A Letter from Ireland:
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Beautiful Maureen O’Hara and 3 Irish Surnames

There have been some great Irish Hollywood stars down through the years – but Maureen O’Hara with her red hair, natural beauty and strong personality stands out for most us as one of the greats. In this letter we get Maureen to help us explain all about a number of Irish surnames in her heritage.

Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to your Letter from Ireland for this week.  If this is your first time here you’re very welcome, I hope you enjoy reading this Letter from Ireland (if you would like to start receiving a FREE Letter from Ireland  straight to your inbox every week click here).

How are things in your part of the world today? We’re still enjoying a heat-wave here in Ireland – so it is great to see so many healthy and smiling people around the place! Before I go on, wishing all of our readers in the USA a very Happy July 4th coming up – I hope you have a great day with friends and family!

I’m sipping on a refreshing cup of Barry’s tea as I write – and I do hope you’ll join me now with a cup of whatever you fancy as we start into today’s letter.

I was working on an Irish surname last week – and was reminded by a reader just how important it is to understand Irish history and the origin of Irish surnames just a little bit so that you can start making more educated guesses as to where your Irish ancestors came from in Ireland (if you know already then lucky you!). Here is what our reader said:

“The family name I am having trouble finding anything on is the Fitzsimmons Family. My Great Great Grandpas name was James Fitzsimmons. I have American censuses showing him in New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois and they say he is from Ireland. We believe he was born around 1818 from the probate records we have found but the death certificate was lost in a fire. No idea where in Ireland James came from, when he came to the states, if the spelling we have for Fitzsimmons is what it was in Ireland.

Thank you!” Tracy Hall

Thank you for that Tracy. Now, as I mentioned earlier it’s a good idea to know a little about Irish surname history to make an educated guess when you are looking for the origin of an ancestor in Ireland. However, history can be a little “dry” when it’s only a list of events, dates and records – much better to spice things up a little with a story. What do you think?

In this case, we’re going to look at the surname Fitzsimmons – and a Irish-born Hollywood star of that name. I originally wrote this letter shortly after the death of this star.

A Hollywood Star and The Origin of Your Irish Surname.

This last week also saw the death of one of Ireland’s own home-grown movie stars – Maureen O’Hara. She died at a grand old age of 95, and is remembered for her flame-red hair, green eyes and appearance in dozens of Hollywood movies.

Do you have a favourite Maureen O’Hara movie? Do feel free to leave a reply below and let me know.

So, let’s use Maureen as the basis of this week’s Letter from Ireland – we are going to look at the “Birth of Maureen O’Hara in Three Acts“. In each act we’ll examine just what a melting pot Ireland has been down through the centuries.

You see, Maureen wasn’t always Maureen O’Hara….

Act 1: The Rise of an English Protestant Landlord.

Charles Stewart Parnell was born in 1846 into a wealthy Protestant landlord family in County Wicklow. It was the height of the Great Irish Famine/An Gorta Mòr – and many of the landlords of the time were absentee, indifferent or just plain taking advantage of the plight of the poor (mainly Catholic) tenants on their land.

As Charles grew into a man, he developed a taste for politics and political agitation. He felt that the tenancy system in Ireland was unjust AND that Ireland needed to govern herself. He was basically against absentee landlords and absentee governments.

To this end, in 1879 Parnell became the president of the Irish National Land League, and a member of parliament by 1880. He was a gifted organiser, fund-raiser and orator – and developed a high level of respect and influence among other politicians, as well as the people of Ireland.

He died in 1891, at the young age of 45 – and is buried in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin – with a simple rock marking his tomb, inscribed with one word “Parnell”.

This was a man who was born into a life of privilege in a country that was on the cusp of massive social change. However, this child of the Protestant English landlord class saw the end of absentee landlords during his lifetime, and Ireland was well on the way to Home rule by the time of his death.

At the height of his power, the name “Parnell” became known affectionately across the townlands, villages and towns of Ireland. Parents were even naming their children after this great man.

One of these children was born as Charles Stewart Parnell Fitzsimons in 1885.

Act 2: The Norman Fitzsimons Arrive in Dublin and Meath.

