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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
The Family Tree - February/March 2004
The McCain DNA Project


By Barra McCain, Oxford Mississippi

Several years ago I was asked by several relatives to look into the origins of the name McCain.  There were at least eight origin myths I had been handed by various McCains over the years, some complete with cottage industries built around them.  Why not stick my head in a hornet’s nest, you might ask yourself.  There was a distinct possibility of starting a bona fide feud by picking one over the others.  Nevertheless, I was tagged - after all, I did have an honours degree in history, so should be able to manage some rudimentary primary source research.  I am also a Gaelic speaker, and when researching a surname of Gaelic origin, it is best to be able to navigate the old language to some extent.  So despite warnings and portents of doom, I agreed and launched into a factual history of the origin of the McCain name.  This was a study that would eventually use a Y Chromosome DNA test to sort and classify the many brands of McCains that I discovered.  The DNA tests confirmed what my conventional research told me, that the name McCain came from multiple origins, not one, and could be native Irish, Hebridean, or from the Isle of Man.

Most surname books cause more damage than good to the aspiring genealogist with a desire to go to the deep past of his people.  This is especially true concerning Gaelic names.  Take an apparently simple name like McCain.  Most mass-market surname books say the name is an anglicised form of Mac Iain from either 1) Ardnamurchan or 2) Glencoe families of that name.  Alas, if it were only that easy.

As I explored the name’s origins I found at least seven Gaelic names that have been anglicised as McCain.  When you anglicise a name (go from Gaelic to English) several very similar sounding Gaelic names can become the same English name; tons of confusion, only compounded by mass-market surname books.   

Here is a partial list of Gaelic names that have been anglicised as McCain and its variations:

Mac Catháin means Son of the Warrior
Mac Cian means Son of the Ancient one
Mac Eáin means Son of John.                                                            
Mac Caodháin
and Ó Caodháin, Mac Aodháin, all forms of ‘son of Aodhán,’ a diminutive of Aodh, an old Gaelic word for fire.                                          
Ó Mochaidhein
, a rare County Monaghan name. 

The point being that one cannot look in a surname book and obtain the origin of a surname with complete certainty.  While sometimes surname books can be spot on, often they are not and especially so with Gaelic names.  What if you were a McCain from the name Ó Mochaidhein, there you are with that $700 worsted wool McDonald of the Ardnamurchan kilt in your closet and you no more a McDonald than the man in the moon!  Better to look into these things on an individual basis.

Fortunately for me there are only four of these Gaelic names that are commonly anglicised into McCain so the confusion was be kept to a minimum.  Further more I had a geographic area to work with, County Antrim, Ireland, so that helped narrow this down to only three possibilities as the other names being native to other districts in Ireland.

The names Mac Cian, Mac Catháin and Mac Eáin (the normal Gaelic spelling of Mac Iain) were Gaelic surnames anglicised as McCain in Counties Derry and Antrim.  With my target names whittled down to a manageable number I laboured in Crown Records, Vatican Records, land records, Court proceedings, accounts of Risings, etc., exploring the name McCain in County Antrim. I traveled to County Antrim and talked to the locals.

After three years of this I realised that the surname books had given me a wrong turn.  Instead of McCains from Ardnamurchan or Glencoe springing forth to spread the McCain handle around the world I found little septs of McCains from the southern tip of Ireland to the northern tip of Scotland and east to the Isle of Man, all separate and distinct from both Ardnamurchan and Glencoe.   But how to prove this when the data in the surname books had such a hold over the average McCain who had access to a surname book history?  Sure, the primary source records pointed to what had now became an obvious conclusion to me, i.e. there were several origins of the name.  It was time to use a little molecular biological magic to prove my point.

The year 2003 saw family historians and genealogist increasingly using Y Chromosome test to end those heated arguments over who was related to whom.  It was good science, shockingly accurate, and a blessing to those genealogists who had hit a brick wall in their pedigree.  Often the frustrated genealogist knows his line, but cannot verify it.  Now one can via DNA.

