The Courtney Syndrome

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Before the days of the internet and Google many children would spend their excess time at school looking through the encyclopedia, usually World Book or the Encyclopedia Britannica. I can remember coming upon the entry for Courtney/Courtenay and I was fascinated to learn that I might be descended from the famous Courtenays of County Devon, England.

Over the many years I have been researching the family and reading other writings I have come upon a disturbing trend. Many books start out with a brief history of the family in France and England. Then the book will just forward 500 years and insinuate that the current genealogy is connected to the ancient family.

Many people on Ancestry do something similar. They will carefully work their genealogy back from themselves until they inevitably hit that brick wall. At the “brick wall” they will jump back to England and make their ancestor one of the younger sons and heirs of the Courtenays of Powderham Castle in County Devon. Or if they are in the South, they will make the next generation jump to a northern lineage that is traced a few more generations than theirs.

Some researchers have attempted to connect their genealogies to the Courtenays of Charleston, S.C. William Ashmead Courtenay was a well known mayor of Charleston in the 1880's. His family was well documented back to Newry, Ireland. Although some have suggested a descent of the Newry Courtenays from Powderham it has not been well documented and proven. A well known American genealogist (now deceased) spent time in both Ireland and England in a vain attempt at showing a connection, although YDNA testing now shows no relationship.

I prefer to let my research lead me back to my ancestors and not to waste my time trying to connect lineages that have no factual basis. To be stuck in a rut by making wild claims to the ancient Courtenay family is what I like to call “The Courtney Syndrome”. It is non-productive and my time would be better spent on other things.

The recent advent of DNA testing (specifically YDNA) has opened up a whole new world for genealogists and we now know there are probably 250 separate branches of Courtneys living in the US since Colonial days to the present.

For the Irish Courtneys there are two major branches, one in Ulster leading back to Niall of the Nine Hostages and one in Southwestern Ireland going back to the 4
th Century. Ironic that both these lines are twice as old as the English/French Courtenays.

One of the consequences of YDNA testing is the realization of how commonly surnames change. I am unaware of any surname that exhibits this trait more often than Courtney.

Edward MacLysaght, the great Irish genealogist, discusses this very phenomenon.

Another tendency in the anglicisation of Irish surnames is the absorption of uncommon names in common ones. Blowick, for example, tends to become Blake, Kildellan is merged in Connellan, Cormican in McCormick, Sullahan in Sullivan, Kehilly and Kilkelly in Ke1ly, and so on. Certain well-known family names such as Courtney, Conway and Leonard have gobbled up in the course of time, not one, but half a dozen or more minor ones. We must presume that this was a result of the general Gaelic depression, part of the same indifference and hopelessness which acquiesced in the lopping off of the Mac and O from so many old Irish surnames.”

(From: Irish Families by Edward MacLysaght. Pub. Irish Academic Press ISBN 0-7165-2364-7)