The Origin of Irish Family Names

The origin and evolution of Irish names as well as how they have changed over the centuries as a result of particular events in Irish history is a subject worthy of examination.


In ancient Ireland, the population was much smaller than today and the mass movement of people was uncommon. Each province or provincial kingdom comprised a large number of petty kingdoms or tuatha (TOO-ha) amounting to about one hundred and fifty in all with a few thousand people in each by the turn of the seventh century. It was usual and customary therefore for a person to be known by only one name: Niall, Eoin, Art, etc. Once there was no one else in the locality with the same name then this was not a problem.


The Gaelic ‘Clann' system was well established and this gave people a common identity with their people of the tuath (too-ah - small kingdom) and with the commonly shared area. This single name system began to break down during the tenth century as the population was growing and there was a need for a further means of identification. The solution was to adopt a prefix such as 0 or Mac (Mc is an abbreviation). 0 mean 'grandson of' or ‘descendant of' whilst Mac means ‘son of'. Mac surnames are generally of a much later date than 0. The vast majority of Gaelic Irish surnames were created during the tenth and eleventh centuries.


It should be noted that the Scottish Gaels were actually descendants of Gaelic (Irish) emigrants to Scotland. The word 'Scotus' is Latin for 'Irishman'. Many of the Scottish settlers who moved to Ireland later, and especially to Ulster, were of Gaelic Irish descent.


The Clans (dynasties) eventually broke up into a number of distinct septs or groups as was the case with Clann Cholmáin. These groups were headed by an original member of the clan and dominated a particular part of the countryside. It was not uncommon for septs from the same clan to be found in completely different parts of the country. The sept system was an integral part of Gaelic society, and it survived and was even propagated by the Norman invaders. This system, however, did not survive the English invasion and colonisation of the seventeenth century, when it became a disadvantage to have a Gaelic-sounding name.


Although up to the tenth century surnames in Ireland were not hereditary, the influence of the church can still be seen in many common modern Irish surnames, in particular those beginning with 'Gil' or 'Kil', an anglicised version of the Irish 'Giolla", meaning follower or devotee. Thus Gilmartin which in Irish is Mac Giolla Mháirtín means 'son of a follower of (St) Martin. Similarly, the church is the origin of all of those names starting with Mul, a version of the Irish Maol, meaning bald, and applied to the monks because of their distinctive tonsure. Thus Mulrennan (Ó Maoilbhréanainn) means 'descendant of a follower of St Brendan'.


While many of the names appearing in accounts of this time appear similar in form to modern Irish names, incorporating in particular the prefix 'mac' (meaning ‘son of'), in fact they were not hereditary, lasting only one generation. Thus Turlough mac Airt was Turlough, son of Art; his own son would be Conor mac Turlough, Conor son of Turlough.


Nonetheless, Ireland was one of the first European countries in which a system of fixed hereditary surnames developed. The earliest names appear to be those incorporating 'O' or its earlier form 'Ua', meaning 'grandson'. The first recorded fixed surname is O'Clery (Ó Cléirigh), as noted by the Annals, which record the death of Tigherneach Ua Cléirigh, Lord of Aidhne in Co. Galway in the year 916. It seems likely that this is the oldest surname recorded anywhere in Europe.


By the eleventh century many families had acquired true surnames. All of these surnames incorporated the same two basic elements,'0' or 'Mac', together with the personal name of the ancestor from whom descent is indicated. In many cases this ancestor can be quite accurately identified, and the origin of the name dated precisely. Thus, at the start of the eleventh century, Brian Boru possessed no surname, being simply 'Brian, High-King of the Irish', his grandson Teigue called himself Ua Briain in memory of his illustrious grandfather, and the name became hereditary thereafter. Similarly, the O'Neills derive their surname from Niall Glún Dubh, who died in 919.


