The information on this page was provided by Garry Bryant, formerly the Kennedy Society archivist/genealogist.

Common Questions

Links to additional genealogy resources are at the bottom of the page.

What is the origin of the Kennedy name?

Basically, there are two origins of the Kennedy surname: one Scottish and the other Irish. The most commonly known Kennedy family is the Irish one made famous by the late U.S. President John F. Kennedy, whose ancestors came from Waterford.

Irish Kennedy: The Irish clan Kennedy takes its name from Kennedy, the nephew of High-King Brian Boru (1002-1014). The name Kennedy was also that of the father of Brian macKennedy Boru. This Kennedy was the King of Thomond (north Munster Province) and was killed by the Norsemen of Limerick in 951 A.D.

This Irish clan were the left hand of the powerful Dál gCais Tribe of Thomond, headed by Clan O’Brien. They resided in far eastern Clare, northern Limerick, and northern Tipperary in an area called Ormond.

Scottish Kennedy: Their home territory is in southwestern Scotland, in Ayrshire, where they were a power house. Originally they came from the western isles and are of Celtic-Norse stock. In the fifteenth century, one Ulric Kennedy fled Ayrshire to the highlands for refuge where he was granted protection under the Chief of Clan Cameron. From this Highland branch, Kennedys settled on the Isle of Skye. A branch also was established in northeast Scotland, at Aberdeen.

To add to the confusion, there are the Kennedys of Northern Ireland. Many Scottish Kennedys were planters in Ulster (the province of Northern Ireland), and many Scots went to Dublin and mingled with the Irish clan. Because of this confusion, the Scottish Chief of Kennedy is willing to recognize all Kennedys as part of the clan/family.

So you can see that doing critical research is needed to determine which branch of the Scottish Kennedys, or between Scot and Irish, you descend from.

What does Kennedy mean?

Most accounts of both Kennedy families claim that the name means “ugly head” or “helmet head.” This is not correct. It is derived from the name Kenneth, meaning “head of the people/clan/tribe.”

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Who is a member of the Kennedy clan/family?

This is a very touchy subject. According to the Lord Lyon of Scotland:

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What tartan may I wear?

The only person who has a “right” to wear the Kennedy tartan is a member of the clan. However, anyone else may wear the Kennedy tartan because they descend from a Kennedy and wear it in honor or memory of that person. Or maybe they just like the design of the tartan!

There are several different tartans to consider wearing. Of Kennedy tartan design there are ancient, modern, weathered, and dress. There are also tartans called Ayrshire and Carrick, districts of Scotland. There are national Scottish tartans: Black Watch, Hunting Stewart, Jacobite, etc. And there is the American St. Andrew’s tartan and various state tartans. Those whose surname isn't Kennedy often opt for the latter because they don’t quite feel comfortable wearing a Kennedy tartan.

One taboo in wearing tartan is wearing those of two different clans. It has been suggested in the past that a man could wear a tie in his mother’s clan tartan, but this is not correct. Even the same tartan tie as one’s kilt is discouraged.

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How do I get started in genealogy research?

Begin with yourself and move back each generation. Gather documented proof for each fact that you find: birth, marriage, and death certificates; immigration records; mortuary and tombstone records; notations in Bibles; census information; military records; land records; court records; church notices; and so on.

1900 basically is the cutoff point for birth and death records in most U.S. states. Before 1900, the cutoff point varies for each state. For example, the 1790–1830 censuses of New Jersey were destroyed, and almost all of the 1890 census was destroyed in a fire. Kentucky is another state where the first two censuses were destroyed, but other sources were used to create a like record for 1790 and 1800. The 1880 census Soundex index is good only for families who had children under age ten. (A Soundex index is based on the sound of a surname rather than on its spelling.)

Census records began in the United States in 1790. From 1790–1840, only the head of household was listed. Gradually, the age range of the family became more detailed. 1850 is the beginning of the listing of the entire family, including ages and birthplaces. From 1850–1930, the census became more detailed with each decade. (For more information, see the web site of the US Census Bureau.)

Do not accept family traditions as fact! They are tradition, often combining fact with some fiction. Don’t discard a tradition, but attach a note stating that it is family tradition. Traditions can be good guides to help find other data. Remember, though, that before the coming of Christianity, Celtic recordkeeping was done orally.

Be careful using data from web sites. Such data can be a good place for starting a map, but it is often inaccurate. The first rule is always to check all data (go to the original source if possible).

An excellent place to start researching on the Internet is the FamilySearch web site. This site is maintained by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It is a direct link into the Family History Library — the largest genealogical library in the world — in Salt Lake City, Utah. Note: The pedigrees of Kennedy Society members from 1973 to 1995 can be found scattered in the Ancestral File at the Family History Library.

Another site is ANCESTORS, the companion web site to the PBS family history and genealogy television series from 1997 and 2000.

Sometimes you reach a period of dead ends. Be patient; it might take several years of waiting, placing queries on various genealogical web sites, and so on.

Research has been made easier with all the church records of Scotland having been placed on CD-ROM.

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What computer software should I use?

The first genealogy software was Personal Ancestral File (PAF), which was created by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in 1985. They created GEDCOM, a language that is used by computers to exchange genealogy data. Note: Downloads and support for PAF ended July 15, 2013.

Today, there are many programs to choose from. The primary things to consider are:

For more information and opinions, look at various genealogical web sites (some links are provided below) and check out the comments on various software programs.

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Additional Genealogy Resources

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