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There are at least three quite distinct septs whose descendants are now known as Scanlan, Scanlon, Scannell, etc. One is Ó Scannláin of Munster and another Mac Scannláin of Oriel (Louth), neither of which has retained the prefix O or Mac in modem times. The latter are perpetuated in the place name Ballymascanlon near Dundalk. The third, the Scanlans belonging to Co. Sligo and Co. Donegal are really O'Scannells - an instance of a common name absorbing a rarer one - for example Most Rev. Patrick O'Scanlan, Bishop of Raphoe (afterwards Archbishop of Armagh 1262-1272), was also called O'Scannell.
Ó Scannláin of Munster must have been a sept of some significance, for it is recorded that in 1014, Eocha, son of Dunadbach, chief of clann Scannláin, and Scannlan son of Cathal lord of Eoghanacht locha Lein (the most powerful clan grouping in Munster), were killed at the battle of Clontarf. Therefore they must have been supporters of the famous High King Brian Boru who drove the Viking forces from Ireland at the above-mentioned battle.
The widespread distribution of the O'Scanlans is indicated by the fact that there are six Ballyscanlans in Ireland as well as a Scanlansland and a Scanlan's Island. Two of these are in Co. Clare and one in Mayo, which lends colour to the statement that there was also a north Connacht sept of O'Scanlan. Further evidence in support of this is supplied by the records of the Registrar-General, which show that after the Kerry-Limerick-Cork area most Scanlan births are reported from Clare and Sligo.
The returns of the 1659 census are interesting: in that year the majority of people called O'Scanlan and O'Scannell were located in those very areas. At that time it would appear that O'Scannell was often used as a synonym of O'Scanlan even in Munster. The "Composition Book of Connacht" (1585) uses the form Scanlan in its survey of Co. Sligo.
Keating's History gives the family of O'Scanlan in Co. Kerry, and again separately in Co. Limerick in the barony of Pubblebrien, along with the MacArthur family. Some 119 Scanlan families are recorded in Co. Kerry, making them one of the more numerous families in this county. In addition there were 57 Scannell families in county Kerry.
The MacScanlans appear to have almost died out as hardly any Scanlan births were reported from the provinces of Leinster and Ulster. In early records "Mac Scannlain" was centred at Ballymacscanlan, in the barony of Lower Dundalk in Co. Louth.
A Tipperary-born bishop of modem times Dr. Lawrence Scanlan (1843- 1915), Bishop of Salt Lake City, is remembered in America on account of his amicable relations with the Mormons of that place.
In Ireland the name is chiefly associated with a most tragic event, the Scanlan murder in Co. Limerick in 1819, which was the theme of several novels and plays, the best known of which is The Colleen Bawn.
In 1414 Donald Oscannlayn was canon of Ardfert. Edmond O'Scanlan of Fusan is on record in 1776, and Michael and James of Ballylongford in 1821. The Rev. Cornelius Scannell, 1845-1913, brother of John of Bunagara, ordained in 1870, was pastor of Visalla, and Pasadena, in Southern California.
There were three Irish-American authors of note; John F. Scanlan (born 1839), Co. Limerick Fenian and poet; his better-known brother Michael Scanlan (born 1836, Co. Limerick), author of 'Jackets Green', 'The Fenian Men', etc.; and William J. Scanlan (1855-1898), actor, singer and song writer. Rt. Rev. Mgr. James Donald Scanlan (born 1899) was Bishop of Dunkeld and Vicar Delegate to the U.S. Forces in Britain.
coat of arms of O'Scanlan of Munster is recorded in the Office of the
Chief Herald of Ireland as, Arms: Per fess indented Argent and Azure
three lions rampant counterchanged. No crest or motto is recorded.