You have probably already discovered that the surnames in your family are the best way to track and audit the journey of your family and kin from some location deep inside an Ireland of generations ago – to wherever you are today.
A problem quickly arises, however, when you start your investigation and notice all the disconnections and fragments that come to the surface. As you continue your investigation and research, ancestry websites and internet user groups can be a fabulous way of discovering some of those fragments. However, they can also be full of frustrating “red herrings” and distractions.
I have found that most of us need a map. A map that shows you the bigger picture. With this map, you can better understand the areas where the genealogical gold is likely to be buried. With this map, you can quickly decide what sounds likely – and what is evidently nonsense.
This article aims to be your map.
One thing a map does very well is to outline and locate the obstacles in your way. Many of us have come across the following obstacles already when digging deeper into our Irish Heritage:
Edward Neafsey (author of the very useful Surnames of Ireland) – highlights this very well when he describes the migration of his own surname. His surname comes from the original Irish O Cnáimhsighe (get your tongue around that one!). While his grandfather’s sister was spelled “Navisey” on her baptismal book, his grandfather was entered as “Neafsey” in the same book. His birth cert, however, was spelled as “Kneafsey” – and when he moved to England his marriage cert spelled his name “Neafey”. One family, five variations.
While some surnames like Murphy and Kelly may not have changed so much – quite a few of our Irish names have mutated in a similar way over the generations.
So, for the rest of this article we will take the longer view. We will stretch back over the generations to a time when surnames first came into use in Ireland – and look at some of the outside influences, events and naming conventions that have changed your Irish names from what they were originally to what they are now.
My own postal address is:
Waterfall (near Cork)
County Cork, Ireland.
This is a typical Irish postal address that you find today outside the cities of Ireland. As you can see, it relies on the local knowledge of the postman to figure out which specific house I live in. The one absolute he has to deal with is my name – Mike Collins.
You may notice the absence of Post and ZIP codes. Why am I showing you this?
Well, it illustrates an attitude that has persisted over many thousands of years in Ireland. Originally we were a nomadic and pastoral nation. Yes, we had land – but we followed our animals depending on season and climate. We didn’t like to be tied down.
From the 900s onwards the population increased in Ireland as elsewhere in Europe. As political stability increased across Europe along with a better climate for growing food and fewer raids by marauders – so too did the hierarchal structure we know as feudalism. Land became parcelled, was owned by freeman, worked by serfs – and overseen by the lords. This situation allowed for the later start of Postal and ZIP codes in a way – a time when people were tied to specific locations.
In Ireland things were different.
While our population also increased, so too did the power and influence of a more centralised church – as well as the power of a group of overlords and kings assuming control of entire provinces in a real sense for the first time.
I believe that the very real problem of administering a moving and population, enforcing the Brehon laws and simply keeping tabs on the increasingly complex genealogies and rights of inheritance – caused Ireland to be possibly the first country in Europe to introduce the “surname”.
(This article evolved in conversation with our free Letter from Ireland subscribers – if you would like to add your Irish surnames to our list, then just signup for your free weekly Letter from Ireland by clicking here.)
We had to lock the name in – as the locations were too mobile. This surname would become the one constant in a moving sea of variables and possibilities (like in my postal address above).
The first recorded surname in Ireland is O’Clery (Ó Cléirigh) in what is now modern County Galway around 920AD. Although the creation of surnames in Ireland may have began early, it slowly continued for over six hundred years.
By the end of the eleventh century the main families of Ireland (those whom had their genealogies recorded) had acquired many of the surnames we know today. They were constructed using either an “Ó” (short for Ua – “descendent of”) or a “Mac” (“son of”) followed by a personal name of an illustrious ancestor. The surnames of Ireland’s ruling families can typically be tracked down to one single individual e.g. the O’Neills of the Northern Uí Neill in Ulster take their surname from one of their kings – Niall Mac Aoidh who died in 917.
However, the process continued for some hundreds of years as different major families (such as the O’Neills) went on to split into further groups and assume new surnames for that splinter group.
If you are looking for a “true north” to go with your surname “map” – then this is it. Given all the spelling variations that you are likely to come across, there is ONLY one correct spelling.
Yes. Only one.
When you are REALLY interested in tracing the heritage of your Irish surname – I have found that the ONLY way to pin down that name is to learn the original Irish language version of that surname.
Have a think about it.
The thing is – none of these are correct!
These are versions that have sprung up over centuries with the introduction of English in Ireland, emigration, mutation and so on.
The most useful starting point is the original Irish language version: Ó Raghailligh (pronounced Oh Rah-al-ig – just say it fast). This is the root for all the O’Reilly English language versions out there.
But of course, the Reillys have it easy (and the McCarthys, O’Briens, Murphys and so on) as they were never pegged to an equivalent English name. When English speakers heard O Raghailligh spoken for the first time – they just said it as they heard it: O Reilly/Riley
The “trouble” started when an English speaker heard another name for the first time – AND it reminded them of an English name that they already knew – and that’s the name they gave!
