A Letter from Ireland:
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The Origins of Two Irish Counties.

Let’s use a recent Irish sporting occasion to examine the origins of two Irish Counties. In this letter we will see how the colours of Irish team jerseys represent not just the county they play for, but also the history of sport keeping the spirit of the people lifted during hard times.

Céad Míle Fáilte – and you are very welcome to your Letter from Ireland for this week! It’s a fine “soft day” here in County Cork this morning, there is a fine shroud of mist covering the hillside as well as keeping our complexions moist! How are things in your part of the world today?

I’m having a good glass of water from the well as I write (although I did receive a bottle of “Fireball whisky” from Jack Coffey of Cape Breton Island, and I’d be tempted if it were a little colder outside). I do hope you will join me now with a cup of whatever you fancy yourself as we start into today’s letter. The weather, being what it is today, gives us a good excuse to head to a local barstool later and enjoy watching the Green, Red and Blue going into battle in the Senior Gaelic Football finals.

The Origins of Two Irish Counties.

When people sign up for the letter for the first time, we ask: “what are the Irish surnames in your Irish family tree and which county did they come from?

Many people know the answer to this question, as their ancestors arrived in a new land with not only a strong sense of being Irish, but also a strong identification with the county of their birth. How about you – which counties did your Irish ancestors come from?

However, if we go all the way back a thousand years or more, there were no counties in Ireland. Instead, there were five provinces, small kingdoms and the later monastic towns and Norse cities. When the Normans arrived in the 1100s, they brought with them a strong urge to divide the land for administrative purposes. This process of creating counties was known as “shiring” – and there were 32 counties in Ireland by the time of the great emigrations starting in the 1700s.

  • Dublin was one of the first Irish counties – created in 1210 out of the land surrounding the busy port town of Dublin (whose name comes from the Irish “Dubh Linn” – meaning “Dark Pool”). Today, that County will go into the All-Ireland Senior Football finals against another county that is the opposite in many ways – County Mayo.
  • County Mayo was “shired” in 1565, and took it’s name from a small monastic settlement within its boundary called “Maigh Eo” or “Plain of the Yew trees”.

The two counties could not be more different. While County Dublin lies to industrious east of the island, Mayo lies to the scenic west. While Dublin has a population of over 1.3 million people, Mayo has a population of only 130,000. While Dublin is the third smallest county on the island, Mayo is the third largest. Of the 80 million people of Irish descent around the world – 13% have an ancestral connection back to County Mayo, while only 3% have a connection back to County Dublin (based on our own research).

Popular Reader Surnames of County Dublin

The most numerous County Dublin surnames among our readers include: Byrne, Doyle, Nolan, Mooney, O’Neill, White, Redmond, Walsh, Walshe, Smith, Ryan, Moore. Any of your Irish surnames here?

Welcome to County Mayo!

That last statistic throws a lot of things into perspective. You see, in 1841 – at the time of our first recorded census just before the Great Famine, the population of County Mayo was 388,000 while the population of County Dublin was only 372,000. This was a time of rampant population growth in the west of Ireland. As we all now realise, the impact of the famine of the 1840s put an end to that growth – and put Counties like Mayo into a cycle of decline that saw its population drop to 110,000 as late as 1991. The population of Mayo drained away to cities like Dublin, London and other cities in the UK – and further around the world to start many of the families to which many of our readers belong. Did any of your Irish ancestors come from County Mayo?

Popular Reader Surnames of County Mayo

The most numerous County Mayo surnames among our readers include: O’Malley, Moran, Kelly, Walsh, Walshe, Barrett, Burke, Gallagher, McHale, Murphy, Morley, Jordan, Higgins, Gibbons, Murray, Regan. Any of your Irish surnames here?

By the 1880s, Ireland was still suffering from the effects of that great Famine – but that was soon counterbalanced by an emerging fledgling confidence. In hindsight, this is known as the “Gaelic Revival”. It was a time that saw many families taking the “O” and “Mac” back into their surnames. Ancient Irish heroes, myths and genealogies were being explored once again, distinctly Irish poetry and plays were being produced in our capital city, and a new sporting institution came into being. This sporting institution was known as the Gaelic Athletic Association (or the “Gaa” as it is known in Ireland) – and has become a major cohesive force across the parishes and counties of Ireland over the intervening decades.

The sports of Gaelic football, Hurling, handball and camogie were created or reinstated. Clubs were formed on parish and county lines. County colours were dreamt up or reimagined. The colours included the Green and Red of County Mayo – and the Blues of County Dublin.

Today, the Green and Red go to battle with the Blues in Croke Park – the third largest stadium in Europe, with a capacity of 82,300 – and will be watched by millions of people around the world. County Mayo are the underdogs – they have the ability and spirit, but need the confidence. County Dublin are the favourites – they have the population, the confidence and the home advantage. Who will win? Well, it is “only a game” – but a game that reminds us just how important it is to realise who we are and where we come from.

Of course, one of the other great pillars of Irish culture is our music. So, what better than to go out with two great pieces of music – one from each county. Here are the two songs that you will hear from the audience in the County Football finals today:

First, we have “Molly Malone” – from The Dubliners:

Next, we have “The Green and Red of Mayo” – from The Sawdoctors:

I hope you enjoyed those and had a good singalong. Who will I be shouting for today? Well, I’m from Cork, boy – and we always follow one of two teams: Cork and whoever is playing Dublin. Up Mayo!

That’s it for today – as always, do feel free to share any questions or stories you might have yourself.

We’ll see you next week! Slán,

Mike and Carina

  • Pam says:

    Loved the song from County Mayo.
    I saw our ancestral name Doherty there, although most were from County Sligo with one branch having lived in County Roscommon for a while. The Feeney branch was from County Mayo. In looking at your names I saw it spelled as Fieney. Our family ancestors were two e’s.

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