chief of a sept in Duhallow [the NW of County Cork] and the O’Noonans were also connected with the Church as erenaghs [hereditary benefactors] of the church of St. Beretchert at Tullylead [Tullylease], in the barony of Duhallow.

The name is thought to have originated in Cork, but is most common now in Limerick. The Nunans in Tipperary and Clare are of the same origins.

Edward MacLysaght, Irish Families, Dublin, 1980

Elsewhere, following MacLysaght, Murphy and Spellissy wrote:

“The name belongs almost exclusively to the province of Munster, having originated in Co. Cork. In modern Irish it is Ó Nuanáin, which, as MacLysaght, the leading authority on Irish surnames, explains, is a corrupt or contracted form of the older Ó h-Ionmhaineáin.

The name in Irish means descendant of Ionmhaineán (beloved). It is still sometimes spelled Nunan in English.” Hilary Murphy, Famous Irish Names

“The Nunan family derive their name from O’hIonmhaineáin, the descendant of Ionmhaineán, the diminutive of Ionmhain, the Beloved [Old Irish diminutive inmainén from the OI noun inmain/ionmhain, adj ionúin, ‘dear, beloved’ from the root word mhain/máin ‘treasure, wealth’ and its diminutive maínén, ‘small gift’]. This name was later shortened to ‘O Nuanain…Variants of it include O’Hununane, O’Hinownan, and Noonan…In the early times, O’Noonan was a chief of a sept in Duhallow.” Sean Spellissy Limerick the Rich Land

In spite of Spellissy’s identification of the origin of the name as Ionmhaineán, the root of the Noonan surname actually appears to have been Nemhnain, ‘No-treasure’, which became “Christianized” to Ionmhaineán, ‘Little-beloved’, literally ‘Little-treasure’.

Ua Nemhnainn

Ua Nemhnainn (pronounced O’New-nain) is apparently derived from the Old Irish words nem-, ‘no, not’, and mhain/máin, ‘treasure, wealth’, giving the meaning “No-treasure”.

The Ua Nemhnainn were one of the five semi-independent clans of the Fianna Érieann, provincial warrior sodalities that played a pivotal national military role in 3rd century Ireland. They composed the standing army of Ard Rí Cormac mac Airt ua Cuinn, High King Cormac son of Art son of Conn (c.227-266). Cormac employed the Fianna to counter provincial ambitons and to defend Ireland while he undertook a campaign of focused raiding into Britain, left vulnerable by the Roman ‘Crisis of the 3rd Century’, the diversion of troops to fight the Frank and Goth invasions of the western Empire and civil wars (Britain itself was part of the breakaway Gallic Empire 258-274).

The fénnid were warriors who left their túath (family kingdom) and swore allegiance to a clan that formed around a strong leader:

Is annsin do t-shnaidm in ingen a comairchi ar tri h- aicmedaib cutruma ro bói issind Feind .i. ar Chlannaib Morna & ar Chlannaib Baiscne & ar Chlannaib Nemnaind, & naidmis ar in Feind uile a comairchi, & faemait in Fhiann.

And in offering his pledge of kinship and proper fellowship for our three equal divisions the fosterlings of the Fénnid, that is our Clan Morna and our Clan Baiscne and our Clan Nemnain, and pledge before the whole Fénnid proper fellowship and submission to the Fian.

Acallamh na Senórach

Their code was the aristocratic fénechas. It required martial, cultural and intellectual mastery of its initiates. The fénnid lived by hunting and fishing from Beltaine (February 1) to Samhain (Halloween) and wintered as guests of the king to whom they provided military service. Nemhnain, “No-treasure”, would have been an apt description for the fortunes of a fénnid.

Principally composed by the Munster Nemhnain, Leinster Baíscne and Connacht Morna clans, the Fianna Érieann became the military power in Ireland in an era marked by the greatest tribal displacements in over three centuries. Find mac Cumail (Finn McCool), rígfénnid of Clan Baíscne, is the most celebrated of the Fianna Érieann. His father Cumall had been outlawed by High King Conn of the Hundred Battles for abducting Muirne daughter of the druid Tadg mac Nuadat. Cumall was killed by Goll mac Morna of the Connacht Fianna and Muirne gave birth to Finn. In time Goll relinquished command of the Fianna to Finn.

Finn’s Fianna were credited with defeating an invasion by Dáiri Don “the king of the world” at Trágh Chaeil, the ‘strand of Cael’ that protects Ventry harbor, the sheltered beach-landing west of Dingle (Dáiri Don might have meant the Dardanian Roman emperor Claudius II Gothicus (268-270) who retook the Iberian peninsula from the Gallic Empire. He was just one of the twenty-five “soldier-emperors” who ruled the Roman Empire between 235 and 284).

