Roots: The Finnegan Clan
By Maeve Molloy, Contributor
February / March 2008
James Joyce immortalized the name for all time in his 1939 novel Finnegans Wake. But literary giants aside, “Finnegan” is one of the most recognizable Irish surnames of our times.
The Finnegan name, also known as O’Finnegan, Finegan, O’Finegan, and Finigan, is common in Ireland and America; many early immigrants with the name Finnegan are recorded as landing in the U.S. between 1840 and 1860, during and directly following famine times.
The anglicized “Finnegan” comes from the Irish name Ó Fionnagáin or Fionnagán, a form of the Irish name Fionn, meaning “fairhaired.” The Finnegans hail from two distinct septs in Ireland. One sept was located on the border of Counties Roscommon and Galway between the modern towns of Dunmore and Castlerea. In both Roscommon and Galway the Finnegans have left a mark with the areas of Ballyfinegan – one in the barony of Balymoe and the second nearby in the barony of Castlereagh.
The second Finnegan sept hails from Oriel and eastern Breffny, or the kingdom of Bréifne, in northwestern Ireland. Bréifne was home to the Irish tribal group known as the Uí Briúin Bréifne. Some early Finnegans have been linked to this tribe, though most modern Finnegans descended from the Ulster family of Oriel.
Though the surname Finnegan has spread throughout modern Ireland, the name is still most commonly found in the counties of Cavan and Monaghan.
Finnegans have made their way into nearly every sector of Irish American culture, from entertainment to literature, to politics, even brewing companies.
New York-based comedian Christian Finnegan (1973- ) keeps America laughing as a panelist on VH1’s Best Week Ever. Finnegan’s quick quips have gained him a regular appearance on the Today Show and guest performances on Last Call with Carson Daly and Tough Call with Colin Quinn. Finnegan’s career is on the rise, and his debut CD of stand-up comedy was produced by the biggest name in American comedy – Comedy Central.
Another performer in the Finnegan clan is American actor J.P. Finnegan, who gained popularity in the 1970s as a familiar face on television with regular guest appearances on such chart-topping shows as Colombo and Matlock.
The Finnegan contribution to revelry and entertainment wouldn’t be complete without a Finnegan brew, and Finnegan’s Irish Amber couldn’t be a better choice. Finnegan’s Irish Amber, brewed in Minnesota, is beer with a cause: all of their proceeds go to the Finnegan’s Community Fund to assist those living in poverty in Minnesota.
So far they’ve donated over $50,000 to communities in Minnesota.
In sports, George Finnegan (1882-1913) is remembered as a prominent boxer. He won gold at the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis in the flyweight category. Later in the same Olympics he competed in the bantamweight category to win silver after gaining several pounds in just a few days. This stunt established him as one of only four boxers in history to win medals in two weight classes at the same Olympic games.
The Finnegan name has also made it to the top in business and politics. John Finnegan is president, CEO and chairman of The Chubb Corporation, while Michael C. Finnegan, who contributed “One Brief Shining Moment” to this issue, served as chief counsel to Governor George Pataki, and is now a managing director in the healthcare department at JP Morgan.
The literary value of the novel Finnegans Wake is debated to this day by Joyce scholars. Rambling, convoluted, and written in a variety of languages, the novel appeared in installments in the literary journal Transitions beginning in 1924, and was highly contested from the first installment. James Joyce borrowed the name Finnegans Wake from an Irish ballad believed to have gained popularity in Dublin in the 1850s as a comical Irish song.