Irish Surnames That Say Where You Came From


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Irish Surnames That Say Where You Came From

Guess what? The subject of today’s letter is “Ireland”. That’s not exactly surprising, but it isn’t what you think! I received the following last week from one of our readers, Nancy Ireland:

The surname is Ireland.   It is so hard to research the name Ireland !   My husband has always wanted to know who was the first in his family to come to the United States from Ireland.  I have located his 3x great grandfather who was Peter Ireland and recently found that Peters father was a John Ireland who came from Antrim.  We would truly love to know more about the Ireland family and the roots to Antrim.

What Will I Call You? Let’s See – Where Do You Come From? 

Have you ever visited another county, state or even country – and felt a little self-conscious of your accent? When we’re among “strangers”, we’re often very conscious of where we come from.

And people notice the difference. We tend to name people based on what is different about them. You might get a name based on your look (Hi Slim), or an occupation (What’s up Doc?) or sometimes the place from which you come. That’s where surnames came from originally. Irish names like “Kennedy” (ugly head!), Hickey (healer) and Conaty (a person from Connaught) are just some examples.

There is a whole class of surnames known as “topynomic” surnames i.e. they are assigned based on where a person comes from. This is very popular in England where we have surnames like Churchill, Birmingham, Hampton, Hazleton and so on. Then, there is a similar class of surnames, based on the country that a person comes from – and that is what we will look at today.

Have a look at the following names – some very common in Ireland, and others quite rare:

  • Walsh (or Welsh/Welch)
  • English
  • French
  • Scott
  • Fleming
  • Ireland

I think you might already have noticed what they have in common! These surnames were typically given to strangers by the natives. Let’s go through each in turn:

  • Walsh: (also spelled Welsh/Welch in Munster): This essentially means a “man from Wales”. The Normans originally arrived in Ireland through Wales and brought many local soldiers and servants from the 1200s onwards. Today, Walsh is about the fourth most common surname in Ireland. It is mostly found in the south-east counties of Ireland as well as County Mayo.

Walsh of Dungarvan, County Waterford.

  • English: People arrived in Ireland already in possession of this surname. If they came from England, it was an old name for an Angle (as opposed to a Saxon). If they came from Scotland, it indicated they were an Englishman living in Scotland (or sometimes called Inglis). The name is found today in the counties of east Ulster (later planter arrivals) as well as Tipperary and Limerick (earlier arrivals).
  • French: This was the Old English nickname for someone from France (who would have guessed!). In Ireland, the name arrived with the Normans through a couple of specific families that settled in the south-east and Roscommon.
  • Scott: This is one of the more numerous names in the counties of Ulster – and I have written in detail about it here.
  • Fleming: Essentially meaning a Flemish person from Flanders – and as you might have guessed, they arrived in Ireland with the Normans from about the 1200s. The name is now spread over many parts of the country.

But, I am leaving Nancy’s surname until last. You might have guessed that the surname “Ireland” is one that you are unlikely to acquire in Ireland. And you would be right!

The surname/nickname “Ireland” was given in parts of England, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man to someone who came from Ireland. These were typically early emigrants – before the 12th century. As you might imagine, it mostly came back to Ireland as a surname of later settlers in the counties of Ulster. By the mid 1800s, the name was sprinkled throughout Ireland – but was found mostly in the Counties of Antrim, Down and Armagh. Returning Irish emigrants if you will!

So – to Nancy Ireland and your husband, I hope that this small introduction to the provenance of your surname whets your appetite to find out even more about your Irish ancestry! And maybe even visit the lovely County of Antrim – homeplace of your “Irelands”.

How about you? Do you have one of these surnames in your Irish family tree?

Slán for this week,

Mike and Carina.

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