Celtic Druids and Irish Surnames – Do You See Your Family Name Here?

Explore the Celtic Druid surnames of Ireland and their professions in this week's letter - as well as the Surnames associated with each. Who knows, your family might have a surname with a link to these ancient times!

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Celtic Druids and Irish Surnames – Do You See Your Family Name Here?

 We’ve just returned from County Antrim in Ulster – travelling between the Causeway Coast, the Glens of Antrim and taking many trips into the heartland of this fascinating and beautiful county. Did any of your Irish ancestors come from County Antrim? 

As we travelled around Antrim, we saw many signs to places that featured as film locations for the recent “Game of Thrones” TV series – a story of Kings and Queens, Celtic Druids and dragons! I can see why the series producers chose this part of the world to bring their stories and myths to life. Ulster is a part of Ireland bursting with antiquities such as Dunluce Castle, the Giant’s Causeway as well as many stone circles and ring forts. 

I must say that when I think of stone circles, I find it hard to keep the picture of a Druid out of my mind. How about you? Today we’re going to chat about some of the “Druidic” families of Ireland – you may find a surname or two from your own family tree.

From Celtic Druids to Scholars and Musicians

Do you have any poets or musicians in your family? How about lawyers and doctors?  Many of us might view Ireland as a land of “Saints, Scholars and Musicians” – a place where the “turn of phrase” or a “nice run on a fiddle” is valued alongside the more “pragmatic” aspects of life.

But where did these cultural values come from? Were these abilities always held in such high esteem?

To help answer that question, we’ll go back and look at the people who were entrusted with safeguarding Irish law, customs, poetry, music and medical knowledge in pre-historic times. We’ll look at the “Brehon”, the “Filidh” (pronounced “fill-ee”) the “Bards” and the Physicians.

In pre-Christian times they were sometimes known collectively as the Druids.


The Celtic language that we know as Irish gaelic today – along with accompanying beliefs and customs – gradually arrived in Ireland from 500 BC. The oral tradition was very strong among the Celts, who generally seem to frown on the written word.

Julius Caesar wrote of the Celtic people:

“The Druids believe that their religion forbids them to commit their teachings to writing, although for most other purposes the Gauls (Celts) use the Greek alphabet. But I imagine this rule was originally established for other reasons – because they did not want their doctrine to become public property, and in order to prevent their pupils from relying on the written word and neglecting to train their memories.”

This reliance on the oral tradition frustrated later scholars who missed the opportunity to study the written word of the Druids. But this oral tradition was how major events, genealogies, agreements and the law was transmitted for hundreds of years by the intellectual class known as the Druids – who probably transitioned as a group into becoming monks and priests, brehon, physicians, poets and bards after the coming of Irish Christianity in the sixth century.

How do you know if any of your Irish ancestors are part of this class? Sometimes you will find a clue in a surname. Did you know, for example, that the surname “Hickey” comes from the Irish word for “Healer”? Or that the surname “Ward” comes from the Irish for “son of the Bard”?

Here are more Irish surnames associated with the different professions that came out of the Druidic class:

  • The Brehon (Judge) Surnames: Here are the surnames of some families that served as Brehons/ judges in certain Irish kingdoms up to the end of the 16th century: Egan, Forbes, Keenan, Coffey, Donnellan, Davoren, Breslin, Hussey, Agnew, Foy, Courneen, Corcoran, Cloonan, Gilsenen, Caffrey, Clancy and Folan.

  • Filidh/Bardic Surnames: Here are the surnames of some families that served as Filidh/Bards (poets, composers and musicians) in certain Irish kingdoms up to the end of the 16th century: Bardon, Canty, Cleary, McCraith, Daly, Higgins, Ward, Conway, McCarroll, Gneeve and Phelan.

  • Physician Surnames: Here are the surnames of some families that served as medical physicians in certain Irish kingdoms up to the end of the 16th century: McKinley, McVeigh, Canavan, Kearney, Fergus, Tully, Lee, Cashin, Bolger, O’Connor, Cullen, Callanan, Hickey, Lane, Nealon, Troy, Dunleavy/McNulty, Cassidy and Shiels/Shields.

Are any of your Irish surnames included above? Who knows – a family trait may even have passed down from ancient Ireland to a certain doctor, musician, lawyer or poet in your family!

That’s it for this week. As always, do feel free to share the Irish surnames and stories in your own Irish family tree.

Slán for now,


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