A Letter from Ireland:
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The Warrior Galloglass Surnames of Ireland

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Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to your Letter from Ireland. Well now, the weather’s really changed over the week here in County Cork. We have high winds, sharp air and a threat of local flooding. And just last Sunday we were swimming in the sea!

I do hope you are keeping well wherever you are today. I’m having a nice cup of Lyon’s tea this morning – the tea my mother weaned us onto when we were toddlers! So, I hope you’ll have a cup of whatever you fancy yourself and join me for today’s letter.

The Warrior Galloglass Surnames of Ireland. 

A few weeks back, I received the following mail from Brenda Mills – one of our regular readers:

I would love to know more about the McCoy‘s and where they came from.  My grandmother would only say the McCoy‘s were from Ireland.  When I was in Ireland, I was in Blarney Woollen Mills and there was an author selling his book. He told me that the McCoy‘s were from Ulster. I have not been able to prove that one way or the other.  Any info would help.

Well, Brenda, I could tell you that the surname McCoy comes from the Irish “Mac Aodha” and leave it at that. However, there is a much bigger story behind the McCoys in Ulster – and a number of similar distinct surnames found around Ireland.  You see, the McCoys of Ulster were a “Galloglass” family. If you enjoy a little Shakespeare from time to time, you may have come across the following words in his play “Macbeth”:

The term “Gallowglass” mentioned comes from the Irish “Gallóglaigh” which literally translates as “young foreign warrior”. This is a name that the Irish gave to those Norse-Scottish mercenaries who appeared on Irish shores for the first time in the 1200s. They came from the part of Scotland that was once the Kingdom of the Dal Riada – a kingdom that spread between the north of Ireland and the west of Scotland.

As Scots, they were Gaelic and shared a common culture and language with the Irish. But since they had intermarried with the Norse settlers in Scotland, the Irish called them Gall Gaeil (“foreign Gaels”). Many of the families in this area had become effective warriors, developing superior fighting methods and technology to that of the Irish.

The Arrival of the Norse-Gaels in Ireland. 

Over in Ireland the Irish Chieftains were facing a new and deadly threat. The Normans arrived in Ireland in the late 1100s, and after a difficult start, established a series of strongholds across the country into the 1200s.

The Irish chieftains faced a number of problems in fighting off this Norman threat to their Irish lands: First, the Normans easily beat the Irish forces in direct and open combat with their superior fighting methods and technology. Second, Irish society was made up of a series of alliances that could unravel at any time. An ally could suddenly join the Normans for a particular fight to gain the upper hand over a neighbour. The Gallowglass warriors of the western isles of Scotland provided a solution to both of these problems. The first recorded of Gallowglass arrival in Ireland was in 1259, when the King of Connacht was provided with one hundred and sixty of these soldiers. They were provided with land and received supplies from the local lordships.

They carried a two-handed axe and a broadsword – and wore chainmail with an iron helmet – all of which were new to the native Irish. This equipment, as well as their fighting approach, made them more suitable for direct battle with the Normans (the native Irish typically made more use of their knowledge of local woods and bogs to ambush and skirmish). The local chiefs also felt comfortable with the loyalty of the Gallowglass as they were less affected by local feuds and promises.

So, how did some of the Gallowglass surnames become so prominent in Ireland? Well, some of these Gallowglass families were on the losing side of the Scottish wars of independence and this meant the complete loss of their lands. When they were offered alternative lands in Ireland in return for service, many decided to migrate as a full family group. The first of these clans were the MacSweeneys, who settled in Donegal. These were followed by MacDonnells/McDonalds in Antrim and the MacCabes in Cavan.

By 1512, there were about 60 Galloglass groups around the country under the Irish lords. They may have started out as Norse-Scots mercenary groups – but settled over time and intermarried with the native Irish. The term Gallowglass came to mean more a “fighting unit” that consisted of men of many different backgrounds. These Gallowglasses were an important part of the Irish fighting force right up to the Battle of Kinsale in 1601.

The Fighting Norse-Scots-Irish Surnames. 

As I mentioned previously, whole Galloglass families left Scotland to settle in Ireland. So, although some of these surnames originated in Scotland, they are now considered Irish and include the following surnames:

McCabe, McCallion/McCallan, McColl/McColley, McCrory/McRory/Rogers, Gallogly/English, McGirr/Short, McGreal , Sheehy, McSorley  and McSweeney/McSwiney.

Like to add your Galloglass surname to our list? Just signup for your free weekly Letter from Ireland by clicking here. 

When these surnames are found in Scotland today, it’s often due to later Irish catholic emigration from Ireland to Scotland after the Irish famine.

However, a larger number of Galloglass families either went to Ireland on a seasonal basis – and later returned to Scotland – or only parts of clans moved fully to Ireland. As a result, there are a number of Gallowglass surnames that could be considered both Irish and Scottish – and are still found in both Ireland and Scotland today. These include:

McAllister/McAlister, McAteer/McIntyre, McAuley/ McAulay/ McCauley, Campbell, McClean/ McLean, McCoy/McKay, McCollum/ McCallum, McDowell /McDougall (some became Doyle), McDonnell /McDonald, McFadden/McFayden and McNeill.

Remember that these Gallowglass surnames arrived in Ireland from Scotland before the reformation. However, from the 17th century on – some of these surnames also arrived in Ulster as planted settlers – now typically Presbyterian. So, Brenda – it seems like your friend in Blarney Woolen Mills was right – the McCoys in Ireland are typically from Ulster and most arrived in Ireland as warriors with fighting on their mind!

