A Letter from Ireland:
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Irish Hounds and Irish Surnames

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What do Irish Hounds and Irish surnames have to do with each other? Did you ever wonder about the origin of your Irish surname? Maybe it had to do with a particular place, or a personality trait of a long distant ancestor? Perhaps it might even have to do with an important animal in the Irish culture.

Céad Míle Fáilte – and you are very welcome to this week’s Letter from Ireland. How are things in your part of the world today? We’re having a bit of an “Indian Autumn” (is there such a thing?) here in Cork. Still plenty of golden leaves on the trees with a sunny crispness in the air.

I’m having a nice cup of Barry’s tea as I write, and I do hope you’ll have a cup of whatever you fancy yourself as we start into today’s letter.

Have you ever had difficulty figuring out the meaning of those Irish surnames in your family tree? Where on earth did those “Os” and “Macs” come from? How could “English” be an Irish surname? Is it true that the Kilkenny surname “O’Brennan” become the French-Canadian nameAubry”? These are varieties of the many questions we receive on a weekly basis.

Just this week, I was chatting with one of our readers from the island of Barbados in the Caribbean. Her name is Patricia O’Connor-Connell and her O’Connor grandfather was born in Dublin. Later, she migrated to Barbados where she met a man with the surname Connell and the rest is history! Her husband’s family has probably been in Barbados since the 1600s.

During the conversation, Patricia said: “I often wonder if my O’Connor surname and my husband’s Connell surname are linked in some way”. That’s an assumption that many people make, Patricia – similar-sounding surnames sound like a link is likely. In most cases, however, you are listening to a surname through the filter of anglicisation and such conclusions are often incorrect.

In this case, though – there is a link between your two surnames that is worth mentioning…

Irish Hounds and The Surnames of Ireland.

The advent of Christianity in Ireland brought the many given names we are familiar with today. Names like Michael, Mary, John, Patricia, Patrick and so on. I’m sure you have multiples of names like these in your Irish family tree!

However, quite a few ancient Irish names survived alongside these more common names. They included names like “Conor”, “Brian”, “Deirdre”, “Aoife” to name just a few – maybe you have some of these names in your own family? These were all anglicised from the “Old Irish” language – and as both “Modern Irish” and “Scots Gaelic” come from “Old Irish”, you will find variations of these old names in both Ireland and Scotland.

Dan O’Connell’s Pub, Ennis, County Clare.

So, what does this have to do with “O’Connor” and “Connell”?

The themes that comes through in the legends and myths of old Ireland include the usual mix of love, revenge, war – and hunting. What warrior would be without his trusty hounds as he spent days hunting through forest, mountain and bog in pursuit of an elusive prey? As a result, the Irish for “dog”, “wolf” or “hound” springs up as a part of many old Irish given names. For example, there are the following boys names:

  • Conall – meaning “as strong as a wolf” (pronounced Conn-al”) and
  • Conchubhar – meaning “lover of hounds” (pronounced Conn-or) and was later shortened to “Conor”.

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O’Connor’s Tavern, Ballydavid, County Kerry.You might notice that both of these names feature the syllable “Con” – this is the part meaning “hound”. Both of these names prevailed for as boys down through the centuries. Surnames were introduced within Ireland during the 9th century, and groups of families chose an illustrious ancestor to use within their new surname. They named themselves as either “sons of” (Mac) or “descendants of” (O) the named illustrious ancestor. It would appear that several distinct families across Ireland (and Scotland) had an ancestor called either “Conall” or “Conor” that they wished to feature in their new surname. As a result, we have a number of distinct groups of “O’Connells” and “O’Connors” across Ireland (and the world) today!

So, Patricia – while it appears that your O’Connor and Connell family names are not connected, the root in both of them most likely comes from the old Irish word for hound. Are you a lover of hounds? Or maybe your family are as strong as wolves? Thank you so much for “testing” us with those questions – and a big hello to all of our readers across the Caribbean.

That’s it for this week – If you would like to share your ancestral story – or the surnames in your family tree – do feel free to leave your comments below and connect.

We do look forward to you joining us again next week.

Slán for now, Mike & Carina.

  • […] thanks to Joe O’Connell of Newtown Jerpoint for showing around his remarkable farm. As a special gift to you – here […]

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