To illustrate, let’s take an example of a lesser-known Irish name – Hamill. If you think this sounds like an English name – you are right! But if you come across the name in your Irish family tree, it most likely has a different source to the Hamills you will come across in England (it is facts like this that cause your frustration with mega-ancestry sites – their focus is on the greater population of the surname – not on us – the little Irish contingent!).
Back to Hamill. Hamill comes from the original Irish “Ó hAdhmaill” (pronounced Oh–ham-will). This surname comes from a nickname-derived first name “Adhmall”. This Gaelic family were part of the Cenél Eoghain part of the Northern Ui Neill in what is now County Tyrone.
In the case of Ó hAdhmaill, an English speaker/clerk heard the Irish name spoken – it reminded them of the English name Hamill – a name they were already familiar with – and so “Hamill” became a given name for this old Gaelic family. This process happened slowly from the 1600s onwards as the English administration spread through the island of Ireland.
And today when you go onto many ancestry sites, you notice that while names like “Hamill” are included – there are a small portion of Irish folks jumping up and down in the corner protesting that this is also an Irish name! And they are right – to a point!
So, when a reader chastises me for using the incorrect spelling for an Irish surname (e.g. Maguire instead of McGuire) – I reply that the ONLY correct spelling is the original Irish. So, I recommend that you find out the original Irish for your Irish surname, learn to phonetically pronounce it – and learn all the English variations that have come along for this name over the centuries. This will open up a whole new world of understanding in your Irish Heritage journey as you “widen the net” to include many possibilities of mutations of your surnames – but all anchored to a single Irish language origin.
Right, we are almost there. But let’s finish off the map to guide our journey with three questions that I often get from the readers of Your Irish Heritage.
These are probably the three most frequent reader questions I get asked on Your Irish Heritage. With these answers we will finish off the map that we are developing – a map to help you anticipate and avoid the main obstacles when reaching your Irish surname family tree.
Recently I got an email from a lady who goes by the surname of “McGee”. She asked: “I met a lady called “McCoy” last year – she insisted we are distant cousins – how could that be?”
Looking through our reader list on Your Irish Heritage – I notice that we have Keyes, MacHugh, Gee, McGee, O’Hea, Hayes, MacKaw Makay and McCoy. All of these Gaelic surnames have something in common. They have all been anglicized from the same Irish surname – Aodh. “Mac Aodha” (son of Aodh) or “O hAodha” (descendent of Aodh).
Aodh/Aedh (pronounced “Aay” – rhymes with “hay”) was a very popular first name in Ireland up to the 10th century.
And then from the 900s to 1100s – families adopted the surname system we know today. Lots of families across Ireland (and Scotland) chose the name MacAodha or O hAodha – and that got anglicized into the different surnames we see above over the next few centuries.
So I got back to Mrs. McGee and told here while we all may be cousins going back to Adam and Eve – you would have to go back almost as far to make this Mrs. McCoy your cousin.
One of the more frequent questions I get asked sounds something like “why do YOU write MacCarthy as McCarthy?” (read that one again – there is a difference).
The Gaelic surnames of the time were formed around an illustrious ancestor e.g. the O’Briens from Brian Boru. These Irish Gaelic surnames typically have one of five prefixes:
A smaller class of Irish surname named the family after an occupation or profession e.g. McInerney ( Mac an Airchinnigh in Irish) which means “son of the eranagh” (a type of lay abbot) OR Hickey (in Irish O hIcidhe) which comes from the Irish for Physician or Healer.
The difference between a Mc and a Mac (and some people wonder is the “Mc” Irish and the “Mac” Scottish? The answer is: there is no difference! Mc is simply an abbreviation of Mac.
A Mrs. Sullivan contacted me and commented “it’s a pity our family lost the “O” when we came to the States – I wonder can we get it back?”
But, there’s a bit more to it than that. From the 1600s on – Gaelic and Catholic people were discriminated against by the English ascendency – and this led, gradually, to the abandonment of the Os and Macs in many surnames. O’Murphy became Murphy, O’Kelly became Kelly and so on.
However, in the late 19th century there was a Gaelic cultural resurgence in Ireland and many of these surnames took their Os and Macs back as a badge of Gaelic pride.
Take “O’Sullivan” as an example – when we look at the census data for Ireland, the following comes up:
Year: Percentage using the prefix O
So, you can see that many emigrants who left Ireland during famine times (BEFORE 1866) were missing their Os and Macs – and mostly never took them back. Whereas a high percentage of those who stayed in Ireland had them reinstated.
Maybe it’s time to take your O or Mac back?
I realise that we covered a lot of ground in this chapter. As well as that, we went WAY outside our remit of “around the time of 1152AD”. However, I hope you can see that a firm understanding of the evolution (and mutation) of the surname in Ireland will help you anticipate and avoid many of the obstacles that are thrown in your way as you continue on your journey.
I also hope that this chapter gives you a useful outline map to move quicker towards the genealogical gold that you are seeking!
Do remember to join our free weekly Letter from Ireland (see below) if you would like to continue the conversation – you will have the opportunity to add the Irish surnames in your family tree, and ask questions about them!