The namesake of the strand of Cael, the fénnid champion Cáel An Iarann (Cáel is Irish for ‘slender’, An Iarann means ‘the iron’) Ua Nemhnainn of Tulach Léis is known from several surviving Irish manuscripts. His story records how he wooed and married Crèidhe of Dá Chích Anann, the Paps of Ana, the daughter of Cairbre Whiteskin the king of Ciarraighe Luachra (Kerry Luachra) before drowning in the rising tide at the Battle of Ventry. Crèidhe’s dirge for her dead husband is preserved in the Acallam na Senórach (The Colloquy of the Ancients, composed c.1175), Keating’s History of Ireland (1634) and numerous love-songs. Créidhi’s Lament can be read in Irish at paragraph 64, page 24 of the Acallamh na Senórach at .

Cael is mentioned several times in that manuscript:

Cael Croda Cétguinech h-ua Nemnaind and Cael cródha céd-ghuinech ua Nemnainn

Valiant Cael the hundred-slayer grandsonof Nemhnainn.

Ocus Caol Cródha cét-ghuinech ua Nemhnain (.i. cur) conáich co neimh ro bhúi ac Finn…

There was valiant Cael the hundred-slayer grandson of Nemhnann (that is, hero) rich as a splendid fosterling of Finn…

Do Cael chroda chet-guinech ua Neamhnainn, do mac rígh Laigen anair.

Cael the valiant hundred-slayer grandson of Nemhnann, the son of the king of Leinster in the east.

a n-étaig annseo tri catha na Féinne .i. Find mac Cumaill & Fer Domon mac Imomain ó Lathraig Cáin do choiced Gailian andes.

O’Grady translated this as:

“the three battalions of the Fianna: Finn mac Cumall’s, and Ferdoman mac Innoman from lathrach caein or “pleasant site”, of the Galianic province.”

But it more precisely says:

“the three battalions of the Fianna: Finn mac Cumall’s and the Man-of-the-world son of No-treasure of the Warrior-rush Law of the fifth of the Gailioin in the south [i.e. Leinster].”

O’Grady’s transcription as lathrach caein translates to “Warrior-forearm Law”, the likely basis of the Noonan “The Upper Arm is Foremost” motto and arms… which see below.

Crèidhe’s lament named Cael’s father Crimhthann and identified his great-grandfather as the king of Leinster. In the early 3rd century the Laigin had lost control over central and southern Leinster to Mogh Nuadat, king of Munster. His son Ailill Ollamh became king over Leinster. Presumably Cael was a great-grandson of Ailill, and his legacy of no wealth was the inheritance left by the massacre of all of Ailill’s sons and the westward displacement of their descendants to the swordlands of western Cork, eastern Kerry and Counties Limerick and Clare.

Créidhi’s Lament called Cael the “strong wave of Tulach Lèis” and the “stag of Druim Dá Lèis”. Tulach Léis (Hill of the Bothies) is modernly Tullylease in County Cork. It and neighboring Dromcolliher (Ridge of the Hazels) in Limerick are the principle modern towns of Túatha Ua Nemhnain.

Tullylease and Dromcolliher lie in the eastern shadow of boggy Mullighareik (Peak of the View) mountain along the ridge separating the Limerick Daoil (River Deel) and Cork Abhloinn (River Allow) watersheds. The Cork-Limerick border there marks a clear archaeological divison between ringforts to the north and fulacht fia to the south. Ringforts were defensive farmstead “corral” enclosures on cleared lands. Fulacht fia, the ‘cooking places of the fian’, were forest camps, archaeologically implying that south of the border was wooded and populated by fénnid.

The Noonan seat east of Tullylease and south of Dromcolliher was Caislean Lisheen, a corruption of Caislean Ossian, ‘Oisín’s Castle’. The vaulted lower floors of a rectangular stone tower known as Castlelishen still stand in the yard of the dairy farm there.

Findtulach (tulach na feinne, ‘the hill of the Fianna’, now Ardpatrick) lies fifteen miles east of Tulach Léis. The Acallamh na Senórach claimed that the scribe Brogan recorded Caeilte and Oisín’s recitation of the history of the Fianna to Patrick there. Glenosheen ‘the Glen of Oisín’ and a gallery grave claimed for his warrior son Oscar lie nearby. The three battalions of the Fianna are recorded as having assembled there before the battle of Ventry; they met Cael An Iarann of Tulach Léis as they began their march west. Earthwork ruins attributed to Ailill Ollamh lie just northeast of Dromcolliher at Killmallock, and many of Finn McCool’s adventures takes place in nearby Ciarraige Luachra.

The association of the Nemhnainn with Tulach Léis continued under the Ó hIonmhaineáin/Ó Nuanáin/Noonan reign as “chief of Tullaleis and Castlelissen, now Tullilease parish, in the barony of Duhallow, county Cork.”