ORIGIN AND HISTORY OF THE NAME
Plymouth, Mass. USA
For many years, Edward MacLysaght, in his book, Irish Families, Their Names, Arms and Origins, 1972, one of the most referenced works on Irish genealogy, has presented the Curtin name, though “popularly regarded as a Co. Cork surname,” as actually the name of an ancient sept of Thomond, present day Co. Clare. Those were MacCruitins and had their territory in the barony of Corcomroe, near Ennistymon. MacLysaght makes no further distinction between the Cork and Clare Curtins, and in his listing of notable Curtins of more modern times, seems to place them all under the same aegis.
However, modern scholarship has cast doubt on MacLysaght’s supposition, and shows that today’s Curtins, spread around the world, fall into two distinct families, unrelated save through intermarriage! Our own Brian MacCurtain is a scholar of Onomastics, the study of proper names. Through his research, he has traced, in ancient texts and references, the various occurrences of the Curtin name, and demonstrates that the name has two different origins.
The Clare Curtins of old were of a learned and talented family, the MacCruitin. They were hereditary ollamh (bards) to the powerful O’Brien family, Lords of Thomond. The Cork Curtins, who are numerous in that county, and who comprise most of the present membership of our Clan, descend from the MeicCoirtein o Baili MeigCoirtein, hereditary landed proprietors of the barony of Fermoy, with their seat in Rahan, near Mallow.
The name MacCruitin derives from the word cruit, which means “hunchback” Thus MacCruitin can be taken to mean, “son of the hunchback.” However, cruit is also the name given to the small, portable harp used by the bards and minstrels. Some contend that this shared meaning stems from the appearance of the small harp, with the rounded top of its forepillar resembling a hunched back. Today’s Irish Euro coin portrays such a harp, showing the similarity. Others point out that the bards, making their way from one seat of the O’Briens to another, with their harp slung over their shoulder, (as the Minstrel Boy of the familiar ballad) could appear from afar to be hunchbacks. Thus, the name could also mean, “son of the harp,” a much more evocative, even romantic name. The black harp on our crest enhances this interpretation.
The name MacCoirtein, in Brian’s estimation, is most probably derived from the word coirt, meaning, “tree bark.” By extension, he feels this would refer to the color tan, since bark was used in tanning and dying leather. In the name, it probably refers to hair color or complexion, thus “the son of the tan man.”
Brian points out that it is linguistically impossible that the two ancient versions of the name could be derived from the same root. Both of these names became anglicized to “Curtin or Curtain” in the 18th century. He also dismisses the contention in some quarters that the Cork Curtins are a branch of the MacCartan family of Co. Down, who supposedly settled in East Cork before the end of the 16th century. He says that all the evidence suggests that the East Cork and Mallow families are related, and that there is no evidence connecting either of them to Co. Down.
The earliest reference Brian has found to a Curtin name is in a late 13th or early 14th century Co. Cork document called Crichad an Chaoill, which lists the hereditary landed proprietors of the territory of that name. Among these are, to use the more modern spelling, the MacCurtains of Ballymaccurtain, who were of the Rahan people.
In Co. Clare, Brian has found mention of Curtins in the Irish Annals, dating from about the last quarter of the 14th century, a bit later than in Co. Cork. These are the distinguished learned family of Mac Cruitin, the hereditary historians to the O’Briens of Thomond. Some members of this family continued to be scholars and poets down to the 19th century. Among them were Hugh Buidhe MacCurtin (1680-1755), styled, “Chief of the Sept,” on whom was bestowed the coat of arms and crest we use for our clan symbol. Hugh was also a lexicographer as well as a poet. In more recent times, Andrew Gregg Curtin (1815-1894), the son of a Clare man, was the notable governor of Pennsylvania during the American Civil War. Jeremiah Curtin, (1836-1906), a noted linguist, translator and collector of folk tales, was also secretary to the American Legation in Russia in 1864.
The Cork MacCurtins have given us, in modern times, two notable men of government. Thomas MacCurtain (1885-1920) was Lord Mayor of Cork City, murdered for his political beliefs by the “Black and Tans” during the War for Irish Independence.
John Curtin, of a Cork family, was the very effective Prime Minister of Australia during World War II. Curtin University in Western Australia is among many tributes to this larger-than-life man of the people.
In our present times modern technology has contributed to our search for origins and relationships. The Clan has undertaken a DNA project to determine relationships among members. As of this writing, September 2011, a total of 77 males with the Curtin surname have been tested to varying degrees. Those tested are divided according to test results into “haplogroups,” which may be likened to branches of the vast tree of mankind.
The preponderance (75) of those tested fell into one of two haplogroups. Of these, 28 are in Haplogroup R1b1a2, which originated in the in the middle east, is the most common group in Western Europe, and includes 80% of the people in the British Isles. However, this group of our members includes descendents of both Clare and Cork Curtins. The majority of those tested (47), who are descended from Curtins in the Feale valley, in Cork, Kerry and Limerick, fall into haplogroup J2. This haplogroup is very unique for Ireland. Less than 5% of the Irish population are in J2, which was centered in the Near East, and can be found all along the Mediterranean coast of Africa, and from Spain and Italy eastward to Israel and Pakistan.
All of this, at first glance, might seem to shoot holes in our earlier conclusions about relationships, but we must realize that these haplogroups cover many dozens of modern nationalities and indicate origins and migrations as well. They indicate probable relationships through common ancestors many hundreds, if not thousands of years ago, before the adoption of surnames. Thus we find that our two famous political Curtin/MacCurtain men are from two different haplogroups. Thomas MacCurtain, Lord Mayor of Cork, was in the R1b1 group, while John Curtin, Prime Minister of Australia, was from a Feale Valley J2 group. To add further complexity, we have learned that Liam Curtin, a member from Brosna, Co. Kerry, shares the Y chromosome of Niall of the Nine Hostages, the progenitor of the mighty O’Neill family of Ulster, and possibly the ancestor of one in twelve of today’s Irishmen in group R1b!
