Friday, 17 May 2013

The Dreenans - the End of the Line

The story of the Dreenans of Donegal is the saddest chapter of my family history. This is the story of an ancient family name that is no longer here in Ireland. There will be no Gathering of Dreenans in Ireland this year, because there is no-one here to call them home.

Sara Dreenan Sproule
My grandmother Sara was the wife of Robert Sproule, and they lived in Derry. We didn’t know her, as she had died in 1938 when my father was 27 years old and unmarried. We had been told that Sara’s maiden name was ‘Dreenan’ and that she had come from Malin Head, in Donegal. The name Dreenan is unusual. When I began to look in to the family, I felt that it was possible that the name Dreenan was a Donegal mispronunciation of the more common Irish name, ‘Drennan’.  I was very surprised to find that Dreenan was a very old Irish name, though it was confined to just two areas, Galway and Donegal. The name seems to have derived from the Irish word DraighneĆ”n or DroighneĆ”n which is Irish for a blackthorn tree.

The History of the Dreenans

In 1665 there was a tax collected on hearths in Donegal, called the Hearth Money Rolls. This gives us valuable information on the residents of Donegal at that time. In this, I found a Dreenan, called Andrew O’Dreenan, and at that time he had one hearth in his home in Kinaugh, in Malin Head. Malin Head is the most northerly tip of Ireland and it is a wild, windswept, rocky place. Keenagh, as it was later spelt, is a townland in the centre of the Malin peninsula.
Malin Head - Lewis’s Topographical Directory of Ireland 1837

In the next available tax record, the 1827 Tithe Applopment Book, there are now four families of Dreenans in Donegal, all living in Malin Head. Daniel Dreenan is in Ardmalin, in the far northern tip. There are two James Dreenans, one in Keenagh and one in nearby Ballykenny. Owen Dreenan is in also in Keenagh.

When I made this great discovery, it was one of those exciting ‘high five’ moments in the detective work of genealogy.  For this Owen Dreenan of Keenagh was my great, great grandfather, and here he was in the same townland as Andrew O’Dreenan of 1665! They were surely of the same family! (But not proven as yet!)  Owen Dreenan was born in 1802 in Keenagh, but by the 1857 Griffiths Valuation record, Owen  has  moved right out to the north west coast of Ardmalin, the very tip of Ireland. Here my great grandfather, also called Owen Dreenan, was born in 1837, on a tiny plot of poor land overlooking the wild, rocky Ineunan Bay. In 1857, there are two other families of Dreenans in Malin Head. Thomas, is in Northtown, Ardmalin and John is in Keenagh. It seems that John was doing best at this time, as he had a house and land in both Keenagh and Umgall. John was born in 1833 and he had married a woman called Ellen McLaughlin in 1869.
Ineuran Bay from the Lawrence Collection
During all this time, there are records of Dreenans, both old and young, travelling to America. I found the first record in 1847 at the height of the famine, where a whole family of Dreenans from Ardmalin left from Liverpool for the US. Few stayed to settle on the poor land of Malin.

The Last of the Dreenans

By the 1901  Census there were just two families of Dreenans in Donegal.  My great grandfather Owen Dreenan had married Annie McLaughlin in 1875, and in 1901 they were living in a two roomed thatched cottage with their healthy brood of nine children. The other two households had fared less well. Thomas Dreenan had died in 1877, and there is no trace of his family. John Dreenan had died in 1891, and his widow Ellen is living with her two sons in a two room house in Ardmalin.

By the 1911 Census, the widow Ellen Dreenan is living alone in a one roomed building without a window. Even a byre in Ireland has a window, so I can only speculate that poor, lonely Ellen was living in some kind of hen house. Her son John had died in 1906 and I found no record of the other son.

The last family of Dreenans living in Donegal was that of my great grandfather, Owen Dreenan. Only one family left to pass on the name, only one family to remember the old ones. Indeed, if we look at the whole of Ireland in the 1911 Census, there is only one other family of Dreenans and they were in County Derry.

The Dreenans Today

When I began the hunt for my family, my focus was on the past generations. I had no interest in finding distant cousins living here or abroad. But the Dreenans were different. I tried to find anyone with that name living in Ireland today. Sadly, I found none. Despite all my efforts, I could find not one Dreenan living here. The ancient name is gone. There were very few families of Dreenans, and the rocky shores of Malin Head could not sustain them. Some died here, and America has taken others.

There are Dreenans in America today, not many, but they are there. If any of these American Dreenans would like to get in touch some day, you will be very welcome, my long lost cousins.

For more information:


  1. Hi Kate
    I was researching some of my Doherty family and remembering your sad story wondered if you had come across this below:
    1901 Census of Ireland
    Residents of a house 44 in Ardmalin
    Doherty Owen 87 Head of Family R C
    Doherty Sarah 33 Sons Widow R C
    Doherty Mary Ann 6 Grand Daughter R C
    Doherty Ellie 4 Grand Daughter R C
    Dreenan Annie* 13 Servant R C
    Cox Albert 29 Boarder CoE
    If you haven't seen it before I hope it may be of some help.
    Good luck

    1. Hi John,
      Thanks for contacting. Yes, I saw little Annie Dreenan there. I am guessing that she is the daughter of John Dreenan and Ellen, but I am not sure as yet.
      Some of the Dreenan girls did, however, marry Dohertys. I saw this on the Donegal Genealogy site, under baptisms in the Star of the Sea Church in Malin Head. You will see 'Drennan' from Keenagh - those are the Dreenan girls.
      I wish you all the best in your search.