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Keefe - Keeffe - O'Keefe

What's in a name?

The surname O'Keeffe was derived from an Irish clan called O'Caoimb (O'Kweeve?) over 1000 years ago. A legend tells that in the 10th century A.D. Ireland was divided into five Kingdoms, and in 902 a prince, Art Caoimb, was slain in a local battle. His clan of this time took the name O'Caoimb in honor of their leader. It means descendant of the beautiful/gentle/noble one. The spelling and pronunciation of the name gradually changed to O'Keeffe between the Anglo-Norman invasion of the 12th century and the English/Scottish migration beginning in the 16th century.

By the 16th century, the O in Irish names was used to denote: grandson of or descendent of. The prefixes, O as well as Mac, were also the mark of being a Catholic and the cause for religious discrimination during the 16th and 17th centuries. After Henry VIII declared himself king of Ireland as well as England, he started the Anglican Church. He pushed heavily for Ireland's conversion to the new (Protestant) faith. Ireland had a long Catholic history, dating back to St. Patrick, and many individuals refused to reinterpret their religious beliefs. After Henry VIII died, his oldest daughter, Mary, took over the throne. During her reign the Catholics enjoyed a brief period of favor with the royal government. However, Henry VIII's younger daughter, Elizabeth, ruled next for a long 50 years. And she supported the supplanting of Irish Catholics with Protestant English subjects. This caused battles to break out between Queen Elizabeth's army and various Irish Chieftains. There was much ravage in the area where the Catholic O'Keeffe clan lived. The Irish poet, Edward Spencer, wrote the following about the wrath of Queen Elizabeth on the O'Keeffes and their fellow clans:

The people that did not escape came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legs could not bear them. They looked anatomies of death, they spake like ghosts crying out of their graves, they did eat of the dead carrions....yea and one another soon after in so much as the very carcasses they spared not to scrape out of their graves....In short space there were none almost left and a most populous and plentiful country suddenly left void of man or beast

From this description, it's no wonder that during this time there were groups of Irish who moved to England and ironically converted to the Protestant faith.
The first Keefes/O'Keefes in England appear to have descended from this little written about 16th century immigration of abstaining Irish Catholics.

The wealthiest of the Irish O'Keeffes became the
French O'Keifs as they removed themselves from the torments of Protestant rule by following the exiled Catholic King Charles II to France in the 17th century.

There were also some, including O'Keeffes, who remained in their homeland; however, time did not change the pressures people felt for staying Catholic. During subsequent years penal laws were created which made it nearly impossible for the remaining Irish Catholics to own land. In an attempt to ebb this continuing religious discrimination many clans began to drop their prefixes (since this identified them as Catholic). This appears to have been common practice during the l600s and continuing into the 1700s. Therefore, it's mostly myth and mistaken family lore that the Irish dropped their Os and Macs in the 1800s when
immigrating to America. Most O'Keeffes would have dropped the prefix 200 years before the Potato Famine immigration of the 19th century, and some were even adding it back when they entered American ports in the 1840s, 50s, and 60s.

It is interesting to note that there are still many O'Keeffes residing in the part of Ireland called North Cork near the Kerry an area known as "Pobal O'Keeffe." As a matter of fact in western Ireland the name O'Keeffe is as common as Smith and Jones in America.

This page is part of the site related to

Keefe/Keeffe Families of the South

Keefe Family of South Carolina

Note: The above O'Keeffe Coat of Arms was borrowed from Joseph O'Keefe's homepage.