A Letter from Ireland:

Do You Have a Rare Irish Surname in your family Tree?


Do you have a rare Irish surname in your Irish family tree? The good news is that these rare names can make it a little easier to pinpoint locations and additional family members in Ireland – as the following reader discovered.

Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to your Letter from Ireland – the very first Letter of 2019! I am writing to you on January 6th, officially the last day of Christmas (the feast of the Epiphany) and also in Ireland known as “Nollaig na mBan” (pronounced “Nullig na man”) which means “women’s little Christmas”. For our female Irish ancestors, it was a well earned day of rest from the festive cooking and chores for a get-together with friends, sisters, mothers and aunts.

The genders may be a little more balanced in terms of household work these days but it is still a big night for the women of Ireland. How about you? Do any such traditions exist in your family?

I’m having a cup of Lyon’s tea as we chat – so do have a cup of whatever you fancy, and join me for today’s Letter.

The Benefits of a Rare Irish Surname.

Do you have a rare Irish name in your family tree? In today’s letter, we are going to chat with a Green Room member who has one of those names – and have a deeper look at the specific location in Ireland where that Irish surname flourished and explore likely leads on discovering a little more.

Meet Jacqueline Footman Garden –  here is her story, some questions as well as my own comments and answers. I do hope you enjoy!

Jacqueline: Hi Mike, my name is Jacqueline Footman Garden from Wallingford, CT in the USA.

I am primarily interested in researching my paternal ancestors. My maiden name was Footman and records indicate my great grandfather John Footman was in Springfield, Massachusetts by 1884 because he married a Johanna Sullivan there in 1885.

My great grandfather’s parents were Michael and Ellen Footman. It seems likely that Ellen’s maiden name was Donovan. In any event, both were alive as of the 1901 census. Michael Footman was probably one of several children born to John and Joanna (Collins) Footman. The Footman family probably originally worked for the inhabitants of Castle Freke.

Mike: Very nice to meet you, Jacqueline. I live just a few miles up the road from Castle Freke and know it well. The castle had been derelict since the 1950s but has recently been restored to its former glory by the original family.

Footman is a very unusual name in the Irish context. Like so many other names of this type in Ireland, it is hyper-localised around the Castlefreke area and probably came into Ireland sometime after the 1600s. In this case, the surname was most likely introduced by an adventurer/soldier OR craftsman who came into the area and married a local Roman Catholic girl. Their children and descendants stayed in the area over the subsequent decades – before many of them began to emigrate starting at the time of the Irish famine.

Jacqueline: During his life, I questioned my father often about our Irish history. He was evasive and difficult to engage. I was born after my paternal grandfather died. I was also saddened to learn that his father died very young in his early thirties. I almost didn’t exist!

Mike: That is so often the way with Irish immigrants – many preferred to look forward and leave the past behind them. However, in this case I can see that you have take up the “Irish flag” on behalf of your parents and grandparents and are now intent on filling out your lost Irish family heritage!

Jacqueline: I am determined to confirm that my great, great grandparents were Michael and Ellen (Donovan) Footman and to find out what Ellen’s mother’s maiden name was. Michael and Ellen Footman remained in Ireland while their son John Footman went to the US.

My father was unambiguous about his family being from Cork and would mention Castlefreke and Clonakilty when pressed. His father probably also told him about the Footman family when he was growing up. The Footmans appear in Cork parish records, land records and the 1901 Census as Cork residents. A documentary about the John Footman who went to India places the Footmans in Cork in the 1820s. The trailer is on YouTube and called “The Boys From Vepery”.

Mike: How nice that one of your cousins in India has taken it on himself to track his Irish Footman ancestors! Here is the trailer for the Footman documentary – I’m sure many of our readers will be interested in viewing it.

Now, one of the things about having an unusual Irish name in such a tight location – is that it is proves very useful in establishing a timeline using available online records. This timeline can be interrogated further over time, but let’s make a start here for you – and provide an answer to one or two of your questions. We begin with what we know and work backwards:

Note: All of the baptism records shown below can be found here.

Some comments on the timeline above:

  • Margaret was Michael and Ellen’s eldest child and daughter. Using Irish naming patterns, the name of Ellen’s mother was MOST LIKELY also Margaret.
  • Also, because Michael and Ellen were married in Rathbarry – this means that Margaret was probably originally from Rathbarry (weddings take place usually in the bride’s home parish).
  • Finally, using Irish naming patterns, it appears that the 2nd boy was called Michael – this is traditionally the name of the maternal grandfather. With all of this, there is just one Ellen Donovan born in Rathbarry in 1824 to a Michael and a Margaret (both Donovans) – and you can find it here.
  • Now, that is a POSSIBILITY above – and needs to be verified further. Also, each of the other three possible John Footmans that I shared with you needs to be examined in a similar manner.

