Have you ever wondered about Irish Surname Evolution? Irish surnames’ spellings have long been the victim of change when being converted from the spoken Irish to the phonetic English. In this letter, we will use two surnames as examples of how this practice of transcribing changed the look of countless surnames.
Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to your Letter from Ireland for this week. How are things in your part of the world today? Well, the “weather” around these parts is back with a vengeance. After a month or more of dry weather, we seem to have enough rainfall to last the summer – with any luck! However, there is a bit of a “mini-heatwave” around the corner. I’m having a nice cup of Barry’s Tea as I write – and I do hope you’ll join me with a cup of whatever you fancy as we start into today’s letter.
We had a very interesting reaction to last week’s letter where I went through just some of the old Gaelic family names and their links to certain professions such as Medic, Judge, Poet and so on. I asked you to let me know if you had any of these names in your family – and boy did I get a response! As the week went on, and the responses kept coming in, two names in particular jumped out at me. We will use those two surnames today as an example of how tricky it can be to tie down the origin of your Irish surname.
Those two surnames were included in over half the responses I received, which was very unusual – and I think I know the reason why. The names were “Ward” – whom I mentioned as a Bardic family and “Shields” – mentioned as a medical family.
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As you may realise, the everyday language of most people in Ireland these days is English. However, that was not always the way. If you go back to the 1800s – the majority of people on the west of the island spoke Irish (sometimes knaown as Gaelic). Go back further still – and most of the people on this island spoke Irish. At the time when Irish surnames originated – from the 800s onwards – they were spoken using the Irish language. By the 1700s, Irish was on the wane as our first language and the language of commerce and administration across the island became English. Think if this – an English-speaking clerk recording details from an illiterate Irish person hears a surname, they are unsure of what spelling to use so they write it down phonetically using the English idiom or maybe write a name that is close to one they already knew. They hear “Dubhghaill” and write “Doyle”. Or maybe, they hear “Muirecheartaigh” and write “Moriarty”. Or, how about “Coileáin” and write “Collins”.
Let’s now go back to those two surnames that people mentioned so much in last week’s return post.
The surname Ward is found across many parts of England and Wales. In those parts, it typically comes from either a “keeper of the watch” or someone who lived by a marsh. The bottom line – there are lots of people with the surname Ward across England and Scotland.
So, imagine a clerk who is familiar with this English name – doing his best to record the name of the Irish man standing in front of him. He is listening carefully, but only hears something like “vweard”. Right, he thinks, that sounds like Ward. Let’s write that down.
The Irish surname “Mac an Bhaird” translates “son of the Bard” in English. The name was found mostly around Galway, Donegal/Derry and Monaghan. A family by this name were the hereditary Bards to the O’Kelly chieftains in Galway and another to the O’Donnell chieftains in Donegal. In Monaghan, they may have been hereditary bards to the MacMahons.
Over time, the accepted anglicisation of this name became Ward. The “Bh” sound in the Irish “Bhaird” is typically somewhere between a V and a W. Say it fast and hear what I mean!
However, lots of the original English and Scottish Ward families arrived in Ireland from the 1600s onwards – which kind of mixed things up a bit! So, my guess as to why so many people contacted me last week with a Ward in their family tree is because of the prevalence of this name across a mixture of their English, Scottish and Irish family trees!
In addition to the surname Ward, many readers were in touch commenting on the amount of “Shields” in their family tree. The story of Shields is similar to the story of the Ward surname. For someone who holds the Shields surname in England and Scotland, it typically originated as a locative surname – someone who lived in a particular part of north England. It could also be a descriptive surname that derived from someone who lived in a temporary shelter.
Over here in Ireland, Shields (also anglicised as Shiels, Sheils and a host of other spellings) comes from the Irish “O Siadhail” (literally pronounced as “Sheel”). It is a name that is found in a few different parts of Ireland. There was a well-known medical family line in Donegal/Derry who were a medical family for the O’Donnell chieftains. A branch of this group also made their way to County Offaly. To this day, plenty of Shields/Sheils are found in both of these areas. However, just like Ward – lots of English/Scottish Shields arrived in Ireland from the 1600s and made it difficult for Irish ancestry researchers to pin down the origin of a particular Shields in Ireland!
So, I do hope that the evolution of these two Irish surnames gives you a flavour of how the spelling and pronunciation might have changed as it travelled from “spoken Irish” to “phonetic English”. And this does not even include the changes that may have occurred as many of your Irish ancestors arrived in a new country – only to be met with a clerk who had to guess the spelling of these exotic-sounding surnames.
Do you have an Irish surname that changed in spelling over the years? Do leave your comments below and let me know.
Slán for now,
Mike & Carina.
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