A Letter from Ireland:
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Why are there so many English Surnames in Ireland?

One of our readers – Joan – decided to “roadtest” some of our recommendations and came back with the following comment:

“I looked up surname Hamill. That site said it was Scots/English, Anglo Saxon. But there were 4 comments from Irish people who said it was Gaelic”.

So, what’s going on here?

I think Joan has touched on a problem with the larger ancestry online sites. If you go to these sites and read about surnames such as Hamill (or Collins, or Howard or Clifford or Smith or Reynolds and so on) – they will typically be presented as English or Scottish names.

And that is because they are!

Which is kind of confusing  when you try to track the heritage of a surname that YOU know is Irish.

ALWAYS START WITH THE IRISH FOR YOUR NAME.
When you are REALLY interested in tracing the heritage of your Irish surname – I have found that the ONLY way to pin down that name is to learn the original Irish language version of that surname.

Have a think about it.

Take the surname O’Reilly – which is also heard as Riley, Reilly, O’Riley (and other versions I’m sure I’ll hear one day).

The thing is – none of these are correct!

They are versions that have sprung up over centuries with the introduction of English in Ireland, emigration and so on.

The most useful starting point is the original Irish language version: Ó Raghailligh (pronounced Oh Rah-al-ig – just say it fast). This is the root for all the O’Reilly English language versions out there.

BUT – the Reillys have it easy (and the McCarthys, O’Briens, Murphys and so on) as they were never pegged to an equivalent English name. When English speakers heard “O Raghailligh” spoken for the first time – they said it as they heard it: O Reilly.

The “trouble” started when an English speaker heard a name for the first time – AND it reminded them of an English name that they already knew – and that’s the name they gave!

BACK TO HAMILL.
Which brings us all the way back to Joan and the surname Hamill.

Hamill comes from the original Irish Ó hAdhmaill (pronounced Oh–ham-will). This Gaelic family were part of the Cenél Eoghain tribe in what is now County Tyrone.

Surnames were gradually introduced in Ireland from the 800s onwards – and all was well until many of the surnames were anglicised from the 1600s onwards.

In the case of Ó hAdhmaill, an English speaker hears the Irish name spoken – it reminds them of the English name Hamill they are already familiar with – and so “Hamill” becomes a given name for this old Gaelic family.

And today when you go onto many ancestry sites, you notice that while names like “Hamill” are included – there are a small portion of Irish folks jumping up and down in the corner protesting that this is also an Irish name!

And they are right – to a point!

But if you really want to be sure – the best thing to do is find out the original Irish for your Irish surname, learn to phonetically pronounce it – and learn all the English variations that have come along for this name over the centuries.

And now – if you have a puzzle like this around your Irish name – do put your question or comment in the section below.

  • Helena mitchell nee Donegan says:

    I always thought my husbands name was of Scottish descent he is from Mayo, there are four families of Mitchell’s all neighbouring one another in his home place but apparently no relation to each other or to him.!

    • Mike says:

      Thats a typical example Helena – Mitchell is usually an English Planter (and therefore and English) name when found in Ireland. BUT it is also an anglicisation of the Irish name Ó Maoilmhichíl. However, this Irish name is normally found as Mulvihill in English rather than Mitchell. Mike.

  • brenda cahill bartholomew says:

    The surname “CAHILL”…are words like caher, cahir in any derived from this surname? What do these two words mean? Thank you for all your efforts, I enjoy everything you share!

    • Mike says:

      Hi Brenda – They DO sound alike in English – but they are from the Irish.

      Cahill is from the Irish “Ó Cathail” – Cath being a very frequently used sound in Irish. Cathail is an Irish first name.

      Cahir – the town in Tipperary – comes from the Irish “Cathair” which means seat in English.

      Thanks for the feedback! Mike.

  • Brenda says:

    My Grandfather was born in England and I know at least four fathe’s before him born in England. I read that the surname Ash is English and Ancient name and AshE is From Ireland but now my Grandfather surname was AshES.. I found some Scottish Ashes? I was wonder if our Ashes cross into Ireland.

    • Mike says:

      Hi Brenda – Ashe is a name found in Ireland since the 1300s. I think it would be Norman originally.

      Ashes sounds interesting as it may be a particular pronunciation of an Irish name – I just cant see what! Where in Ireland did your Ashes come from? Mike.

  • Joann says:

    I’ve wondered about the surname, Sweet. I have been told that it was English, but have also seen it referenced in Scot and Irish research.

  • Maurice Dodd says:

    Hi where would we start with the name DODD ?i heard somewhere that we arrived in ireland in the 1600s and were protestant

    • Mike says:

      Thats right Maurice – they came to Sligo in the 1600s. There are also many Dodds in Ulster from later plantations. Mike.

  • Jeanne says:

    When I look for my great-grandfather on the site for Kerry genealogy his name shows as GNAW is that the Irish name for McKenna?

  • Gina Marie Devor-Dabney says:

    Husband Phillip Dabney had been doing family tree work fir me to find out my biological parents. Found out my father was Lawerence Joseph Devor related to Patrick Devor (Dever) from Mayo County and my mother is from England named Maxine Kay Shepheard. Having hard time with her line, but it was born in Thetford, England in Sept, 1964. Was the Devor named changed from Dever or what other origins? Did an ancestral DNA test and found I have 57% English and 14% Irish along with Scandanavian. Would love to get the book!! Just isn’t much on the Devor name unless it changed through translations.

    • Mike says:

      Hi Gina – Dever = Diver from the Irish Ó Duibhidhir. This is a family from Donegal originally. But, when they went to Mayo, became known as MacDever – then Dever! Mike.