The Normans arrived in Ireland from about 1170 AD onwards. They came mostly from Wales – arriving at the invitation of the deposed King of Leinster, Dermot McMurrough. He saw them as a means to regain his throne and power. However, it turned out that there was a very high price to pay.

Over the following 150 years, the Normans became lords of over half of the island of Ireland. They brought new laws, new fighting and farming methods. They built castles and installed a feudal system within their lordships.

However, by about 1350 AD – many of these Norman families had become “Hibernicised”. They adopted Irish laws, customs, dress and surnames.

One of these Norman family names was “FitzSimons” – taken from a mix of “Fils” (the French for “son of”) and Simon (from the Norse first name, Sigmundr). The Fitzsimon/Fitzsimmon families settled in different parts of Ireland – County Mayo, Dublin, and Meath. In some of these places, they assumed the Irish for their surname “Mac Shiomoin”.

By the 1880s, there were hundreds of Fitzsimon families across County Meath. One of them was a family of Blacksmiths in the village of Kells. The parents in this family were Bartle (short for Bartholomew) and Bridget Fitzsimons. They named their third son Charles Stewart Parnell Fitzsimons.

Charles left for Dublin at an early age, as the life of a country blacksmith was not for him. He entered the clothing trade, where he met and married Marguerite Lilburn – the daughter of a Protestant Police Constable. We can only guess what this Policeman must have thought of his daughter marrying this county Catholic with this Fenian-sympathising first name. Or, indeed, what Charles’ parents must have thought of the match in turn!

However, Charles and Marguerite settled down in Ranelagh – a suburb of Dublin – and went on to have six children of their own. They called their second-eldest child Maureen.

Maureen Fitzsimons went on to train as an actress in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, but was called to London for a film screen test at the age of 17. That screen test was seen by the actor Charles Laughton.

Act 3: The Mighty O’Haras of County Sligo.

For many hundreds of years, Ireland was a land of small kingdoms, or “Tuath” in Irish. Each of these kingdoms was typically occupied by a particular tribe, and each tribe had a ruling family that prevailed.

Just to the south west of Sligo town, lies one of these “Tuath” – and today it goes by the name of Leyney. Leyney came from Irish “Luighne” – which means followers of the god Lugh – and it was this tribe that gave the area it’s name.

In the year 926 AD, Eaghra – the lord of Luighne died, and his descendants adopted his name as their surname – and became known as the O’hEaghra. Over time this name became anglicised as “O’Hara”.

Just over a thousand years later, in 1936, the name featured in one of the biggest movies of all time. That movie was “Gone with the Wind” and, of course, the heroine went be the name of “Scarlett O’Hara“.

When Maureen Fitzsimon’s screen-test was noticed by Charles Laughton in 1937, he also noticed that her name was quite difficult to pronounce. She won a part to play alongside Laughton in the Hitchcock film, “Jamaica Inn” – and featured in that movie with the brand new name of “Maureen O’Hara” – borrowed from the southern heroine of “Gone with the Wind”.

Maureen O’Hara, The Movie Star – is Born!

A talented, red-haired, green-eyed Irish Cailin that looked so Irish – but was also a child of the complex history and melting pot that is Ireland down through the centuries.

So, that’s it for this week. Do feel free to leave a reply below to share any comments, stories, questions, Irish surnames – share your favourite Maureen O’Hara moment – or just to say hello!

As for Tracey – I do hope you can see how the “wider-picture” of how an Irish surname evolved can help you discover the likely starting location of your ancestor in Ireland. At the very least, you’ll have fun with these stories along the way!

Slán for this week,

Mike and Carina : )

  • Bridget Lowery says:

    Not sure if I’m doing this correctly, just want to say that some of my ancestors are Fitzsimmons and as far as I can locate them they came from Louth and Meath. They came to the North of England in 1847 (so I assume, but don’t know for sure, that it was to do with the Great Hunger). This article was very interesting reading. Thank you.

    • carina says:

      Thanks for getting in touch Bridget.
      Glad you found the article of interest to you re your Fitzsimmons surname.

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