A Letter from Ireland:
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Irish Surnames That Say Where You Came From

Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to your Letter from Ireland for this week. Spring has really sprung in this part of Ireland – the birds are singing wonderfully at dawn. I guess we’ll be getting used to it soon – and calling it “a terrible racket”!  I hope the weather isn’t treating you too badly wherever you are in the world today.

I’m sitting down to a nice cup of Lyons tea as we chat, and I hope you’ll have a drop of whatever you fancy as you join me for today’s Letter. 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.
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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 : )

  • LORI says:

    HI. IM LOOKING FOR MY GRANDPA. MICHAEL JOHN O LEARY MARRIED MOLLY OLEARY ON APRIL 13 1907. .
    MICHEAL JOHN O LEARY. PARENTS I CAN NOT FIND HIS FAMILY WHO HE CAME FROM IN SCILLY CORK IRELAND. HE WAS BORN ON MAY 4TH 1883. IN SCILLY CORK IRELAND. MAYBE KERRY OR SCILLY COTTAGE. . SO MANY MICHAEL JOHN BORN IN 1883. ..MICHAEL IS A SALIOR NAVY. I DONT KNOW WHAT SHIP TO SHIP HE WORKED ON … I KNOW HE CAME FROM IRELAND TO AMERICA IN FEB 1902 ..DID HE GO TO THE NAVY AFTER HE MARRIED OR BEFORE HE MARRIED. BECAUSE MOLLY NAME IS ON HIS CENSUSERSHIP .. FROM GULFPORT. MISSISSIPPI . ALL I KNOW IS HIS MOTHER BORN IN NORTHERN IRELSND BUT WHERE. HIS FATHER BORN IN IRELAND IRELAND. BUT WHERE.. WHY DID THE LIVE IN SCILLY.. WHERE DID THEY KIVE BEFORE SCILLY … WHY SCILLY. TO BEGANE WITH.
    PLEASE HELP ME SOLVED THE MISSING FAMILY OF MY 2ND GRANDPA. IM HIS 2ND GRANDAUGHTER. HIS DAUGHTER IS MY MOM MOTHER.

  • Carolyn H born Oliver says:

    Good information an well presented. Have a lovely week. Carolyn Hendry (born Oliver)

    • LORI says:

      HI I JUST LEARN ON A NOTHER EMAIL THAT IN MOST CASES. THAT. AFTER 1881 THR BIRTH NAME WOULD ONLY BE ONE NAME NO MIDDLE NAME. IF THAT THE CAST WITH MY GRANDFATHER HE COULD BE IN THE KRNSALE IRELAND PARISH RECORDS THAT WOULD TAKE THE NAMES OF SCIILLY … SO IF THAT IS TRUE. THEN MY GRANDFATHER WOULD BE UNDER ONE NAME. BESIDE THE HEAD OF THE HOUSE NAME… WHICH MEANS BACK TO SQUARE ONE ..NOW WHAT NAME IS HE……USING AT THAT TIME BEFORE BEING DRAFTED…WOULD IT BE SPELLED IN IRISHES LANUAGE…THEN WHEN HE WAS DRAFTED APPROVED TO USA.. THEN IT BECAME THREE NAMES….WHY HE KIDS WERE BORN WITH TWO NAMED IN MISSISSIPPI GULFPORT HARRISON…….I DONT KNOW WHICH PROPERTY LAND HE WAS BORN ON IN SCILLY OR SOMEWHERE ELSE. THE DATE IS IMPORTANT .. MAY 4TH 1883..
      LIKE I HAD MENTION SO MANY MICHAEL BORN IN 1883. NOT THE SAME ONE

  • LORI says:

    CAN YOU FIND OUT IF MICHAEL J. O LEARY MOTHER SURNAME IS …BOHAN/BOWEN…. WHO GAVE BIRTH TO MICHAEL ON MAY 4TH 1883. SCILLY CORK IRELAND IF HE WAS BORN AT HOME OR IN A. LOCAL CLINIC OR ETC…. SOMEONE SAID THAT HER SURNAME IS BOHAN. OR MARY CROWLEY. BOHAN WAS CONFIRM. NO FIRST NAME ….

  • Beverly says:

    My 3rd G.Grandfather George Cathcart(Kithcart) came to Pa. around 1820. I only know that his place of birth on the census was Ireland. Would love to know where this name may have come from. I also have the names Scott (from Dublin), and Riley in my family.

