This surname McMAHAN ranks among the seventy commonest names in Ireland, and it is the commonest name in County Clare, which was the homeland of one of the two septs called Mac Mathghamha, a branch of the ruling O'Briens established in western County Clare and known since the 12th century by the patronymic of their ancestor Mathghamha a son of Murcheartaigh Mor O'Brien, High King of Ireland. The other sept of the name belonged to Ulster and was located in Oriel, in County Monaghan, in which county McMahon ranks as the third commonest surname at the present time. McMahon was derived from the Gaelic Mac Mathghamma, meaning 'bear'.
The name of two septs, both of which are of great importance. That of Thomond, descends from Mahon O'Brien, grandson of Brian Boru. Ireland was one of the first countries to evolve a system of hereditary surnames. They came into being fairly generally in the 11th century, and indeed a few were formed before the year 1000. The surnames in Ireland originally signified membership of a clan, but with the passage of time, the clan system became less distinct, and surnames came to identify membership of what is called a 'sept'; a group of people all living in the same locality, all bearing the same surname, but not necessarily descended from a common ancestor. Adoption of the name by people who did not otherwise have a surname and by dependents was not uncommon. Just over one hundred years after the Norman Conquest of England, the first Normans arrived in Ireland. Richard de Clare, Second Earl of Pembroke (died 1176), was known as Strongbow. He was invited to Ireland by Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster, whose daughter he married, to help him in his wars with his neighbours. He was accompanied by several retainers whose name, like his own, have become well established as surnames in Ireland. The Normans established themselves in Leinster and paid homage to Henry II of England. Some of the Norman settlers acquired surnames derived from the Irish. At first the coat of arms was a practical matter which served a function on the battlefield and in tournaments. With his helmet covering his face, and armour encasing the knight from head to foot, the only means of identification for his followers, was the insignia painted on his shield and embroidered on his surcoat, the flowing and draped garment worn over the armour.
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