Roots: Quinn

Quinn crest

By Liam Moriarty, Contributor
December / January 2007

The family name Quinn or Quin is an anglicized form of “O Cuinn,” meaning “of Conn.” O’Cuinnde notes lineage from the legendary High King of Ireland, Conn of the Hundred Battles. Conn is derived from the Irish word, ceann (head) signifying a person of intellectual ability. Traditionally, Catholic families of the O Cuinn family spell their anglicized name Quinn with two “n”s whereas Protestants spell the name Quin with one “n.”

There are five distinct septs of Quinns found throughout Ireland. The most prominent sept of Quinns is the Dalcassian sept of Thomond in County Clare. The Dal gCais (Dalcassians) was a small kingdom ruled by the descendants of Brian Borumha (Boru). The Quinns of this sept descended from Ifearnan, the son of Corc who was 15th in the ancestral line from Cormac Cas the son of Oillio Olum. Niall O Cuinn was the first of this sept to use the surname. He fought and died in the battle of Clontarf in 1014 on the side of Brian Boru.

The Earls of Dunraven were a family of Quins descending from the chiefs of the Clan Hy Ifearnan. This family prevailed from the 1600’s until 1984, at which time they sold the family’s Tudor manor at Adare near the River Maigue.

Edwin, the 3rd Earl of Dunraven, was a prominent archaeologist and scholar. His life’s work was to vindicate the Irish’s intellectual ability through demonstration of their architectural achievement. He died before his magnum opus was finished, but it was posthumously published in two volumes with over 120 magnificent illustrations.

During the 17th century, numerous Quinns served in the armies of James II and upon his defeat were forced into Europe. Many of these Quinns found new homes in France, particularly in the regions of Bordeaux and Pau. There is even a street named after the family in the Bordeaux area, Rue O’Quinn.

The Quinns have made their mark in the fields of arts, business, politics and sports. James Quinn (1693-1753) was a very serious theater actor in Dublin and London. He twice killed fellow actors. Once during a performance, he accidentally killed a fellow actor in a duel on stage, and the other over the pronunciation of a particular word. Anthony Quinn (1915-2001) was a talented Oscar-winning actor. He was the son of an Irish father and Mexican mother. He appeared in many movies throughout his 60-year career, including Viva Zapata!, Zorba the Greek, and Lust for Life. Another famous Quinn in film is Aidan Quinn. He has distinguished himself in such movies as Benny and Joon, Michael Collins and the television adaptation of the best-selling novel Empire Falls. Comedian/actor Colin Quinn rose to fame during his five years on the sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live. He was named to Comedy Central’s list of 100 greatest standup comedians and has also appeared on our very own “Top 100 Irish-Americans.” Terry O’Quinn is yet another Quinn with thespian talent. He plays the character of John Locke on the hit TV series Lost.

Many Quinns have made an impact in the field of literature. Daniel Quinn is the author of the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award winning book Ishmael, which posits an alternative view of human history. Peter Quinn, a third-generation Irish-American, wrote the novel Banished Children of Eve which won an American Book Award. He previously worked as a speechwriter for New York governors Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo and his new book, Looking for Jimmy, A Search for Irish America, is out in March. John Quinn (1870-1924), although not a writer, was collector of original manuscripts and an important patron for major literati such as W.B. Yeats and James Joyce.

The Quinns have shined as leaders in American and Irish politics. Patrick Quinn, the grandfather of the aforementioned Peter Quinn, was a tenacious U.S. labor leader who was President of the Central Federated Union during the late 1800’s. Patrick was also a participant in the famous Pullman Strike of 1894 in Chicago. More recent political Quinns include Ireland’s Ruairi Quinn, who is currently a Teachta Dala for Dublin South East and the former leader of the Labor Party (1997-2002). Jack Quinn is a former Congressman from New York State and his son Jack Quinn III is a current New York State Assemblyman, while Christine Quinn is New York City Council Speaker.

The Quinn name is quite common in the city of Dublin thanks to Feargal Quinn and his chain of supermarkets, Superquinns. Feargal is a businessman, politician and author. He is an independent member of the 22nd Seanad Eireann – the upper house of the Oireachtas – and the first cousin of Ruairi Quinn. He is the author of the book Crowning the Customer (1990). Another prominent Quinn businessman and this month’s cover subject, James Quinn is the president and CEO of Tiffany & Co.

Dublin native Niall Quinn is perhaps the best-known athlete to carry the Quinn name. Niall Quinn is a former footballer and current chairman of Sunderland A.F.C. “The Mighty Quinn” scored an outstanding goal against Holland in the 1990 World Cup to help Ireland reach the quarter-finals. There were two John Quinns in American sports. One was a professional wrestler and the other was the oldest major league baseball pitcher to win a game and hit a home run. He retired at the age of 50 and was the last pitcher permitted to throw a “spitball” pitch.

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