A Letter from Ireland:
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Saints, Scholars and Irish Family Surnames

Did any of your Irish family surnames come from an old Irish scholarly family? The “saints and scholars” or early Ireland were an essential part of passing down our traditions and culture – and they are still venerated in Ireland today.

Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to your Letter from Ireland. I grabbed my cup of tea to head down to the “writing hut” this morning – and this was the sight that greeted me (you can see it on Facebook here) – there must be two pots of gold at the end of those rainbows! I hope you’ll join me now with your own cup of tea or coffee for today’s Letter from Ireland.

A Land of Saints, Scholars and Craftsmanship. 

A few weeks back, I mentioned Thomas Cahill’s book “How the Irish Saved Civilisation” – and I know a lot of our readers have already come across it. It tells the story of how Irish monks set about preserving Greek, Roman and early Christian knowledge through their manuscripts and teaching. It’s a wonderful little book and I heartily recommend it.

Well, a couple of weeks back, Cork University Press sent on a copy of one of their own new publications: “The Irish Hand: Scribes and their manuscripts from their earliest times“. I was both intrigued and delighted.

You see, whereas reading “How the Irish Saved Civilisation” was like gazing at a new car or coat, this new book was like going for a drive or trying it on! “The Irish Hand” was written by Ireland’s leading scribe – one Timothy O’Neill – and illustrates and discusses many of the famous ancient books of Ireland. He outlines their content, scribes and patrons – shows a page from each – and talks about the old Irish writing and illustration techniques. A true gem!

The Books, Families and Lords of Ireland. 

From a shrub covert, shadow mantled
A Cuckoo’s clear sing-song delight me.
O at the last, the Lord protect me!
How well I write beneath the wood

Translated by Seamus Heaney and Timothy O’Neill

This little verse was typical of the notes written in the margins of Ireland’s ancient books. They were written by the scribes as they set about their learned, artistic and back-breaking work of scribing and copying from lesser volumes – often using inferior tools and materials, and often to wondrous results.

Many of these ancient books are preserved today in libraries and museums. Some of these more famous scripts are featured in the  “The Irish Hand”. When we examine the full family of scripts, we notice that they are of very specific types. I have divided them up as follows – with a little background and a list of some of the family names associated with each:

1. Religious texts.

These were the first transcribed volumes – often the gospels, psalms or lives of saints. They were typically commissioned and written inside the old Irish monasteries by the incumbent abbots and monks. An example is the great “Book of Kells”.

2. The Annals, Genealogies and Sagas.

Over time, the religious texts were chronologically ordered – showing the saint’s feast-days and so on. Important local events for the local lordships were also noted. These evolved into “Annals” – capturing significant births, battles deaths and genealogies for the lords of specific areas. An example is the “Annals of the Four Masters”.

This type of book was often written and maintained by historian and genealogist families attached to specific lordships. Families like O’Daly, O’Clery, O’Dugan, O’Cassidy, O’Duigenan, Keating, O’Higgins, Ward, Dunleavey, Shields, O’Flynn and even more. Are any of your Irish family names here?

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3. Legal Texts.

Ireland was governed by “Brehon law” up to the mid 1600s. It was a form of justice that was suited to bringing justice to family groupings. The “Brehons” (or judges) were responsible for capturing the law, teaching apprentices and interpreting these laws for the local Tuatha and lordships.

Examples of these legal texts include the “Senchas Már”. The chief Brehon families were Egan (MacEgan), Forbes, Neeve, O’Phelan, MacCarroll, Conway, Keenan, Coffey, Breheny/Judge. Are any of your Irish family names here?

4. Medical Texts.

By the early 1700s, Ireland had the largest written collection of medical texts in the world. One example is “The Book of the O’Lees”.

Like the Brehons and Poets/Historians – the medical families were typically tied to and sponsored by a particular lordship. Some of the chief medical families include: O’Cassidy, O’Lee, O’Canavan, O’Tully, O’Kearney, Dunleavey, O’Hickey and many more.

Are any of your Irish surnames here?

By the 15th century, the chief lordships of Ireland displayed their power through the sponsorship of monasteries, the commissioning of the above genealogies, poems and sagas as well as the nurturing of Brehons, Bards, Historians and medical families in their territories. It was a time of “Gaelic resurgence” – well after the Norman families had arrived and mostly hibernicised – and before the arrival of the first “planters” from England and Scotland.

These patron lordships included O’Donnell, O’Neill, O’Connor, McCarthy, Butler, Fitzgerald, Maguire, McMurrough, O’Rourke, O’Flaherty and many more.

With the protestant ascendency and English domination from the mid-17th century on, many of the Gaelic traditions, laws, genealogies and medical texts ceased to be of everyday use and significance – and instead became private collector items, spread far and wide across the world. Thankfully, many of these priceless volumes have found their way back to public spaces like Trinity College in Dublin where they are available to both the public and scholars. Scholars and craftsmen like Timothy O’Neill – who has captured much of the energy, beauty and wonder of this time and these manuscripts in his wonderful volume “The Irish Hand“!

That’s it for this week – the best of Irish luck to you!

Slán for now – Mike 🙂

  • adele says:

    My maiden name is cunningham and was which county they came from

  • Laurie says:

    I have been searching and searching for anything on my shields name. When I saw shields on here I just about had a heart attack. I can’t even find my great-great grandfather Hugh Shields. All I know is that he was born in 1822 in county cork , nothing else. I thought maybe they changed the spelling? I ‘m having a hard time sending my Email. Having trouble with my wifi so I may never get on here or hear from you.

  • Lappin says:

    Maiden name Lappin

  • Steven Bryant Ellis looking for family came from County Cork related to Bolles, Downing , Cleveland

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