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In the past, at this time of year, it’s been hard to come up for air between writing about Oíche Shamhna and then Lá Altaithe, with An Nollaig looming large just around the corner. But this year, marking the sad 50th anniversary of “feallmharú Kennedy,” we’ll take a breather from the holiday themes and address this still heart-rending topic.
This blog will just look at the name “Kennedy.” In an upcoming blog, we’ll look more at the man himself and his Irish roots and legacy.
You may well have seen the Irish version of the surname, “Ó Cinnéide,” with “Ní Chinnéide” and “(Bean) Uí Chinnéide” for women. The specific translations are “(male) descendant of Kennedy” for the”Ó” version, “daughter of Kennedy” (for the “Ní” version), and “(wife) of Kennedy (for the “Uí” version).
Pronunciation tips: Ó Cinnéide [oh kin-AYDJ-uh], Ní Chinnéide [nee hyin-AYDJ-uh] and (Bean) Uí Chinnéide [(ban) ee hyin-AYDJ-uh]. That “hy” indication is like the “h” in “Hugh” or “Huw” (or for that matter “hew” or “hue”), not a full-fledged “hy-” like “hybrid.” It’s the same “-ch-” sound that you find in Irish phrases like “Oíche mhaith!” (Good night!) or “Oíche Chiúin” (“Silent Night,” an carúl Nollag).
And why do we have the spelling with “K” in English and “C” in Irish? Remember, the letter “k” is practically non-existent in Irish. Irish names that start with “K” in their anglicized spellings usually start with “C” in the actual Irish. Other examples include “Kavanagh” (Caomhánach in Irish) and O’Keeffe (Ó Caoimh).
As for the meaning of “Ó Cinnéide,” it is often translated as “helmet-head,” or sometimes “ugly-head” (!). Not that any part of the word actually means “ugly” as such. That’s usually “gránna” in Irish. Not “Gráinne” [GRAWN-yuh], by the way, but “gránna” [GRAW-nuh]. The implication seems to be that if your head looks like a helmet, it’s, well, unattractive. Curious, considering the classic good looks of the Boston Kennedy clan!
The word “Cinnéide” breaks apart into two components: ceann (head) and éide, which historically meant “armor” but these days mostly means “uniform” (éide garda), sometimes “vestments” (éide sagairt), “robes” (éide baiste), and sometimes clothes or garment in general, although that would usually be “éadaí.”
Note that “éide” isn’t even the usual Irish word for helmet; that would be “cafarr” or “clogad.” But, then, explanations of surnames don’t always follow dictionary logic! Given the historical meaning of “armor,” we could probably interpret “Cinnéide” as “armor-head,” although I don’t recall ever seeing that translation in print.
And why has “ceann” changed to “cinn” for this compound word? It’s a matter of vowel harmony. Since “éide” begins with a slender vowel (“e”), the prefix must “agree” (or “harmonize”) and also have a slender vowel (“e” or “i”) as the final vowel. Since the combination “-enn” would be very unlikely in Irish, given the nuances of the spelling system, the word “ceann” changes to “cinn.”
In fact, “ceann” changes to “cinn” in various other situations as well. For example:
tinneas cinn, headache ( lit. “ache of head”), using the genitive case
ag dul chun cinn, progressing or advancing (lit. going toward head), again using the genitive case
i ndiaidh do chinn, head foremost (lit. in the path/wake/trail of your head), also genitive
and there’s the plural:
na cinn, the heads
cinn an híodra, the heads of the hydra (remember, the hydra is “seachtcheannach,” seven-headed)
Well, that’s just scratching the surface concerning the Kennedys, the name “Ó Cinnéide,” and “an feallmharú” in 1963. Next blog we’ll look a little more at “an fear é féin” (the man himself). SGF, Róislín