This surname was brought from England to Ireland by settlers from Devonshire who were among the principal adventurers who acquired parts of the sequestrated Desmond estates in County Limerick and County Kerry at the end of the 16th century. Tralee is the chief town of the county and was a borough, the only other market towns were Dingle, Cahirciveen and Killarney. Before the Anglo-Invasion of Ireland the principal families in County Kerry were the O'Connors, O'Sullivan, O'Moriartys, O'Mahonys and O'Donoghues. Soon after the invasion, as the newcommers pushed into western Munster, the McCarthy's retreated into Kerry. The Geraldine FitzMaurices and FitzGeralds gained a foothold in the county by the 13th century and eventually extended their power there at the expense of the earlier overlords.The majority of families of the name in Ireland today, however, descend from the O Curnain family of County Kerry, their progenitors having adopted the name Courtney in lieu of Cournane. As recently as the early years of the present century there is record of families in County Kerry who used the two surnames interchangeably.
The tradition of surnames in Ireland developed spontaneously, as the population increased and the former practice, first of single names and then of ephemeral patronymics or agnomina of the nickname type proved insufficiently definitive. At first the surname was formed by prefixing 'Mac' to the father's Christian name or 'O 'to that of a grandfather or earlier ancestor.
A notable member of the family name was Leonard Henry Courtney (1832-1918) born in Penzance. He was educated at St. John's College, Cambridge, made a fellow in 1856. He was called to the bar and became professor of political economy at University College, London. He wrote for The Times, and represented Cornish constituencies from 1876-1900, where he held minor offices.
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