A Letter from Ireland:
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Irish Nicknames and your Irish Surname

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Irish nicknames often make their way into surnames. Many people have a “nickname” that may be based on a personality trait, their appearance, or just a term of family endearment. In this letter we will see how nicknames in Ireland included one’s surname, and evolved into whole new surnames over time.

Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to this weeks Letter from Ireland. Dare I say it, there is a taste of Spring in the air here in County Cork! While there is no sign of any growth in the plants and trees just yet, there is a definite “sweetness” in the air. I do hope the weather is treating you well wherever you are today.

I’m back on the Lyon’s Tea – straight up – and I hope you’ll have a cup of whatever you fancy yourself as you join me for today’s Letter. In fact, you may wish to take a little picture “detour” as you have your cuppa. Here are some photos from last year on the Beara Peninsula – a place that we discuss in today’s letter.

Did You Ever Have a Nickname?

Have you ever had a nickname? In your family – or with your friends – or maybe in school? I remember many of my teachers by their nicknames. There was “Small Tobacco”, “Seán Fada” (long John), “Birdie” and so on.

That’s what we’ll chat about this week – the relationship between the Irish surnames in your family tree and the use of nicknames among the more numerous families.

Following last week’s letter on the Moriartys – I received the following from one William Romanski:

“In researching my ancestry in Killorglin, it has been interesting to find that there were so many Moriartys that different branches went by different nicknames. In Killorglin the common Moriarty branches were called ‘Caulea’ and ‘Buony’.

The practice of these family nicknames seems to be falling out of use. In fact, it seems that it never even traveled with the Irish to the US.”

Well, we did cover the Moriartys last week – so let’s move on to another popular Irish surname to investigate this use of “nicknames”. We will use the O’Sullivan surname to illustrate the relationship between nicknames and surnames in Ireland. Do you know any Sullivans? Maybe you have this name in your own family tree.

In the Beginning – Irish Nicknames.

From about the sixth century, the leading tribe of Munster in southern Ireland were called the “Eoghanacht” and were based around Cashel in what is now County Tipperary. They took their name from one illustrious ancestor – “Eoghan” (pronounced Owen). The name Eoghan is a nickname – meaning “born of the Yew tree”.

Over time, the Eoghanacht tribe split into a number of families and Septs – two of the most powerful were the McCarthys and the O’Sullivans. The O’Sullivans took their surname from one of their illustrious ancestor who had the nickname “one-eye” or “hawk-eye”. So, you could say that the surname O’Sullivan means “descendants of Hawkeye”.

But time moved on – and the powerful Normans arrived on the scene in County Tipperary. They pushed the McCarthys and the O’Sullivans to the south-west of the island. There, the O’Sullivans further split up into a number of groups. There were the O’Sullivan Mór who settled around Kenmare and into the Ring of Kerry, and the O’Sullivan Bere who settled on the Beara Peninsula.

Now, let’s pause for a moment. What has this got to do with nicknames? Well, think about it. Imagine if a large group of people who all carry the same surname moved into your neighbourhood? As well as that, they all seem to have the same first names. There’s Mary O’Sullivan and then there’s John O’Sullivan …. and then there’s the other Mary O’Sullivan! Things can get complicated quickly. But the use of descriptive and locative nicknames come to the rescue:

“Did you hear about John Sullivan and his new horse?”

“Which John Sullivan is that? John down by the lake or John the shopkeeper?”

“Neither – John ‘back the road!'”

After a while, different families of Sullivans became known by their nicknames. The Sullivan was mostly dropped in everyday conversation – and sometimes even dropped on official certificates. There were the Sullivan Cohus (providers), The Sullivan Glas (green), the Sullivan Labhras (hands), the Sullivan Doyles (they took on a maternal surname), the Sullivan Breac (speckled) and many more nicknamed branches.

Over decades and centuries, many of these nicknames came into such common use that they became official surnames in their own right. As a result, if you come across the following surnames in West Cork and Kerry, they were most likely once O’Sullivan – but their nicknames evolved into these surnames over time:

Broughill, Bogue, Cohu, Downey, Downing, Dorohy, Doyle, Drummond, Green, Lowney, Lawson, McGrath and Taylor.

And, in theory – all of the O’Sullivans, including the nickname derivatives shown above – are descendants of just the one individual – old “Hawk-eye” himself!

How about you? Do you know the “nickname history” of the Irish surnames in your family tree?

Slán for now,

Mike and Carina : )

  • Vivian says:

    Enjoyed it very much. Question for you. What is the ring of Kerry?i have a son named Kerry.

    • Mike Collins says:

      Kerry is a county in the west of Ireland and there is a wonderful circular drive around the area which is popular with locals and tourists alike. Spectacular scenery especially on a fine day.

  • James Hudson says:

    Wonderful information and history.

  • […] On the nicknames – that became quite standard practice when a particular surname dominated a geographical area. I have written about the O’Sullivan nickname/surnames in a previous letter here. […]

  • […] caught my attention so I’d like to slow things down for a moment and talk about locations, “nicknames” and “pronunciations” – all of which play a big part when trying to locate your Irish […]

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