Years later I realize that that same Cowhey surname is one of the biggest blessings in my family history research. It turns out that the relative rarity of the surname has enabled me to conclude that anyone living in Pennsylvania (and in particular - Schuylkill County) since the early 19th-century who was or is named Cowhey is almost certainly somehow related to me.
I began to fit together the pieces of the Cowhey family puzzle years back when I painstakingly went through U.S. Census records, logging data about various branches of the Cowhey family in Schuylkill County. After I had put together a nice family tree, I made contact with newfound relatives through the internet who had connections to the family. The additional information that they provided helped to fill in some of the gaps that I had in my research.
Thanks to the help from a handwritten family tree and word of mouth from other family members, I knew at that time that Patrick Cowhey was the patriarch of the family who had made the trip from Ireland to the United States, supposedly arriving about 1820. The specifics of his arrival were unknown to me, as was his place of origin in Ireland. (I have since found Patrick's arrival details thanks to the manifest for the Ship William which arrived in New York from the port of Cóbh in 1823. You can read that story at Fifteen and off to America).
It was with great interest that I found out a little more about the Cowhey surname in 2007 when I discovered Edward MacLysaght's Irish Families: Their Names, Arms, and Origins on the used book shelf at a genealogical library. I had almost walked by the shelf on my way out, but took a double turn and went back for a glance. The book looked interesting, so I picked it up for a nominal price and headed home. Opening it later I was thrilled to find an entry for Cowhey in the index. I wasn't used to finding Cowheys in any book I opened!
According to MacLysaght's book, Cowhey is the Munster (or more specifically County Cork) version of Coffey, a more common Irish surname. Also originating in the area are Cowhig, O'Cowhig and Cowey. All of these surnames, including Coffey, are variations of the Gaelic surname O'Cobhthaigh. You can read more about my excitement when I made this discovery by reading Victorious! here at Small-leaved Shamrock.
Here is what MacLysaght writes in Irish Families about variations of the O'Cobhthaigh surname:
O'COFFEY, CowhigThere is more in MacLysaght's book about the other septs of the Coffey family, but I will stop there and encourage you to get a copy of the book yourself. It is a great resource for all surnames Irish.
In Irish this name is O'Cobhthaigh, pronounced O'Coffey as in English : it is probably derived from the word cobhthach, meaning victorious. Coffey is one of those surnames which have not resumed the prefix O, dropped during the period of Gaelic submergence. Several distinct septs were prominent in medieval times, of which two are still well represented in their original homeland. These are O'Coffey of Corcalaoidhe in south-west Co. Cork, where local pronounciation often makes the name Cowhig or Cowhey, as in the place name Dunocowhey, called after them. This sept is of the same stock as the O'Driscolls...
Another of MacLysaght's books, The Surnames of Ireland, has a map showing geographic locations of Irish surnames, including the area in Cork where the Cowhey family originated.
Another interesting source of information about the Cowhey name and other O'Cobhthaigh variations is Ancient Origins of the Coffey Family by Marvin D. Coffey reprinted online at the Coffey Cousins Clearinghouse website. It is a segment from the book James Bluford Coffey, His Ancestors and Descendants in America and the supplement Vol. II: Ancestors. The article has a nice list of resources at the bottom from which the historical overview of the surname was derived, including but not limited to MacLysaght's books.
I hope you've enjoyed this brief little introduction to the Cowhey surname. If you are a Cowhey, especially one with roots in Pennsylvania, I hope you'll write and let me know. I hope to keep this big, happy branch of the family in touch with eachother and aware of our fascinating roots for many generations to come.
For more about Edward MacLysaght's work on Irish surnames, read my article What's in an Irish surname?