In both Ireland and Scotland, the name Smith derives from the Gaelic word `gabha’, meaning `smith’.
In Ireland, the sept Mac an Ghabhan, meaning ‘son of the smith’, originated in County Cavan in southern Ulster where, in medieval times, they were included by the chroniclers of the O’Rilleys as one of the principal septs, or families, of the kingdom of Breffny.
In the following centuries, many of this family chose, or were forced, to anglicize the name to Smith or Smythe. This occurred especially during the time of English oppression of all things Irish, when the Irish could not vote, hold public office, own property, educate their children or worship as they chose.* (In this manner, the English sought to “civilize” the wild Irish.)
On the borders of Breffny, in County Leitrim, to the northwest in Counties Donegal and Sligo, and to the north in Counties Monaghan, Tyrone and Derry, MacGowan, or McGowan is still used in preference to Smith.
Further confusion arises from the fact that the Gaelic surname MacDhubhain, a family of Raphoe, County Donegal, and also of County Clare, where the anglicized form is MacGuane, has become MacGowan; while Mac Gamhna, normally Gaffney, is also rendered MacGowan in some places.
Ballygowan in County Down is of no connection, being named from one of the septs of O’Gowans. That name is rare in modern times, as it too was anglicized to Smith. However, O’Gowans were in the census of 1659 as one of the principal Irish names in Counties Monaghan and Fermanagh.
In present day County Cavan, MacGowan is no longer as common, but its Anglicisation, Smith or Smyth is among the five most numerous names. In the adjacent county of Monaghan, Smyth and MacGowan taken together constitute the fifth most common name.
By contrast in County Donegal the original Anglicisation MacGowan has survived. There, the MacGowans were erenaghs of Inishmacsaint in the barony of Tirhugh.
Another family of MacGowans, in Gaelic Mac In Gabhand, were erenaghs of Ballymagowan at Clogher, County Tyrone.