The MacGowan or Smith Family

MacGowan or Smith family crest

(Crest No. 50. Plate 47.)

THIS family, whose name is variously spelled McAngaivnion, O’Gowan and Gowan, a name which has been Anglicized to Smith, is descended from Milesius, King of Spain, through the line of Ir, fifth son of that monarch, and belonged to the Clanna Rory tribe, founded by Heber Donn, son of Ir. The founder of the family was Irial, son of the famous warrior, Conal Kearneach.

The ancient name was Gaivnion, signifying “a smith”; and hence those Irish families bearing the names of Smith, Smyth, Smythe, and Smeeth, many of them supposed to be of English origin, may claim their descent from the Milesian MacGowans, originally a powerful clan in Ulidia, or the County of Down, Ulster.

The MacGowans, according to the ancient annalists, were distinguished for their great strength and bravery, and were chiefs of gallowglasses, under the O’Reillys. The chiefs of this clan also held possessions in the County of Mayo, but were mostly expelled by the English into Donegal, whence large numbers of them emigrated to the County Leitrim, and more lately to the County Cavan, where they are very numerous, especially in the parishes of Lavey, Laragh, and Killinkere.

The MacGowans in early times produced many eminent ecclesiastics, learned men and poets, too numerous to be here mentioned, and many distinguished warriors. Of the Smiths, whose names have been Anglicized from this family, several attained honorable distinction.

Edward Smith, who died in 1812, was a sculptor of superior genius, possessing in an eminent degree vigor of imagination, originality of conception, and boldness of execution, as is evidenced by his splendid work on the Custom House, Dublin, and his figures on the Bank of Ireland, Four Courts, King’s Inns, and Castle Chapel, which have been pronounced by the most competent authorities worthy of any sculptor of any age or any country. All his works are of the highest excellence. “His works,” writes an eminent art critic, “have that sort of freshness about them that can only be produced by minds endowed with great and just perceptions in art, and who look solely to nature for the materials by which they are to convey in a tangible form these genuine expressions to the public mind. He appears to have resembled Goldsmith in mind, Robert Burns in conduct, and both in genius.” John Smith of Dublin, of a later date, was also a sculptor of high merit, and has left many memorials of his genius.

Dr. Charles Smith, a learned and careful writer, has left valuable histories of the Counties of Cork, Waterford, and Kerry.

James Smith, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, was a native of Ireland, where he was born in 1720. In 1774 he raised the first volunteer company in the State of Pennsylvania for the cause of the Revolution. He was a member of Congress until 1778, and afterward sat in the General Assembly of Pennsylvania.

Sir William Cusack Smith, Baron of the Court of Exchequer and member of the Irish Parliament, was one of the most distinguished orators and jurists of his day. “It was not on the Bench alone,” says a contemporary writer, “that he shone forth as one of the brightest luminaries of his age and country. As a political and philosophical writer he was equally distinguished.”

Brigadier-General Thomas A. Smythe of the United States volunteer service in the late Civil War was a native of Ireland, and a descendant of the ancient McGowan sept. In 1861 he raised a company for a “three months’” regiment, and by his ability and bravery rose to the rank of brigadier-general. He was the last officer killed in the war for the Union, being mortally wounded near Farmville, Va., while commanding the Second Division of the Second Army Corps, April 6, 1865.

P. J. Smythe, of 1848 celebrity, was another worthy member of this widespread family. His action in rescuing John Mitchel and his companions from Tasmania, where they were suffering penal servitude, from under the noses of the British officials, stamped him as a man of superb daring as well as of ability and patriotism.

Another worthy representative of this family is United States Senator Smith of New Jersey, a man of distinguished ability and deserved popularity. The late Rev. Dr. Smith, one of the most learned Catholic clergymen in the United States, and the author of a standard work on canon law, was also a resident of New Jersey. Recorder Frederick Smythe of New York, one of the ablest jurists in the State, a man of stainless reputation and the terror of evil-doers in his judicial capacity, is also a descendant of this family.