So, I hope you don’t mind me going into detail – but it shows how valuable it can be to layout a timeline with the facts that you already know alongside some additional possibilities.

Jacqueline: I have never been to Ireland. I want to go in 2019 to visit a colleague who teaches at Trinity College and to visit Youghal and Clonakilty.

Mike: Sounds like a great plan! Be sure to spend some time wandering around Rathbarry asking about the Footman families. You will be surprised just how strong memories of such families last in rural areas. Also, be sure to get in touch with Castle Freke and see if you can arrange a visit to this beautiful restored house!

Thank you very much to Jacqueline for sharing her story!

That’s it for this week – if you would like to share a surname or story in your Irish family tree, just leave a comment and let us know.

Slán and chat again next week, Mike and Carina.

  • Barbara says:

    My name is Barbara Westfall. My great grandmother and my great grandfather were both from County Mayo but I don’t know exactly where. His name was Michael Angel or Angell. Her name was Mary Clisham (several spellings of this). His parents were Mark and Ann, hers were John and Margaret. They married in Liverpool abt 1854 and came to America shortly afterwards. Please let me know if you have any information on their families. I would love to find more of my family from Ireland. Thank you so much this has been my brick wall and I would so like to break it down. I am not getting any younger and I think if I don’t find the info it will never be found. I am 80 and live in Bella Vista, ARkansas.
    PS Even after four generations I am still 65% Irish. Gotta love the Irish.

    • carina says:

      Thanks for sharing your family search here Barbara.
      To be honest for such a detailed search you would need the help found in our Green room. Perhaps you could join us there to continue. Have a look.

    • Eileen Kelly says:

      The 1901 Census lists both these family names, it is free to check online also Irish genealogy is free to check.

      Welcome to Irish Genealogy – Irish Genealogyhttps://www.irishgenealogy.ie › .

  • Susan Rona says:

    Hi Mike,
    I am interested in researching my paternal Norman-Irish ancestors with the surname “Rich” and alternating first-born names of “William” and “John”. I was told (by a not necessarily reliable source) that the name “RIch” had been shortened from the French “Richard”. As I have been unable to confirm that, I am wondering if perhaps the name could have been adapted from names such as: “Roche”, “Roach”, or “Ritchie”. They were Protestant Christians. The time of their arrival to the U.S. is in dispute, but by the late 1800s, they had settled in Rhode Island. However, I’ve felt that an important clue might be the alternate naming (John, William) tradition of their first born sons.

    • Carina says:

      Irish naming patterns do indeed provide some clues in researching your Irish heritage and one our genealogists use frequently among other methods in while assisting members in the Green Room.

  • Eddie Dunleavy says:


  • I cannot find anything pn my maiden name of Feehely. Never see it on the rolls

  • Becky says:

    Love reading your articles, interesting and helpful. My great great grandmother was Catherine Hahesy, likely County Waterford. Don’t know much about her family, but it is an unusual name.

  • Dianne Raftery Bailey says:

    Hello Mike. My maiden name is RAFTERY. My Grandparents were both from Galway but met in NYC. They both had the last name RAFTERY. Mary from Mt Bellew (?) and John from Ahascragh. The relatives on both sides have always insisted there is no relation!! But it is such an unusual name and they were only 20? Miles apart! I would love to know more about the name.

  • Stan says:

    I have ancestors named Canty (Cantey), reportedly from Co. Cork (dating from 17th and 18th centuries). But I have a hard time finding the name in modern sources.

  • Jim says:

    I have ancestors named Bange in mayo, I would love to know more about the name if anyone had any information it would be greatly appreciated

  • Shirley says:

    My maiden name is Appenzeller and according to my DNA I have Irish and Viking DNA but I thought it was from my father’s side. I also have Swedish DNA.

  • annmarie lindsay says:

    My Great grandmother’s maiden name was Paris and her married name was Cook , having trouble finding anything, but I do know that they came from Co. Donegal and Fermanagh

  • Robert RICHARDSON says:

    My great grandfather was Michael Mealia or Melia who joined the 99th Foot in Athlone from Roscommon in 1839. Was wondering where the name Mealia originated.

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