  • Annwyn says:

    Could someone please look for me to see if they can find Dennis Kennedy, who is my great grandfather. He was born between 1945 and 1947 somewhere in Tipperary. His father was william and his Mother Mary. His parents were born between 1915 and 1923. They came to live in Wales round about the 1950’s. I am told that people with their names married in Borrisokane in 1947 but because the combination of William and Mary is a common one I am not sure if that is correct. If it is, then Mary was Mary Dooley before she married, but again I cannot be certain of this. If someone could help I would be very grateful. Thanks. Nothing shows up on Ancestry.co.uk and the cost of joining every site is prohibitive.

    • Annwyn says:

      Sorry please change every 19 to 18!! We are talking about the 1800’s here not the 1900’s . Sorry.

    • Sandy Kennedy LaFerriere says:

      The hello Annwyn, nice to meet you! My great great grandfather was THOMAS KENNEDY, married to ELIZABETHS REID. His DOB was about 1818, possibly in Belfast, but I do know they lived in Londonderry, Muff, or Lower Cumber. I haven’t been able to find much earlier then that. As of yet, I do not see a Dennis. My great grandfather was ALEXANDER KENNEDY, DOB about 1852. He came to Canada as a baby in 1853 with 6 siblings and of course his parents THOMAS and ELIZABETH.
      I know there were many Kennedys in Tipperary, but so far I haven’t made any connections. Good luck with your search.

  • Candace Johnson says:

    Hi everyone

    My name is Candace Johnson and my grandfather is Arthur Gault Curley and he married Florence Cunningham. They came from Ireland to the east cost of America and married at Niagara falls.
    I know things were the worst for us Irish and I know people had to go to extremes in which no other had to survive. They moved to New York and I suppose my grandfather ran around with some Irish gangsters and ended up in Sing Sing prison for ten years. He never knew that I knew and am glad.
    He had this quirky thing about pacing with his hands in his pockets and jingling his change. This was a rabbit he picked up over the years. He was a very hard worker building Catholic churches in America!! I heard he hailed from County Cork. Does anyone know anything about these names? I am forever grateful!!

  • Cindy Halpin Beaudean says:

    I am adding a few more names to those that I am looking for…
    Bryans, Gardnier who American census records say came from Cty Antrim…
    Duffy although my 2nd great grandmother changed the
    spelling to Duffee I have nothing more on them except that they came from New York…
    My other names are Halpin or Halpeny-Halpenny
    Roe, Harney, Corbet…
    One of these days I hope to make it over to Ireland and at least wonder through the counties that they came from that would be a dream vacation for me…

    • Karen says:

      Hello..
      I have the Corbett surname also. My ggg grandparents are Timothy Corbett and Catherine Sheehan who were found in Boherbue Cork Ireland about 1840-1850 .
      They went to Middlesex England about 1852…and had a daughter born there. Then they emigrated to Philadelphia Pennsylvania about 1854. I have seen a genealogy post on Rootsweb that reports that there were 6 Corbett brothers who went to the Philadelphia area .
      I have seen records for a Patrick Corbett and a Denis Corbett in both Boherbue Ireland and Philadelphia Pennsylvania .
      If I am remembering correctly . .the Corbett and Sheehan families were noted to have been in county Cork almost exclusively . Hope this helps you .
      Happy Hunting !
      Karen Marshall

  • Marcey Hines says:

    I just searched my mother’s maiden name of McKibbin and it came back with nothing. Any ideas?

  • Liz O'Neill DeSantis says:

    My family names are Connolly from Clones and O’Neill from Fermanagh. The Connolly’s owned the General Store in Clones.. My greatgrandfather (paternal) was Cornelius O’Neill. My grandfather was Charles Cornelius and his brother was Hugh (the both came to the US in around 1916.

    • Jeanne Pye Sandford says:

      My family names are Broderick and Boyle from the Loughrea area of Galway. Also found in Derrybrien Mountains and Killeenadeema. Associated names are Sheehan and Jordan.. My gr gr grandfather Patrick Broderick married Catherine Boyle in 1836. Several of their children came to the states as did Catherine Boyle Broderick. Patrick was a tenant on lands owned by the Marquis of Clanricarde. Michael, Lawrence, Matthew, Mary and Catherine were all in Boston by the 1870’s. Also possibly a brother John..
      In later life my mother, Ruth Eileen Broderick Pye would say ” : guess I got my Irish up” Would love to know more about the Brodericks..

