IN 1786 JOHN CREE, "late of Calcutta in the East Indies and now of the Parish of St Mary le Bone in the County of Middlesex, Esq." was granted a coat of arms. A pedigree held at the College of Arms describes him as "John McMahon otherwise Cree..." who died in 1795 without issue and was buried at St Marylebone. He was the son of James McMahon of Ennis Co. Clare (died 1783) by his wife Ellen, daughter of John Cree of Ennis.
Information is sparse about John Cree of Ennis, County Clare, the grandfather of John MacMahon/Cree. He would have been born around 1680-90. No record has been found of any Cree family in Ennis.
However there were at that time many families in Ennis who bore the name CREAGH, a well-known and numerous Irish surname. In 1738 Pierce Creagh, jun. of Dangan, Co. Clare, and in 1760 Martin Creagh of Ennis, were recorded as "converts from Popery." More relevantly a John Creagh was appointed a Justice of the Peace for the County in 1766 and a James Creagh in 1792 a James Creagh.
The name CREAGH is said to derive from the Gaelic word craobh, meaning a branch, because the Creaghs were a branch of the O'Neills. It seems more likely that it comes from a place name such as CREEGH (also called CREE), a village on the river of the same name in County Clare. (Source: The History and Topography of the County of Clare by James Frost.)
The name is said to have originated from County Cork and to have spread to County Clare in the 17th Century when Catholics were forcibly moved to that area. However it may well have been well established in County Clare by that time and may have originated there. Martin Cree, a present-day descendant of John Cree, has written that there is at Ennis Friary, "a magnificent Creagh tomb... In Limerick... the Creaghs were Mayors going back as early as 1100."
It seems highly likely that John Cree of Ennis was in fact a Creagh, and that he had changed the spelling of his name, not an unusual occurrence in those times. So here we have an independent origin for the name Cree in Ireland.
For the genealogy of this line see John Cree of Ennis, Co. Clare, Ireland