Why are there so many English Surnames in Ireland?

Why are there so many English (and Scottish) surnames in Ireland is a question we get asked on a regular basis. There are some good reasons for this...

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Why are there so many English Surnames in Ireland?

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

“I looked up surname Hamill. One particular 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.

Slán for now, Mike.

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