      • David Dever says:

        Mike,
        Interesting what you wrote about the Dever Surname. my grandfather grew up in Mayo in the early 1900s before emigrating to the US. He said that our Dever family has been in Ireland for many centuries but that our side came from the south through Galway into Mayo. Any suggestions how I can trace the orginins of the surname? Thx

  • T Tucker says:

    According to Patrick Woulfe in his book “Irish Names and Surnames” the “Tucker” surname arose from the native Gaelic name “O’Tuachair,” or more correctly “Uá Tuathchair,” loosely translated “people dear,” and was anglicized as Tucker, Togher, Tougher, Tooker, etc. Woulfe says that the name arose in the Ely-O’Carroll region of County Tipperary and County Offaly, and migrated into surrounding counties. Another sept was known to be in County Mayo, where you may find Tucker Street in Castlebar, and Tuckers Lough just outside the city. Woulfe’s findings were confirmed by Edward MacLysaght, Chief Herald of Ireland, and published in his book “More Irish Families,” as well as in at least five other sources. The appearance of the name in the “Annals of Ulster” as early as 1126 A.D. predates the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in Ireland, thus corroborating the Gaelic origin of this name. Since it is a name with numerous unrelated origins, the bearer of the name should not be assumed to be of a particular origin without sufficient investigation of the person’s actual family history. Many of the Tucker families in the USA are of Irish (and other) origins.

    sources:

    1. Dictionary of American Family Names, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-508137-4
    2. More Irish Families by Edward MacLysaght. Pub. Irish Academic Press ISBN 0-7165-2604-2
    3. Irish Names and Surnames by Patrick Woulfe, Dublin Press, Library of Congress catalog card number 67-27570.

    • Mike says:

      Very well put Tracy – and great references. This is a real typical example of what we are talking about. Thanks for sharing – Mike.

  • Joan Hutchins says:

    Hi Mike, how ya doin? 🙂 I must say that Joan brought up a good.question. Your tip for finding Irish names answered a lot of questions I had. But I have one more. When I go to Translate to find out the Irish spelling for an English sounding name that I know is originally Irish, it doesnt give it to me. So…can you steer me to a link that would help me? Or…is that top secret? 🙂

    • Mike says:

      Hi Joan – doing good! You are right – it is top secret. I’m afraid that what you are looking for is beyond the reach of mere translating software. Which name are you looking for? Mike.

  • Debbie Morrill says:

    My family names are Burke and Flanagan. What can you tell me about their Irish names and anything about them?

  • Lisa Leavitt says:

    My third Great Grandmother, Catherine Hetherington died in Scotland and I just assumed she was born in Scotland. Imagine my surprise when I found out she was born in Ras, Donegal, Ireland. To me her name sounds English. Is Hetherington a name you find in Ireland?

    • Mike says:

      Hi Lisa, Hetherington is an English name but has been in Ireland since the 1500s. It is mostly found in Tyrone – just south-east of Donegal. Mike.

  • Jill Jeffery says:

    My relatives were Jeffreys. Sounds English, but they were Presbyterian, so I am wondering about Scottish roots. Any ideas? Thanks!!

  • Sharon says:

    My father’s father was born in County Tyrone – Dunnagon, parish of Killyman – his name was Robert McElroy Cross. His father’s name was Archibald Cross. I believe his father’s name was Samuel Cross and his father’s name was William Cross.

    I would like to go back further and find out where the Crosses may have come from originally. They identified as Methodist as well as Church of Ireland by religion.

    I saw a few Crosses on the Muster rolls of 1630, but wonder when they may have appeared in Ireland.

    I noted that there were also Crosses in Cork. Would they be related or would they be another group?

  • tina says:

    My family has the same issue twice! My grandmother mom’s side is Lakey and Davis my father’s side is Dixon and Spaulding….I can’t figure out who was where!

  • Mike says:

    Hi Mike

    My grandfather has half siblings with the surname Howard which you mentioned in your article above. These are RC from near Cashel, Co Tipp. I had presumed this was a “English” name, maybe from before Henry VIII’s time. Any suggestions on the origin?

    Also my ggg-grandfather was a Hall. He was probably born before 1800 since my gg-grandmother, his daughter, was baptized in in the RC Parish of Cashel in 1819. Any suggestions on the origins of this name which also sounds “English” to me. Any suggestions on the origin?

  • Mary Murphy says:

    I traced my grandmothers maiden name Larkin to 1795 England. On my recent trip to Ireland, I noticed the name at a cemetery in Dublin. Is this originally Irish or English?

  • Sophia says:

    My family names are Massey and Garrett, which I have been told are “Anglo-Irish” or Norman in origin. Is it therefore likely that my ancestors were part of the Norman Conquest, and that they migrated from England?

  • Josh baird says:

    My last name is baird which is scottish but my heritage is irish catholic . my grandparents were born in kerry and roscommon. I’m guessing someone way down the line was scottish but I’m wondering where the name came from. I also have kelliher’s and kane’s I’m my backround

  • Patricia says:

    I enjoyed your comments about the Hamill name–which belonged to my mother. Her grandfather came from Ireland — John P. Hamill. May have owned a pub somewhere in County Tyrone or thereabouts. I wonder if your readers would have heard of him.
    Patricia Brady, Massachusetts, USA

  • Mary Claire says:

    I think my great grandfather Frank (Francis) Williams was born in Grenard, county Longford in the 1850s before emigrating to Chicago.

  • Tiffany says:

    I was told my surnane Howe was irish but it said its of old english Anglo saxon. What does that mean

  • John says:

    Does any source track what percentage of modern Irish derive from British ancestry?
    I am aware of the transliteration of Irish names to British, but what percentage are simply British invader descended?

  • Susan Pittsley says:

    Do you have any more information on the surinamer Reynolds

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