Friday, 11 January 2008

Senator John McCain and Ireland

I have received many inquires into Senator McCain’s family’s origin. Is it Scottish or Irish? I can not tell you how many times I’ve been asked that question. What is the true story? More than a few of our readers have noticed that the Ulster Heritage DNA Project is run by two members of the McCain family, i.e. Jim McKane from Ontario, Canada, and Barry R McCain of Oxford, Mississippi and so it is understandable that so many people email or call us asking about Senator McCain’s connections to Ireland.

The short answer is his people are indeed from Ulster, from County Antrim, Ireland. They left from Coleraine town circa 1719 and appear on the border of the Pennsylvania and Maryland Colony in the early 1720s. His immigrant ancestor was named Alexander McKean and yes, the two lads who run the Ulster Heritage DNA Project are from the same McCain family.

Those that have read Senator McCain’s autobiography, Faith of Our Fathers, will know that he addresses his McCain roots briefly in that book. He gives a short history of his McCains being Highland Scots, connected to Clan Donald. So, how does that tie into the reality of his Antrim roots? Well, he made a slight, but very understandable error in his family history, one which many McCains of this family have made, including myself. The story he gives was one that circulated widely among the members of our family from the early 1900s well into the 1980s. It was a story crafted by early researchers who meant well, but were totally lost in the very Gaelic world of the early McCains. It was only recently and after he completed his book that a more complete and accurate history of this McCain family was recovered. This recovered history was the work of several McCain researchers, both native born Irish McCains and McCains in Canada and USA, who used DNA testing and primary source research to find out what they could about the family.

Senator McCain’s family has Mississippi roots, they are the Teoc McCains. Teoc, which is in Carroll County, Mississippi, is the little community that grew up around the plantation of this branch of the McCain family. Teoc is a Choctaw word, a shortened form of Teoc Tillila which means Tall Pines. Their patriarch, William Alexander McCain, named his plantation Waverly, but the Choctaw name stuck and the area is called Teoc to this day. I am rather glad the Choctaw word stuck as it is a lovely name.

Senator McCain’s second cousin is the author Elizabeth Spencer. In her memoir Landscapes of the Heart she writes of her days spent at Teoc and her McCain kin. She has a fascinating bit of oral history relating to the McCain family. I mention this because being a writer as she is, she is also a listener, and in her memoir she relates what she heard about the McCain history as a girl at Teoc. It is a romantic story of the McCains, again remembered as Highland Scots, being supporters of Mary Queen of Scots and having to flee after her downfall in 1568.

Now we have to go into the Byzantine world of late Medieval Gaelic families and politics circa 1480s into the mid 1500s, for that is the real world of the McCain family which became planted in north Antrim. There is the very complex history of Gaelic families of the old order, of Gaelic military castes in Argyll moving to Ireland and becoming the Irish Gallóglaigh. Then there are the Earls of Argyll and their intrigues in Ulster and support of Irish clans, their sending Gallóglaigh and Red Shanks to Antrim, their support of Mary Queen of Scots, etc., and somewhere right in the middle of this stood the McCain family.

This is where the research into this family is at present; both the primary source research and the DNA testing suggest they were one of many Gaelic families that moved back and forth over the Irish Sea and part of the Gallóglaigh kindreds. Research is still ongoing so it is premature to come to final conclusions, but Senator McCain’s roots go back to this Gaelic world. He is of Irish ancestry; this is certain, but there is an old link to Argyll and to Gaelic Scotland as well. Given the dynamic history of his family, his father, grandfather, and now his son, this history fits them well.

Additional material on this McCain family is lcoated here:

Barry R McCain © 2008

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