P1G: Coffey Geography



By Fred Coffey


Some time ago I became aware of a web page www.irishorigenes.com, owned by a biotechnologist Dr. Tyrone Bowes. His proposal was to “Use Your DNA to Rediscover Your Irish Heritage”. His project has a couple of interesting databases to draw upon. Here’s what his “Surname Database” has to offer about our “Coffey” name:



Note his map is based on census data, and thus is showing where people live now. I will be using several of his maps like this one in various sections of this web page.


Those of you who have read the books written by Marvin D. Coffey in the 1980’s and early 1990’s will recall that his discussion of “Ancient Origins” also postulated 3 main septs: (1) was to the south, in the Munster district, around County Cork, which would also encompass Kerry and Tipperary. (2) was around Westmeath in the middle, and (3) was to the north.


For the latter, Marvin was focused on counties Galway and Roscommon, where many Irish lost their lands in the 17th century. But also in the north is County Down, which is near Belfast in Northern Ireland. On Dr. Bowes map, Down seems to be the only Northern Ireland county with a large Coffey population.


I have most recently engaged Dr. Bowes to prepare a report on the Coffey Surname, and also asked him to offer comments on several questions related to this web page. Some of his comments will be reflected in the documents you are now reading. And you can read his full report “The Coffey Surname in Ireland” at:




 Here is a slightly modified version of one of the charts from his report. It is based on census reports for “Head of Household Farmers” in 1911. And to the right I have shown a map of Irish counties, for perspective:




His chart is focused on “Head of Household Farmers”, because those who own land (farmers) are more likely to have ancient ties to their land, and thus their presence in significant numbers may indicate an ancient homeland. Also note I have added county outlines for Cork and Kilkenny; This will facilitate some of the discussion that follows:


Next, let’s look at locations for which we actually have one or more y-DNA tests, taken by Project members who report their family origin in that area:



In the above, a “Group” is for members who have a significant number of matches to others within the group, and who report the same general geographic origin. Each group is separately discussed under the category “Major Groups” back on the entry page. The “number” entries on this map represent individual (or sometimes up to 2 people) tests, which match no other person or group. Let me talk about some of these areas in the context of Dr. Bowes maps. Let’s go counter-clockwise, starting with Munster:


MUNSTER: Dr. Bowes believes there may actually be three distinct Munster Coffey clusters, in Kerry, North Tipperary, and Waterford. He notes that for Kerry most are concentrated on the Inveragh peninsula, to the extreme southwest. As mentioned, he was primarily looking at “farmers”. But it is interesting to note where, in Munster, the total population of “Coffey” might be found per the 1911 Census: The total Coffey individuals was 2092 (ignoring any spelling variations), and the breakdown is Kerry (811), Tipperary (320), Cork (302), Waterford (274), Limerick (244), and Clare (141).


Bowes believes that there were relatively few Coffey Farmers originally from Cork, and that many of the ones found there may be explained by migration from Inveragh to cities in neighboring Cork. Traditionally, the oldest son in a family would inherit the land, and the other brothers might have to go elsewhere to make their way. I looked at the male Heads of Household in Cork in the 1911 census. There were indeed relatively few farmers, and most of the Heads had other diverse occupations. Of the 67 family heads, 7 were born in Kerry, 3 in Limerick, and 2 in Tipperary.


In terms of DNA test participants, we have quite a few who do claim they came from Cork. But Cork seems to have a diverse population, many originally coming from elsewhere.


Perhaps ultimately we will have enough DNA tests to confirm Bowes hypothesis that there are three distinct Munster Coffey clusters. But at present we don’t have enough detail, so I will continue to call them all “Munster”. Within Munster, we do have one matching genetic group with a significant number of participants, and some of those claim origin from either Kerry or Cork.


It’s very interesting that “Munster” area has one DNA matching group of significant size, and then has several individual tests that do NOT match either the group or other individuals. How could this come about? I think Munster is a very ancient Coffey homeland, and quite possibly most or all of these tested men have a common Coffey name origin. But DNA does often go astray, and I suspect the Munster Coffey lines have developed “Genetic Diversity”, roughly comparable to what can be found in the American experience of the Edward Coffey family:


Edward Coffey was in America by 1699, and he now has thousands of living descendants. However, within the 150 years after his arrival, there were at least FOUR new, genetically distinct, lines of “Coffey” males created by his descendants. We know how these came about, because we have the resources to do detailed genealogical analysis of Coffey and associated families (see “Edward Connections” discussion). However if someone were to start today, doing y-DNA testing of Coffey men without knowing this history, he would see something that looks exactly like what we now see in Munster: He would see one very large group of men with a clear genetic link to each other, and would also see at least four smaller groups with the Coffey name but y-DNA quite different from the big group. We KNOW now these American lines all descend from Edward. But we don’t have the detailed genealogy to work out such connections for Munster.


