The Irish family name of McCabe is an Anglicisation of the Gaelic Mac Cába, a patronymic name meaning "son of Cába". The nickname or personal name Cába is of uncertain origin.
Bearers of the surname are considered to have settled in Ireland from the Western Isles of Scotland sometime around 1350, employed as gallowglass (mercenary soldiers) to the O'Reillys and O'Rourkes which were the principal septs of Breffny. According to a pedigree written by Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh, the MacCabes descend from the MacLeods. In time the MacCabes became a recognised Irish sept, with the chieftain being called "Constable of the two Breffnys". According to MacLysaght in the mid 20th century, statistics then showed that the surname was more numerous in the Breffny area than anywhere else. MacCabe landowners are however more associated with Co Monaghan and Co Cavan; however the principal families of the name lost all their estates after the Battle of Aughrim in 1691.