Today, we’re going to browse the evolution of the surname in Ireland – something I know is close to your heart! Soon we’ll look at Viking, Norman and Planter names – but for now we start with the old Gaelic names.
The name is McGee – and don’t call me Bobby!
I got an email from Mary McGee – she asked: “I met a lady called McCoy last year – she insisted we are distant cousins – how could that be?”
Looking through our reader list – I notice that we have Keyes, MacHugh, Gee, McGee, O’Hea, Hayes, MacKaw, Makay and McCoy. What do you think ALL of these surnames have in common? These surnames have all been anglicized from the same Irish surname – “Mac Aodha” (son of Aodh) or “O hAodha” (descendent of Aodh).
Aodh (pronounced “Aay” – rhymes with “hay”) was a very popular first name in Ireland up to the 10th century.
Up to that point individuals were known by their first names and lineage. So, individuals were known as “Aodh son of Donnchadh” and so on.
And then from the 900s to 1100s – families adopted the surname system we know today. Lots of familes across Ireland (and Scotland) chose the name MacAodha or O hAodha – and that got anglicized into the different surnames we see above over the next few centuries.
So, Mary – I guess we’re all cousins going back to Adam and Eve – but this lady is unlikely to be yours!
The First Surnames.
Next, June MacCarthy got in touch – she asked “why do YOU write MacCarthy as McCarthy?”
Ireland was one of the first countries in Europe to introduce a surname system in the 10th century.
Most Gaelic surnames were formed around an illustrious ancestor e.g. the O’Briens from Brian Boru. Gaelic surnames typically have one of five prefixes:
A smaller class of Irish surname named the family after an occupation or profession e.g. McInerney ( Mac an Airchinnigh in Irish) which means “son of the eranagh (a type of accountant)” OR Hickey (in Irish O hIcidhe) which means from the Doctor or Healer.
June wondered about the difference between a Mc and a Mac – some people ask is the Mc Irish and the Mac Scottish? The answer is: there is no difference! They are abbreviations.
Losing the Os and Macs – and getting them back.
Mary Sullivan contacted me – she mentioned “it’s a pity our family lost the “O” when we came to the States.”
But, there’s a bit more to it than that. From the 1600s on – Gaelic and Catholic people were discriminated against by the English ascendency – and this led, gradually, to the abandonment of the Os and Macs in many surnames. O’Murphy became Murphy, O’Kelly became Kelly and so on.
However, in the late 19th century there was a Gaelic cultural resurgence in Ireland and many of these surnames took their Os and Macs back as a badge of Gaelic pride.
Take “O’Sullivan” as an example – when we look at the census data the following comes up:
Year: Percentage using the prefix O
So, you can see that many emigrants who left Ireland during famine times were missing their Os and Macs – and mostly never took them back. Whereas a high percentage of those who stayed in Ireland had them reinstated.
Maybe its time to take your O or Mac back?
Mary is going to stick with “Sullivan” for now!
That’s it for this week – our rundown on Irish Surnames. Next we will cover other Irish surnames including Norman, Viking and planter names and families.
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