To further refine and define these relationships requires much more testing. We urge all men who bear the surname Curtin to join the Clan DNA project and submit samples for testing. It is a very simple process, and painless, except perhaps to your wallet! In this regard, the Clan’s policy is to offer one year’s free Clan membership for any man with the Curtin surname taking at least the 67-marker test, or any male or female with Curtin ancestors taking the Family Finder test
So, those of you members who haven’t yet tested, we urge you to do so; and all members are encouraged to seek out and recruit Curtin men to join the project, and, thereby, the Clan.
The material for this article was gathered from Brian MacCurtain’s lectures at Clan Gatherings, MacLysaght’s works, and Dan (NY) Curtin’s reports on the DNA project.
Plymouth, MA, US
COAT OF ARMS
The Coat of Arms used by the Curtin Clan Association is one granted to an illustrious member of an ancient sept of Thomond, the area of Ireland now largely occupied by County Clare. Thanks to the research of Neal Curtin, our Founder Emeritus, we know that these arms were granted by the Ulster King of Arms to "Hugh Buidhe McCurten, Chief of His Sept" in 1732. A sept was a division of a tribe headed by a hereditary king in ancient and medieval Ireland. The spelling of the family name has varied through the ages. In Co. Clare it derived from MacCruitin, which can be literally translated as "son of the hunchback," as the Irish word cruitin meant "hunchback". The word cruitin itself is derived from cruit, meaning "harp". The Irish obviously envisaged a hunchback having a back curved like a harp. We are indebted to our learned member Brian MacCurtain for this data on the origins of the name.
The MacCruitins were hereditary historians to the O'Briens, kings of Thomond. The family is well documented from the 14th century, and are generally described as ollamh, the highest rank of the learned professions. Some of them were also distinguished musicians as well as historians. Their home territory was around Ennistymon, in present Co. Clare.
Heraldry, the science that deals with describing coats of arms, came into prominence after the Norman conquest of England in 1066. Warriors had long used banners and symbols on shields and outer clothing as identifying marks in battle. These became known as "arms", and kings appointed specialists to catalog them and, later, to certify and grant them. These specialists were titled "King of Arms", and in later centuries, the Ulster King of Arms had this authority in all of Ireland. A coat of arms was granted only to a male, and only directly descended males could use them. However, the members of the Curtin Clan Association decided to adopt Hugh Buidhe's arms as a known and distinctive unifying symbol.
"Coat of Arms" is the proper modern term to describe the whole set of armorial symbols, usually consisting of a shield surmounted by a crest. Note that "crest" refers only to the small symbol on top of the shield, not to the whole device. Heraldry has its own language, part Norman French and part old English, used to describe these devices. The description itself, a sort of shorthand, is called the Blazon. Here is ours:
BLAZON - Vert in front of a lance in pale Or a stag trippant Argent attired Or between three crosses croslet of the second Or, two and one, and as many trefoils slipt of the third Argent, one and two. Crest: in front of two lances in saltire Argent headed Or an Irish harp Sable. No motto recorded.
GLOSSARY AND MEANINGS
Argent - silver (sometimes white) - sincerity, peace.
Or - gold - generosity, elevation of the mind.
Sable - black - constancy.
Vert - green - hope, loyalty in love, joy.
FIGURES or CHARGES
Stag - skilful, politic, lover of harmony. NOTE: In Ireland, the stag was one of the most ancient of charges, and was regarded as the most handsome. The stag represents the very ancestors of the Celtic race. Trippant means "walking." Attired means "decorated."
Trefoil slipt, or Shamrock with stem - perpetuity, longevity. NOTE: The shamrock, because of its association with St. Patrick, has Christian significance. It has become a symbol of the Irish.
Crossed crosslets (cross with each arm also crossed) - Christian significance or Crusades.
Lances - devotion to honor, knightly service. When in pale, or vertical denotes military strength and fortitude; when in saltire, or crossed like an X, denotes resolution.
Harp - the symbol of Ireland for centuries. It also signifies a well-composed person of tempered judgment and contemplation. NOTE: The harp symbolizes the soul of Ireland, as is brought out in the two songs I suggested as possible Clan songs, The Minstrel Boy and The Harp That Once Through Tara's Halls. Brian MacCurtain has suggested the connection of the harp to the family name. Neal's research also found that there is only one other coat of arms in Ireland with a black harp, and that is the arms of the President of the Republic!
Thus, in modern English, the coat of arms used by our Clan Association is described as:
On a green shield, in front of a vertical gold lance stands a walking silver stag with gold antlers, between three gold crossed crosslets, two above and one below, and three silver shamrocks with stems, one above and two below.
The crest is: in front of two silver, gold-headed lances crossed like an X there is a black Irish harp.
In some versions of the arms, the crest sits on a little twisted ribbon in green and silver. This is the torce, or wreath, always in the main colors of the arms. We have added a ribbon below the shield inscribed with the old spelling of the Co. Clare MacCruitins.
All of this gives us a range of possible interpretations, all of them complimentary. We must note the connections to the ancestry of all Celts, to the soul and spirit of Ireland and to Christianity, and to the military virtues. It well could be that Sir Thomas More wrote The Minstrel Boy about an ancient MacCruitin.
"The minstrel boy to the war has gone, in the ranks of death you will find him. His father's sword he has girded on, and his wild harp slung behind him."
Plymouth, MA USA