A Tale of Nine Irish Surnames

Today we’re going to dive into the background of Irish surnames and locations. We’re going to do this with a little help from one of our readers.

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A Tale of Nine Irish Surnames

Here on the Letter from Ireland – we focus on your Irish surnames and where in Ireland they come from – why? Simply because this matters to people!

The 3 most common questions I get asked are:

  1. My name is “O’whatishisname” – is it Irish?
  2. Where in Ireland does the name come from?
  3. My great Grandfather’s name is Joe Conlon – he came from Kilkenny – we traced him as far as the parish hall in Ballingroibertown – and the trail ran cold. Can you help?

Questions 1 and 2 are what we are all about, as for question 3? That’s one for our Green Room with professional genealogists.

So, today we’re going to dive into the background of Irish surnames and locations. We’re going to do this with a little help from one of our readers – Barbara Melanson O’Regan who is based in the USA. When she contacted me first, she passed on NINE Irish names (names in her ancestry that left Ireland for the US over the past few hundred years).

Like to add your surname to our list? Just signup for your free weekly Letter from Ireland by clicking here. – and we’ll let you know how to join in the fun.

Yep – Nine names!

So, I had a look at them and found that they were a great mix of Gaelic, pre-Gaelic, English settler and anglo-Norman names.

Now, while we won’t go into the specifics about Barbara’s ancestry – let’s use each of these names to bring a slightly different aspect of Irish heritage to the fore.

Ready? Let’s go:

Name 1: Eaton – Emigrated from County Kerry.

This is an English surname derived from a placename that would have appeared in Ireland from the 16th century onwards. Why? Typically as settlers, planters, soldiers. Lots of possibilities there.

I’m often asked about a certain Irish name of English origin and where in Ireland it comes from. But many English planters would have travelled to Ireland as individuals or small groups – and there is often no specific place associated with these individual English names. Unless they had powerful lordships – then they could name everything around them after their family!

Name 2: Keane – Emigrated from County Waterford.

Irish Gaelic surnames typically come originally from a first name – in this case the Irish “O Cein” which means “from Cein” which is more or less the modern Irish first name Cian.

This sept or clan would have started out in the County Waterford area of Munster – and it seems like Barbara’s ancestor stayed in this area until they emigrated. This is typical of many Irish Gaelic Families – they tended to stay near the family lands for life, or move en masse.

Doyles Bar front with M. Doyle written on sign

Name 3: Kenneally – Emigrated from County Waterford.

I mentioned how Gaelic surnames come from original first names. Well, where do Gaelic first names come from?

The original Gaelic first names were typically descriptions of a quality the person had. Often visual, a personality trait or compared to an animal. In this case – it’s the Irish “O Cinnfhaolaidh” – meaning “head of a Wolf”.

The Keanneallys were part of the Ui Fidhgenti sept which were found in Connelloe. Parts of the Ui Fidhgenti moved en masse as families (the O’Collins’s and O’Donovans to West Cork) when displaced by the Anglo Normans. But the Kennealys were displaced all over many parts of South Munster.

Like to add your surname to our list? Just signup for your free weekly Letter from Ireland by clicking here. – and we’ll let you know how to join in the fun.

Name 4: MacNamee – Emigrated from County Westmeath.

Have you a poet in your family? A feature of the old Gaelic system was a very strict hierarchy. The lords and the top – and each lordship was surrounded by many types of roles and professions: poets, soldiers, doctors, genealogists and so on.

Often certain surnames were associated with certain professions – as in this case. The Mac Namees (Mac Conmidhe – sons of the hounds of Meath – more dog names!) – were the Filí and Ollamhs (poets and scholars) to the O’Neill lords around present day County Tyrone.

Name 5: Manning – Emigrated from County Meath.

There’s a peculiarity with Irish names. When they were anglicized from the original Irish – sometimes this was done phonetically and sometimes by choosing the closest-sounding English name. As a result, you might find a name that is both Gaelic and English in origin.

This is the case with Manning. It is originally an English name – and when you find it today in counties Cork and Dublin it’s often belonging to people whose ancestors came from England.

But it is also a version of the Gaelic surname – “Mannion” – which you will find mostly in County Galway. This version is descended from the pre-Gaelic Sodhan race – and would have roots similar to the Picts of eastern Scotland.

O'Mahony shop front

Name 6: Power – Emigrated from County Waterford.

“More Irish than the Irish themselves” was a quote from the 15tth century. It related to many of the Anglo-Norman lords who invaded Ireland in the 13th century and became completely “Hibernicized” – absorbing Gaelic customs, dress and language.

Power was one of those families – typically now found in County Waterford and one of the 50 most numerous surnames in Ireland.

Name 7: Stanley – Emigrated from County Westmeath.

Remember Stanley and Livingstone? “Doctor Livingstone I presume?” Like Sir Henry Stanley – this name is of English origin and based on an English placename.

That’s often the difference between English and Gaelic surnames. It seemed to be important to give the location or profession (Smith, Carpenter etc.) in an English surname. For a Gaelic surname – the emphasis was on which specific family grouping you came from and who you are related to. When you understand this difference, you understand a lot about tracing Irish surnames and locations.

And Stanley came to Ireland very early – been around since the 1200s – and settled in counties Louth and Meath.

Like to add your surname to our list? Just signup for your free weekly Letter from Ireland by clicking here. – and we’ll let you know how to join in the fun.
Nolan's Pub, Rosscarbery

Name 8: Sullivan – Emigrated from County Kerry.

Sullivan which comes from O’Suilleabhain – which probably means “one eye”. This is the most numerous name in Munster (the most numerous in Ireland is Murphy).

The Sullivans originally came from South Tipperary (about a 1000 years ago) but were driven west into Cork and Kerry to become an important part of the Eoghanacht tribe (lord of which were the McCarthys).

So which is right? “Sullivan” or “O’Sullivan”?

Well, they were all O’Suileabhain at one time. BUT then it became beneficial to drop the O during penal times for Gaels. This dropping of the O lasted until a Gaelic revival of the 1800s – when many surnames put the Os (and the macs) back into their surnames. But not everyone did.

For example – many of the emigrants to the USA and Australia would have left before the O came back and so you find many Sullivans overseas. Also, it seems that the majority of Sullivans in Kerry left the O out – while in Cork, they went back to become O’Sullivan.

Can be confusing, can’t it?

Name 9: Terry – Emigrated from County Waterford.

An old Anglo Norman who settled in a specific area – Cork city and county since the 13th century. You’ll also find this name in this form in England – so it is possible that it also belonged to an English planter.

So that’s it! Phew! Nine names leading to one person. A bit long this week, but I hope you enjoyed it – each name teased out a different aspect of Irish Heritage.

Many thanks to Barbara for sharing her name – and do remember to share yours below in the comments section if you haven’t done do already.

Slán for now, Mike.

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