By 2003 the DNA tests were becoming more common, with genetic labs offering group rates making the testing even affordable to the average family. With a DNA project I could confirm the multiple origins of the McCain name.  I could also help the host of McCain families in the Diaspora that desperately wanted to know if they were related to each other.  Were the McCains of Blount County, Tennessee, related to the McCains of Choctaw County, Mississippi?  And could the McCains of Texas be related to the McKeen families of New England and Nova Scotia?  Were there native-born Irish McCains to whom we could prove a match via DNA evidence?

How indeed to see into these deepest of waters?  There was no paper trail to explore, no primary source records to find the answers to these vexing genealogical questions. It was DNA or nothing at this point.  DNA held the hope that not only would we verify the multiple origins of the McCain name, but also find out which McCains around the world were really related to each other. 

On a personal level I even had hope of finding a DNA match to a native born Irish McCain and instantly expanding my cousins exponentially and very possibly enjoying several ales in the pub with my newly found long-lost relatives on my next visit to Ireland.  I was debating with myself whether or not to do a McCain DNA project when I received an email from a native born Irish McKane who was also interested in his family history. 

To make a medium length story short... we decided to do the deed.  The McCain/McKane DNA Project was born.  We would use the test tube to settle the long-standing questions about the origins of the McCains and additionally, to see which groups of McCains were related to each other. Could a simple DNA test do all this?

The project was started in September of 2003.  A call was sent forth to McCains around the world to participate.  This was done largely via the Internet.  We posted announcements on various surname list serves for the McCain name and the many variations of the name: McKane, McKain, McKean, McKeen, Keane, O’Cane, O’Kean, O’Kane, etc.   We went fishing, hoping to catch as many McCains as possible.

The first test result that came in was a ‘high resolution match’ between myself and the Irish born McKane who had contacted me.  Yes, we were related!  As additional test results started coming in from the lab the two goals of the project were accomplished.  We confirmed that there were several origins to the name McCain as several distinct and not related groups developed.  We also discovered a close DNA link between several branches of McCains in the USA, Canada, and Ireland.   The results exceeded our wildest expectations.

In the largest McCain family group we have ten high-resolution matches that prove a shared paternal ancestor.  Within this group there are wide variations in the spelling of the name, McKane, McCain, McKain, McKeen, and McKean.  Which confirms that anglicised forms of Gaelic names can vary greatly within the same family group.

I urge any family to start a project.  While some modest cost is involved, the possibility for a dramatic breakthrough in one’s family history is very real.  It is certainly cheaper than an overseas flight and a week spent combing through records that will not reveal to you anymore than it did to the last chap who went over.  There are several commercial labs conducting the tests and most will practically set the project up for you.  A few simple emails and you can have your DNA project up and running.

The McCain/McKane DNA Project is barely six months old now, still quite new and is on going.  We are still beating the bushes for McCains and O’Cains, by whatever spelling, and encouraging all to participate.  We are successfully linking together related braches of  one McCain family in the USA and Canada to McCains who are still in Ireland.  Quite an accomplishment.  The goals have expanded with our successes and we think it possible to help most of these McCain families find their point of origin in the Isles and even give them a good idea of the various Gaelic septs with which they are associated. 

And by the way, we did confirm that the Choctaw County, Mississippi McCains are related to the Blount County, Tennessee McCains, and they to the McKeens of New England and Nova Scotia, and they to the McKanes of Ballyrashane on the Antrim and Derry border, and they to the McKanes of Tyrone, etc., etc.    Which is not a bad bit of work by a couple of family historians.

Barra McCain is a writer and musician living in Oxford, Mississippi. His can be reached by email: failte@watervalley.net.

His web site is: www.watervalley.net/users/failte/bush-river-band/index.htm 

The McCain/McKane DNA project web site is: http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~mccaindna/


Return to February/March 2004 Index Page | See Robert Burns Lives!

 


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