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McCain / MacEain Clan

The McCains are a small Irish clan and are a bit of an enigma. We know who they are, but parts of their history are a mystery. There are several reasons for this. In the north of Ireland there are two Gaelic names anglicised as McCain and several non-related families have anglicised their surname as McCain and their respective historiesWhite Lion Shield are sometimes confused with one another. There is also the chaos of Ulster history. So, for these reasons, the McCains have largely been missed by the historians’ sieve. It has been left to the McCain descendants in the Diaspora to extract their own history, which they are now doing with success. By using primary source research and Y-chromosome DNA testing the real history of this McCain clan is being revealed.

The anglicised forms of the name include McCain, McCane, McKane, McKain, McKean, and McKeen. There are at least two Gaelic names anglicised as McCain in Ulster. These are Mac Catháin and Mac Eáin. Recent DNA research and a study of primary sources show us that in the case of our family the origin of the surname is Mac Eáin.

Ulster FlagThe McCains are a classic Gaelic patronymic clan. The Patriarch of the clan was named Eáin. Eáin is a loan word to Gaelic from the Latin Iohannes which in turn is from the Hebrew y'hohanan, meaning 'Jehovah has favoured.' Eáin was a form of Iohannes that is found in the Gaelic dialect in use in Argyll, the southern Isles, and parts of Ulster from the 15th Century onward.

The assumed etymology of Eáin is that it is a mid Argyll variation of the name Eóin, both being Gaelic forms of Iohannes. It is normally written in the genitive case, i.e. Eáin, but could be written Eán in the nominative case. It is also identical to the north and west Iberian form of Iohannes in use at the same time. In the northern dialects of Spanish and in Portuguese, the Latin Iohannes was Ean and ‘son of Ean’ was Eannes. In Gaelic Mac is ‘son of’ followed by the genitive form of the name Eán, i.e. Eáin. Mac Eáin is translated into English as ‘Johnson.’

An analysis of the DNA suggests this Patriarch lived circa 1350 to 1450 AD. DNA tests have also revealed that the Ulster McCains are related to several Gaelic families from mid-Argyll associated with the historical Gallóglaigh and Redshanks kindreds. The exact date the McCains settled in Ulster is not known, but primaryGalloglaich and Dogs sources do show a large movement of Redshank families from the parishes where the McCains were living in mid Argyll, into east Donegal, in the year 1569. The area where these Redshanks settled in east Donegal is also where the McCain family first makes its appearance in the written records.

Several branches have oral histories which touch on the McCain origins. In the northeast USA a William the Soldier of Argyll, is remembered, this may reference the first McCain to move into east Donegal and the soldier reference being his Redshank status. In Mississippi the Teoc McCains remember the family as being Highland Scots in the service of Mary Queen of Scots and having to ‘flee’ Scotland after her fall. The military commander of Mary Queen of Scots was Giolla Easpuig Caimbeul, who was landlord to the McCains and he drew his troops from his lands. Mary’s troops under Giolla Easpuig Caimbeul were defeated in 1567. Both oral histories, as faint as they are, do appear to recall actual events and people.

The McCains were part of the older Gaelic class yet many converted to the Presbyterian faith and took a leadership role in this community, especially in east Donegal, and yet others remained Catholic, and still others converted to the Anglican faith.

From 1660s onward we know the McCains were living in certain locations in Ulster; they were most numerous in east Donegal, in the Finn Valley and St Johnston area. By the 1660s another branch of the family was located in northwest County Antrim, and by 1700s branches were also in northwest Tyrone and Londonderry.

In 1718, groups of these McCains began to immigrate to the New World and they continued to throughout the 1700s, 1800s and 1900s. One family from this clan, the Ballymoney McKeens, were the progenitors of the 1718 Ulster Migration to the Colonies.

The Ulster McCain families are now located throughout the United States, and are particularly numerous in the South. In Canada they are numerous in New Brunswick, Ontario, and Nova Scotia. Several families migrated to Scotland and live outside Glasgow and they are still numerous in east Donegal, and northwest Tyrone.

The McCains are an energetic and successful clan and have distinguished themselves in many fields. They have produced frontiersmen, writers, historians, church leaders, musicians, sport champions, attorneys, doctors, entrepreneurs, business magnates, admirals, generals, and statesmen, and their saga continues.

Barry R McCain © 2009


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Barry McCain © 2008


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