This famous surname is Irish. Recorded in many forms including: Conan, Coonan, O' Cooney, Cooney, Counihan, and Coonihan, it derives from the old pre 10th century Gaelic name O'Cuana. The Gaelic prefix "O" indicates male descendant of, plus the personal byname Cuana or Cuanin, meaning the elegant one. Irish surnames traditionally descend from a nickname for the first chief. These nicknames may refer to acts of war, religious followings or as in this case particular characteristics. This sept originated in the Ulster county of Tyrone, but at an early date believed to be before the 11th century, migrated westwards to North Connacht and established themselves in County Sligo. Some branches of the sept subsequently moved to the bordering counties of Tipperary and Offaly where the name is found on record in the mid 12th Century, (see below). Early examples of the surname recording include Diarmid O'Cuana, who was noted in the registers known as "The Annals of the Four Masters" written in about the year 1248, and who was described as the great priest of Elphin. The diocese of Elphin lies across the county boundaries of Sligo, Roscommon and Galway. Later examples of the surname recording taken from the Famine Records of 1846 - 1851 and the surviving church registers include: James Cooney aged 26 and a farmer, who left Ireland on the ship "Shenandoah" bound for New York on March 27th 1846, whilst on April 25th of the same year Martin Coonan, aged 21 yrs., embarked from Liverpool on the ship "Patrick-Henry" bound for the same American city. The first recorded spelling of the family name is shown to be that of Isaac O' Cuanain, Bishop of Roscrea, which was dated 1161 - 1168, in the "Ecclesiastical Records" of County Tipperary, during the reign of King Rory O' Connor, High King of Ireland, 1166 - 1198. Surnames became necessary when governments introduced personal taxation. Throughout the centuries surnames in every country have continued to "develop", often leading to astonishing variants of the original spelling.
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