      • Jim Clavin says:

        Our last trip to Ireland was 2012 – Notre Dame played Navy in Dublin – we had a wonderful time. Ob the last day of our stay we rented a car and motored thru Meath and into Westmeath in search of our Clavin name. I spotted a Pub, in the middle of farm lands so we had lunch. When I asked the waitress about the Clavin name she said, ” You’ll have to check with the “lads in the bar”
        I talked to Tom Egan, 84 yrs. young, obviously a legend of their own, My daughter was talking to him and He asked, “Are you married? cause I’m still looking. The lads did give us directions to Pat Clavin’s house, less than a mile away. It turns out he was a distant relative but it was exciting to find him.

  • I found helpful suggestions for Irish research and it helped me figure out who my great grandfather was. The McCrory family I descend from actually used part of this formula until the late 1940s or early 1950s.

    First or given names

    The Irish have a traditional system for naming children [citation needed] : the first son is named after the father’s father, the second son after the mother’s father, the third son after the father, the first daughter after the mother’s mother, the second daughter after the father’s mother, the third daughter after the mother. Any further children are named by the parents’ choice. This has led to some spectacular names being made more common, for example there are plenty of Assumptas and Perpetuas, and many girls were named after Saints Theresa and Bernadette in the 1950s shortly after they were canonised. Many families still adhere to this way of naming children, although it is becoming less common nowadays with the influx of more secular names from the world of TV and popular music [citation needed]. Traditional names, like Gráinne, Áine and Cathal, or Irish versions of Norman names, such as Seán (from Norman French Jean), Siobhán and Sinéad, are also very common. It’s possible for several cousins to have exactly the same name, eg. Daniel Murphy, if all their fathers were brothers, and they are named after the same grandfather. To avoid confusion a pet name may be used, or a middle name eg Daniel Patrick may be called Dan Pat, and Daniel John may be called Danny John. Though it has been seen in older high class families [citation needed] were family records are present that the child’s name can be that of an ancestors or famous person, such thing is most prominent in the isolated families, such as the Mac Diamadas of Limerick and the Mac Gillachs of Donegal whose families have dated back to the 10th century.

    • I did not write the above. I found it on a website that is no longer on the net.

      I had an uncle named Andrew Jackson McCrory and did a search for the same name 2 generations prior. I found Andrew Jackson McCrory born 1800 SC in a census with my grandfather listed as his son. It was a very joyful moment. I had been looking for my gg grandfather for over 10 years.

      Give it a try. You may hit pay dirt.

  • Neil Sherry says:

    Does anyone have my ancestor Simon Sherry in their tree? He was born around 1771 and worked as a dyer. He travelled to England around 1790 and married a Mary Kelly in Manchester in 1794. I would love to discover other Sherry descendants of his family (and mine)!

  • Adella Bottando says:

    My great grandfather is John O’Connor from county Sligo came to U S IN 1846. Trying to find which parish he is from do not know where or how to start looking.

  • I’m having a hard time trying to find my great grandfather. Thomas McHale. He was born in 1826 in Westport County Mayo. I have heard that he could be related to Archbishop John McHale. He married after coming to the States. How do I find anything about him in Ireland.?

  • Amanda jayne says:

    Hi I’m a Ryan before I was adopted.. My name was Samantha Jane Ryan my real mum was lorraine Ryan I believe I could have been from Tipperary or limerick does anyone know her? She was 18 when she had me and had 2 sisters

  • Wilma Jean McGee,Beeman says:

    I am looking for the birth place in Ireland of my ggg grandfather. John McGee, born in 1802, Married Helen Haggerty born in Ireland in 1807. They married in 1826. He was a farmer and a roman catholic.

  • Elizabeth McKenna Jutras says:

    I would be interested in the surname McComiskey. Does it have any meaning? They came from Cty Down, mostly around Tyrella.

  • Joan Clark Fitzgerald says:

    Hi I am looking for any info on my grandfather Bernard A Clark born 1894 I believe in Cavan. All I know is that he came from a large family with a lot of brothers. He got into some trouble and was sent to live with his sister Susan who lived in Philadelphia with her husband John Burns around 1910. He later met my grandmother Catherine Carney 1888 also from Ireland who had one sister Delia Carney 1894. I think they were from Mayo. I know nothing else about them. Any info would be great.

  • Carol McLaughlin says:

    My last name supposedly mean son of the man from the land of the lakes. I’ve read that It refers to the Viking invaders.

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