That’s it for this week. As always, do leave a comment below if you want to share a story, ask a question about your Irish surname or just to say hello!

Slán for now – Mike : )

  • Maria Mercer says:

    Hi Mike, my McAllister ancestors are on your Warrior list of names. How interesting to learn about the Gallowglass families. My McAllisters appear to be from Dublin, they are proving to be elusive prior to 1839 which is when Daniel McAllister (GG Grandfather) married Julia Crow from Kilkenny. They married in St Andrews RC Church, Westland Row Dublin. I visited this church on my wonderful trip to Ireland In 2013. I have a transcript of their marriage and of their 3 sons baptisms who were all baptised in this church. Apart from that can’t seem to find anything further back. Cheers, Maria.

  • Cathal McCarthy says:

    I know someone whose surname is GALLOGLY
    (almost equates with the Irish “Gallóglach”)
    Grammar: gallóglach (singular); gallóglaoigh (plural)

  • Agnes Brett says:

    My surname is “Malloy”

  • Hi
    My maiden name was Dinneen, and my late Mothers maiden name was lehane. My Husbands Mother was Golden prior to marriage.
    so the names I am interested in finding out about are
    DINNEEN
    Lehane
    Golden
    Donovan
    Manning
    That is if u dont mind, and if you can ever find the time, Please I would be delighted if I could find out details about these names Please.
    All the best
    kathleen

  • Beatrice Flood Dunham says:

    I am looking for My GreatGrandfather, Flood. So far I don’t know HIS Given name. He had 2 sons, Willie Oscar Flood, and Archie ? Flood . They were born in Georgia,USA. The Year that He came to the States is unknown by Me.

    Willie, had 5 children, With Lula Harriette Davis. and they grew up in Laurel, mississippi.
    He was killed somewhere around 1913 and buried in , either Quitman, Ms, or Quitman,Georgia.

  • This might explain the feuding between the Hatfields and McCoys in West Virginia and Kentucky back in the mid to late 1800s.

    • Mike says:

      For sure Jill – seems like the McCoys started it 😉

    • Dolores Cobb Phifer says:

      Can’t say too much but, one of my great,… ,grandmother’s brother was William ‘Wild Bill” Ryan was said to have rode with Jesse James and her other brother married Polly Hatfield, granddaughter of Anse Hatfield. I had heard that it started over someone stealing a pig, and fighting over a Hatfield and McCoy falling in love.

  • Debbi says:

    Our Irish surname is Fay. I was always told we were from Cork but it seems the Galloway was the county with the most Fahey’s. Are there several spelling of this surname? and does the spelling vary from county to county?

  • seosamh says:

    My name is mills from Dublin. Other ( Miller. Aumillhern. Mullen .lush.traced back many years ago.

  • Cindy Swanson says:

    My grandfather always said he was a Scot–most of his family being born there–he was American. After doing my DNA, I found out I was 48% Irish, as I had suspected, and not Scot. His last name was McCall. Could that be McColl?

    • Norma Styles says:

      Just because the DNA says 48% Irish, it does not mean that you are not of Irish/Scottish/Welsh descent, as the Irish designation includes all three. I know that my 50% Irish result is partially Welsh. Unfortunately the DNA result of ‘Irish’ cannot differentiate between the Celtic regions.

  • Bede McFadden says:

    Mcfadden ????????????

  • Nice summary. I’ve traced my McEntyre (McIntyre) to Gallen (Banagher area) of Offaly IRL. I’m guessing they may have made their way down from either Donegal or North East Ulster over the centuries. My Y DNA suggests a strong Ireland root which may also back up that they came over from Scotland a long time ago. They stuck to the Catholic roots as well. Would be happy if you have any thoughts… website attached below with a lot of my research.

  • My gggggranfatheris from Ireland William and I followed a direct line from my father to him but I don’t know where to go no he was born 1815 registered in West Port , Ireland married Charlotte , I m coming to Ireland in May and only for 10 days , looking for his father and father etc someone said to me once they think Achill please please help trip of a life time coming up

  • Cameron says:

    You should tell Brenda McCoy to start her research for Ulster family McCoy in Moneyglass, near Ballymena. There’s a whole bunch of them there. The best known is the recently retired race jockey A P McCoy.

  • jenny says:

    I am a descendant of McDonnell. ( later McDaniel of course)

  • Pam says:

    I am a descendant of the McDowells of Raloo Parish, County Antrim. However, discovered that they were originally from Scotland until the late 1500s to about 1600. Fascinating reading.

  • […] – Albanach became known as “Scott” in Ireland. Do you have a Warrior Gallowglass surname? Click here to see if your surnames on our […]

  • […] The Gaelic for “dark stranger” has also been anglicised as “McDougall” in Scotland as well as McDowell for a Galloglass family. […]

  • John Flynn says:

    Our family research indicates that my great grandmother Murray’s maiden was Gleeson. A Wickepedia search revealed that the name Gleeson derived from Scotland. Can you shed any light on this?

  • laine says:

    My family name is from Cork, Thanks to your website I found out that my ancient Irish ancestors lived in a town named the same exact as a town I grew up in here in USA. Further weird coincidence is the street I live on now is the Same name as the name of the ancient Irish Overlord where my ancestors lived. A 3rd mind boggling coincidence is the terrain is the same! Rolling grassy hills with small mountains & long stretches of beaches. I never knew any of this before I visited your website. The odds of these 3 things matching exactly are astronomical.

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