Locating the Source of One Irish Surname

I recently had a chat with Eileen - one of our Green Room members - about her own Irish surname of "White". She was unsure where in Ireland her White ancestor lived before he departed for America. Some records said "County Mayo", while others stated "County Kilkenny".

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Locating the Source of One Irish Surname

The surname White is, indeed, found in quantity in both of those counties. You see, White is one of those surnames spread all around the island of Ireland. My main message to Eileen was to gather as much information on the US side about her White ancestor BEFORE making the leap back to research the Irish records.

Why? Because there are so many Whites in Ireland – Eileen needs to have “ancestor identifiers” in place so that when researching the Irish records, she will have a better chance of finding HER White ancestor – and not jump to false conclusions.


When found in Ireland, the surname “White” can have a number of sources – let me elaborate on each:

Source 1. You might wonder why there are so many people with the “White” surname as opposed to “Red” or “Blue”? Well, “white” was typically a nickname given to someone with fair hair (or sometimes pale complexion). In countries where dark was the normal shade of hair, fair tended to stand out. So, “White” (in the local language) became a more likely nickname in many European countries. As time went on, this nickname became a surname in many of those countries.  We had “White” in England, “Blanc” or “le Blanc” in France, “Weiss” in Germany, “Fionn” or “Faoite” or “Bán” in Ireland etc.

Source 2. Another source for the origin of the White surname in England was someone who came from the Isle of Wight or someone who lived by the bend of a river (often called a “wait”).

In the years following the Norman invasion of Ireland in the 1100s, many soldiers and settlers with the White name made their way over here from England. The surname White, or Whyte, became established in the counties of Wexford and Limerick from as early as the 1300s. Many of those Whites assumed the Irish surname “de Faoite” (where “faoite” is an Irish word for fair) over time. 

Source 3. In addition to the sources mentioned above, there were many existing gaelic surnames with “Bán” (the Irish for White) as part of their spelling. As those surnames became anglicised from the 1500s onwards, they were sometimes simply anglicised as “White”.

Source 4. Finally, following the Reformation  – many protestant settlers from Scotland and northern England arrived in the counties of Ulster, and some of these had the surname White. The difference between these Whites and the ones who arrived earlier in Ireland (before the Reformation) is that they were typically protestant while the earlier White settlers remained Roman Catholic.

When we add together all of the above sources, White becomes one of the top 50 surnames in Ireland today and is found in most parts of the island. This fact can make it challenging to tie down a White ancestor to a particular area in Ireland. As I mentioned to Eileen above, it is important to double-check all your facts in the place of immigration, so that when you finally come to examine the Irish records you can be more confident that you will recognise “your” White ancestors when you come across them.

How about you? Do you have a “White” in your Irish family tree or a similar “tricky” surname with several sources? Another example would be the surname “Martin”.

Until we chat again next week,

Slán, Mike.

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