Are The Hannons Irish?

By Joe Hannon

    Everyone's a little bit Irish on Saint Patrick's day, but for the holiday I wanted to write a post about the question of an Irish origin for our family.

    We know that the Hannons came from Grez-Doiceau, Belgium to Wisconsin in 1853, part of a wave of Belgian immigration to Wisconsin, where they lived in a Walloon community in the Green Bay area and on Door Peninsula. The common parents to all of us in this Facebook group, Joseph Alexander Hannon and Albine Petiniot, were born in Wisconsin to Belgian immigrant parents. Joseph's father Jean Baptiste Hannon was part of the third wave to come over from Belgium, but there were also Hannons on the first boat, the Quinnebang, who were the uncles of Jean Baptiste. Additionally Albine's father Constant Petiniot was on the Quinnebang (which I like to think of as our own Belgian "Mayflower"). Indeed Constant Petiniot was apparently the man who kicked off the entire Belgian immigration, due to an advertisement he saw in a pub in Amsterdam.

    So the point is, we are the American descendants of a Belgian, not Irish, family. Some of us may of course also have Irish heritage, like many Americans. For example I am one eighth Irish on my paternal grandmother's side.

    But there is an old and widespread rumor in our extended family that the Hannon lineage itself actually originates in Ireland, though no one knows when, and there seems to be no documented proof. Could there be any truth to this rumor? I would like to lay out the case for and against.


    1. The rumor appears to be quite old. I first heard it from my father and aunts and uncles. Uncle Gus repeats the rumor in his family tree book. He attributes it to his father Maurice. So this rumor has been around at least since the time of my great grandfather. My third cousin Derrick Wagner also mentioned hearing that rumor in his family, so if the rumor has the same source, then it goes at least as far back as our common ancestors Joseph and Albine. In fact this rumor survives in even more distant branches of the family. I corresponded with Marge Pifer of Madison WI, who is descended from one of the "Mayflower Hannons". Our common ancestor with her is Jean Philippe Hannon, who died in 1844 before the immigration to the US. So it's possible this rumor goes back to before the 1840s. Another distant relative, Mike Lucas of Green Bay WI, also has the rumor in his family, and there is no documented common ancestry with his branch of the family, meaning our common ancestry is much older still.

    2. Hannon is a common Irish surname. Sometimes people assume I'm of Irish descent on that basis alone. JFK's maternal grandmother Josie Fitzgerald, who lived to see her grandson elected president and assassinated, was a Hannon. There slightly famous pop singer Neil Hannon. There is a Hannon Park here in Irish Boston. There is a website for Clan Hannon which documents the history of this illustrious Irish clan. Presumably if the Belgian Hannon family originated in Ireland, then it belongs to this clan.

    3. According to at least one source, our earliest documented Hannon ancestor was Patrick Hannon, born 1740. Patrick is a common Irish first name, and would be unusual for a French or Walloon speaking Belgian.


    1. At first I thought the prevalence of this rumor in distant branches of the family lent it credibility, since it implied that the rumor was very ancient. But at some point, it seems too old. The documented lof Hannons living in Belgium goes back to 1629. It's harder to believe that the family immigrated from Ireland to Belgium in the 1500s, and repeated this fact as a family legend for 500 years. The version that our distant cousin Marge Pifer told me was that our Irish Hannon ancestor fought with the Irish against Napolean and settled in the area of Waterloo after the war. But the Battle of Waterloo was in 1815, whereas we have direct Hannon ancestors living in Belgium as far back as 1700. Waterloo is too late in history to be consistent with our documented Belgian history, and the latest dates which are consistent with the records are much too far back to be believable.

