A Letter from Ireland:
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The Ford Motor Car and Confusing Irish Surnames

Do you have a confusing Irish surname in your family tree? It helps to understand the changes the surnames were forced through down the centuries as they were translated/transcribed from Irish into English. Here we explore some examples using a surname you may have heard of before now.

Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to your Letter from Ireland for this week. How are things in your part of the world today? We’re away down in the County Kerry at the moment – in the town of Listowel to be precise. It’s a bit misty but with any luck we’ll see the mist “burn off” before lunch comes around!

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

Henry Ford

Now, if you were ever to take the south-westerly road out of Cork City, you would pass through the village of Ballinascarthy after an hour or so. On your left you might notice the surprising life-size sculpture of the original Ford Model T motor car. You see, William Ford left this area at the age of 21 during the time of the Irish Famine with his Mother and Father. You may have heard of William’s son? Yes, none other than Henry Ford himself. We’re going to have a look at the Ford surname today to illustrate a puzzle that many Irish ancestry researchers notice as they try to make “head nor tail” of Irish surnames – their origins and meaning. Are you ready? Right – vrooom, vroom – off we go!

I was listening to a conversation in The Green Room the other week, and noticed Karen Fulster chatting with another member about their Irish ancestors – both with the surname “Ford” – and they were wondering if there was an overlap in their family tree. I jumped in to say that was unlikely as one group were the Ford(e)s of Cork and the others the Fords of Galway.

How to Turn an Irish Surname into an English Surname.

Somewhere between the mid 1500s and early 1600s, most of Ireland’s Gaelic surnames were translated into an English equivalent – usually by an English-speaking clerk who wrote the Irish he heard into a phonetic English. The Irish holder of the name went on to use his Irish surname everyday, but occasionally had the need to use his equivalent surname.

One example of this was the “O’Fuarain” surname which was found in the east of County Cork and into west County Waterford. If an English clerk heard this surname – he would probably make it out as “Oh-Foor-an”. As a result, this name became phonetically anglicised as “O’Foran” – and eventually “Foran” – across many parts of east Cork and County Waterford. However, another English clerk heard the same Irish Gaelic “O’Fuarain” and decided that “Ford” was the nearest word that made sense to him. And so we have a smattering of Ford(e)s throughout Cork – with both Ford and Foran coming from the same Irish Gaelic surname “O’Fuarain”. Are you still with me?

However, over the following decades and centuries – many of these name-holders objected to this “phonetic translation” – some feeling that their name would hold more respect if properly translated from the Irish to the English. But this brought some unusual translations to the fore – probably due to the word-play that many of us Irish enjoy.

This is how the surname Ford came to be in Counties Galway and Leitrim. Let me explain a little more.

The Irish Gaelic for a ford (meaning a shallow river crossing) is “ath” – pronounced “Aww”. You find this Irish word in many placenames in Ireland where the town is built near a ford. Places like “Athlone”, “Ballina(th)” and so on.

Now, one Irish family in south Galway were called “Mac Giollarnath” – pronounced “Mock Gyullar-naww” (notice the “aww” sound at the end?) Their name was “translated” into the English “Ford” even though the original Irish had nothing to do with the English word “Ford” – it just featured “what sounded” like the Irish for ford! Someone was causing mischief there if you ask me. And so the “Fords of County Galway” were born.

Meanwhile, up in County Leitrim there was another, unrelated, family called the “Mac Conshnamhna” – pronounced “Mock Cun-hawv-na” (notice the “aww” sound there too?). Guess how they translated their name? That’s right – the focused in on the “aww” sound – and the “Fords” of Leitrim were born.

An Irish Ford Shopfront

So, when you look at a surname map of Ireland today – and see the Ford surname sprinkled all about (have a look here) – it starts to make sense why many of these Fords are completely unconnected, they just happened to assume an English-sounding name through quasi-translation of phonetic guesswork.

There are many other surnames like this in Ireland – “Coffey” and “Cunningham” are two others that spring to mind – all standing for a pool of Irish Gaelic surnames underneath that are completely unconnected.

And what about Henry Ford’s family? What kind of Ford were they? Well, none of the above actually. Henry’s family came to Cork from Somerset in England in the very early 1700s – where his family were given their surname as they probably lived by the ford in a river! A Ford that came from a ford.

That’s it for this week, as always do feel free to comment below to share your stories, comments and Irish surnames in your family.

Slán for this week,
Mike and Carina.

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