Due to linguistic changes, the origins of many of the personal names such as Niall or Brian which form the stem of the surname remain obscure, but two broad categories can be distinguished: descriptive and occupational. In the first category, we can guess that the progenitor of the Traceys (Ó Treasaigh) was a formidable character, treasach meaning ‘warlike', while the ancestor of the Duffs must have been dark-featured, since dubh, the root of the name, means black or dark. Among the occupations recorded in names are the churchmen dealt with above, clerks (Clery, Ó Cléirigh, from cléireach), bards (Ward, Mac an Bháird, from bard), spokesman (MacCloran, Mac Labhráin, from the Irish labhraidh), and smiths (McGowan, MacGabhann,from gabha). One category of surname, common in English, which is extremely rare among Irish names is the toponymic, deriving from the name of a locality. It seems likely that this reflects the fact that, for the Gaeil, whom you were related to was much more important than where you came from.


Although the immediate reason for the early adoption of hereditary surnames in Ireland may have been a rapidly expanding population, it can also be seen as the logical outcome of a process at work from the times of the earliest clan names. Originally, these indicated identification with a common god, often connected with an animal valued by the clan, as in the case of the Osrái, or 'deer-people', for example. Next came identification with a divine ancestor, the B6innri, for instance, claiming descent from the goddess B6inn, the divinised river Boyne. Later the ancestor was merely legendary, as for the Eoghanacht, while later still the clan claimed direct descent from a historical ancestor, as in the case of the Uí Néi11. This slow emergence of kin-relationships out of religion and myth into the realm of history would seem to reach its logical conclusion with the adoption of hereditary surnames, permanent proof of verifiable ties of blood. On a more mundane level, of course, such proof was a valuable political asset, since it demonstrated membership of a powerful kin-group. Even today, the fact that all Gaelic names, with few exceptions, begin with 0 or Mac is undeniable and continuing proof of the significance of family and kin for the Irish. One has indeed only to look at the social structure within the Tuatha (plural form) to realise the great importance placed on genealogy as the important process for recording history.


Although it began early, the process of creating surnames was slow, and continued for over six hundred years. As the population grew and new families were formed, they sought to consolidate their identity by adopting hereditary surnames of their own, usually by simply adding Mac to the first name of the founding ancestor. In the course of this process, then, many surnames were created which are in fact offshoots of more common names. Thus, for example, the MacMahons and the McConsidines are descended from the O'Brien family, the former from Mahon O'Brien, who died in 1129, the latter from Constantine O'Brien, who died in 1193. The continuing division and sub-division of the most powerful Gaelic families like this is almost certainly the reason for the great proliferation of Gaelic surnames.


The Penal laws that were enforced by the colonists in the second half of the 17th century and throughout the 18th century attempted to completely subjugate the Gaelic way of life. It is about this time, then, that many Gaelic names changed to their Anglo equivalent or translation. This caused confusion as many of the names were misinterpreted or misspelled. The name McEaneny for example has a number of variants including McAneny and Bird (the Irish word for 'bird' is ‘ean'). Mac an Thomáis was converted to Holmes, Mac Giolla Íosa to MacAleese, and Ó Colmáin to Coleman or Colman, etc. The conversion of names beginning with Mac and Mc was even more difficult because the removal of the M sound from the name often completely changed the sound of the name.


The revival of Gaelic consciousness in the later eighteen hundreds saw many Irish families reassume the 0 or Mac, Mc, or other Irish forms of their names although this was reduced in a number of cases depending on the sound of the name. What a pity it wasn't more widespread but there were many inhibiting factors including large scale emigration. Kelly and Coleman are still much more prevalent than O'Kelly and O'Coleman, Murphy more prevalent than O'Murphy, etc.


The name Fitz appears to be an adoption of a French word fils which means son. So a FitzAllen was again a son of Allen.


There are many different origins for Irish names today but the vast majority can be broken down into three categories: Gaelic Irish (vast majority), Cambro-Norman, and finally Anglo-lrish.

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