    2. The records I have found for the Belgian Hannons do not show a Patrick Hannon. In fact the records I found show that the father of Philippe Hannon was Gilles Hannon (1735-1805), whose father was Denis Hannon (1700-1772). I don't know what Gus's source is for the Patrick Hannon ancestor. In his book he ascribes much of the Belgian genealogy history to his cousin Ian McMonagle, who took a trip to Belgium in the 1970s. I wonder whether Ian might have had some other source. A while ago Sue Rasmussen and Stephanie Witchy Barton told me that Ian's records were in Carol Rose Witchey's house in Green Bay. If I make it out there some day, I would like to see whether Ian left any evidence to resolve this mystery. But for the time being, the records I have been able to find do not show a Patrick Hannon ancestor.

    3. In the human genome there is one chromosome called the Y-chromosome that only males possess in their DNA, and every father passes to his son. Since surnames also pass from father to son, this chromosome tracks surnames (as long as there are no adoptions or other non-paternity father-son relationships in the line). There is therefore a Hannon Y-chromosome. So if a direct Hannon patrilineal descendant, i.e. a male with the last name Hannon, got his Y-DNA tested, it might be possible to see whether the Hannon Y-chromosome is a genetic match with the typical Irish or Belgian Y chromosome. In fact I have done the genealogical Y chromosome DNA test, and we learned that the Hannon Y-chromosome belongs to the I-M253 haplogroup ("haplogroup" just means branch of the genetic family tree). This is a subgroup of the larger I haplogroup.

    The Indo-European peoples who invaded Europe 5,000 years ago brought with them the R1b haplogroup. They are the ancestors of almost all European peoples (but not Basques or Hungarians or Finns). The R1b haplogroup is the most common Y-chromosome throughout Europe, but other haplogroups are not uncommon even among populations Indo-European descent. For example our I-M253 subgroup originated in Scandanavia 15,000 years ago in the Gravettian stone age cultures, so it predates the Indo-European invasion. It is found today throughout Europe, its spread associated with Viking invasions. So it's most highly concentrated in Denmark and Sweden, but it can be found in about 10% of the population in many parts of continental Europe, including both Ireland and Belgium. Therefore our membership in the I-M253 haplogroup does not prove or disprove either a Belgian or an Irish heritage.

    On the other hand, there are a few Irish Hannons who have also taken the Y-DNA test and reported their results. They belong to the haplogroup R1b1a2a1a1, a subgroup of the R1b Indo-European Y-chromosome. This means we do not share patrilineal ancestry with the Irish Hannons, which I consider a strong blow to the Irish origin theory. If the Belgian Hannons came from Ireland, then they are not directly related to the other Irish Hannons who have had their DNA tested with this service. It is possible that the Irish Clan Hannon has other non-matching Y-chromosomes who haven't shown up in DNA tests, so that they don't track the surname exactly (for example, if there was an adoption somewhere in the early history of the clan). It may be unlikely, but we can't rule it out, so the test is not conclusive. It is also possible that in the future, as the Y-DNA family tree gets mapped out more finely (they make discoveries of new branches every year), we may discover a definitive link to Belgium or Ireland. So today we'll count the DNA evidence as an inconclusive blow against the Irish Hannon origin theory, but we'll also watch for future developments to strengthen our results.

    4. I've corresponded with a few confirmed Hannon cousins living in Belgium today. They have no rumor of any Irish heritage. If we believe that this family rumor persisted for centuries, shouldn't it still be remembered by our Belgian cousins? Perhaps it is a product of our American infatuation with Irish culture.

    5. A Marcel Lacourt of the Brabant Walloon historical society suggested an etymology for our surname: Hannon is a shortening of "hanneton", which is the french word for a kind of bug called in English a may-bug or a cockchafer. There is a town in France near the border of Belgium called Hannonville because this insect is very common there.

    So to summarize: the rumor seems to be widespread, but the age suggested by its breadth is not credible, and it's only found in the US, not in Europe. The Irish-sounding Patrick Hannon progenitor is not corroborated in the vital records. The etymology of the surname admits a non-Irish alternative. And the genetic evidence does not support the Irish theory. In the end, I think the evidence does not support the Irish origin theory. However none of the evidence is conclusive, new developments could arise and we could still be surprised.

    So wear green this Saint Paddy's day, just in case!