Dr. Bowes writes “…science has demonstrated that only 50% of individuals with a particular Irish surname will be related to their surnames founding ancestor, the other 50% of people will have an association that has arisen as a result of what are called ‘non-paternal events,’ usually a result of adoptions or infidelity.“ This fits well with both the Munster group, and with the Coffey experience in America. (Depending on circumstances, however, the offspring may still have Coffey DNA – they just missed on the Y chromosome!)


The converse also seems to be true: The Munster Group Coffey men have a lot of fairly good non-surname matches. I think many of these represent lines with other surnames, who have picked up Coffey DNA over the last several hundred years. And this also parallels what has happened with the American “Edward” group – there are several non-Coffey surnames that have picked up Edward DNA. The only difference is that in America we pretty much know where and how this happened!


Future testing will likely turn up more members of the larger “Munster” group, plus probably some additional unmatched individuals, plus possibly matches to some of the existing individuals, thus turning them into small groups.


TIPPERARY/KILKENNY: Dr. Bowes does identify Tipperary as a separate homeland. Our “Tipperary/Kilkenny” group actually has 3 y-DNA tests, on two different and separate independent Coffey male lines. And each of these lines has significant number of “non-Coffey” matches. It is possible that one of these comes from the “North Tipperary” group postulated by Dr. Bowes, but absent considerably more testing and discovery of other “Coffey” matches, we may never know.


COFFEY/KEOGH GROUP: Dr. Bowes “Coffey” map is quite blank in the Kilkenny and Wexford area. I looked at the census detail, and in 1911 Kilkenny only had 22 people with the Coffey name. And the only “farmer” family there was 3 brothers living in the same house; And THEY were all born in Waterford! Similarly, Wexford only had 5 people with the Coffey name. Neither county is an obvious long-standing Coffey homeland.


However we now have an Edward-matching Coffey, whose ancestor came to America from Kilkenny, and we have good matches to several Kehoe-related names. We now believe that “Coffey/Coffee/Keogh/Kehoe/Kaho” were once a single family. Dr. Bowes offers a map that confirms that a major “Kehoe” homeland is Wexford, with significant presence in Kilkenny and Tipperary:

Note that earlier Dr. Bowes talked about “non paternal events” being a cause for people being found that do not match the anticipated name homeland. However in this case I think it may be more likely to be “evolution of a name into dissimilar variations”?


WESTMEATH/MEATH COFFEY GROUP: Dr. Bowes believes that Westmeath might be a Coffey homeland, and our y-DNA testing confirms this is probably true.  Again we have one large group, plus another single that doesn’t fit the big group.


There’s also another reason to firmly believe that our “County Meath Group” has strong roots in the Meath/Westmeath area. They have genetic DNA matches to 36 different Egan/Keegan names, and Dr. Bowes identifies the neighboring counties of Roscommon and Offaly as being the genetic homeland of the Egan Clan. Also interesting is that while Coffey/Egan/Keegan are clearly related, there is a lot of genetic diversity within both groups. To me, this suggests that they have all been in this region for a VERY long time, and the y-DNA has had time to gradually evolve in varied directions.


(Interestingly, Dr. Bowes offers viewers samples of five “Case Studies” he has done, and one of those is “Egan – A Case Study” that he did for a good friend Dr. Colin Gerard Egan. And I can see Colin has an exact 12-marker match to one of our “County Meath” Coffey men. However Colin’s relationship has to be fairly distant, since it drops out at 25- and 37-marker levels. There are other Egan/Keegan men who match “Coffey” at up to 63 out of 67 markers, and that suggests an extremely solid relationship. Bowes postulates that there are two related Egan Clans, and I think “Coffey” may be closer to the one most distantly related to Colin.)


COUNTY DOWN: There’s another geographic area of tentative interest: Dr. Bowes mentions one Coffey genetic homeland county as “possibly Down”, which is in today’s Northern Ireland. Otherwise Northern Ireland has few “Coffey” residents. At one time I put some effort into analysis of County Down, because it has been speculated that Edward may have left Ireland because of some connection to the land confiscations in Northern Ireland. I now doubt that Edward has a connection to County Down; His roots seem to be in Kilkenny.


I am still interested in County Down, and there is a separate paper on that topic. There is one y-DNA test on a “Caughey” with clear roots in County Down, but with DNA that may suggest a Scottish origin.