This name O'BEIRNE is easily confused with Byrne and O'Byrne, the surname Beirne and O'Beirne is of entirely different origin, being a Connacht sept with branches in County Roscommon, still a principal habitat of the family, and in County Leitrim where the name is still found also. By the end of the last century many had lost the original prefix '0'. The Connacht county of Leitrim is all but landlocked, having a coastal outlet to the Atlantic only two miles in length on Donegal Bay between the boundaries of Co. Sligo and Co. Donegal. It was once a country town, has the remains of a castle and some other ancient buildings, but has lost its former importance and dwindled to a village. Anciently the county formed part of the kingdom of Breffny whose overlords, the O'Rourkes, retained some power until the 16th and 17th centuries. The country, in the medieval period, was thickly forested and five great forests endured into the 17th century, but they have now disappeared leaving bleak tracks of country. When the sparse Irish population began to increase it became necessary to broaden the base of personal identification by moving from single names to a more definite nomenclature. The prefix MAC was given to the father's christian name, or O to that of a grandfather or even earlier ancestor. 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 draped and flowing garment worn over the armour. The name meant 'the grandson of Biorn' meaning bear.
Ireland was one of the first countries to evolve a system of hereditary surnames; they came into being fairly generally in the eleventh century and indeed a few were formed before the year 1000.
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