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Irish Family Surname History Information

Our Irish surnames intrigue us. What does my last name mean? How did my last name originate? These are some questions that we ask in the search for knowledge about our Irish surnames. I get so many requests for help with Irish surname history so here is some general information about the history of surnames & how they formed their meaning.

Ireland was one of the first European countries in which a system of fixed hereditary surnames developed. It has been generally stated that this process began in the reign of King Brian Boru (1002-1014), but Brian himself never adopted a hereditary surname. Nor did his sons. It was only in the time of his grandsons that the surname O' Briain (O' Brian) first came into existence.

However, it can be shown from the Irish Annals that fixed surnames were already developing before Brian was born and that the process continued for nearly two centuries after his death.

Probably the first fixed surname in Europe was O' Cle'irigh (O'Cleary); the annals record O' Clery of South Ui Fiachrach as flourishing in the year 850, and the death Tigherneach O' Cle'irigh, Lord of Aidhne in Co. Galway, in 916.

O' Cananna'in of Tirconaill is mentioned in 941; Domhnall Ua Ne'ill, the first of the O'Neills of Ulster, at 943; Ua Ruairc of Breifney and Ua Ciardha (O'Kearty) of Cairbre, at 952; Mag Aongusa (Maguinness) at 956; while O' Maoldoraidh (O'Muldory) of Tirconnaill, O' Dubhda (O'Dowd) of Tireragh, O' Ceallaigh (O'Kelly) of Ui Maine, and many others were firmly established as surnames before the end of the tenth century.

By the twelfth century, most families had adopted surnames with the prefixes 'O' (grandson) or 'Mac' (son), together with the personal name of the ancestor from whom the descent is indicated. These personal names had their own connotations, often denoting occupation or distinguishing feature.

Thus we can guess that the progenitor of the Shanleys (Mac Seanlaoich) was a great warrior in his day, sean laoch meaning 'old hero', while the ancestor of the Darcys (O' Dorchaidhe) must have been dark featured, since dorcha, the root of the name, means dark.

Among the occupations recorded in Irish names are, O' Cle'irigh (Clery), grandson or descendant of the clerk (Cle'ireach); Mac an Bha'ird (Ward), son of the bard; Mac Labhra'in (McCloran), son of the spokesman (labhraidh), MacGowan (McGowan), son of the smith (gabha); Mac an tSaoir (McAteer), son of the craftsman (saor). Since saor also has the secondary meaning of free, the English surname Freeman sometimes hides its Gaelic origin.

Surnames that begin with 'Gil' and 'Kil' usually relate to saints, the Irish Giolla, meaning follower, servant, or devotee. Thus Gilmore (Mac Giolla Mhuire) means 'son of the devotee of the Mary'; Gilespie (Mac Giolla Easpuig), son of the servant of the bishop; Kilfeather (Mac Giolla Pheadair), son of the devotee of St. Peter. The same goes for the prefix 'Mul', an anglicicised form of maol, meaning 'bald', as applied to monks because of their distinctive tonsure. Thus, Mulready (O'Maolbhrighde) denotes descendant of the devotee of St. Bridget.

Unlike most English surnames, few in Ireland derive from the place of origin, indicating that ancestry was more important than where you came from.

As the population grew and new families were formed, they sought ot consolidate their identity by adopting hereditary surnames of their own, usually by simply adding Mac to the first name of the founding ancestor. In the course of this process many surnames were created which were offshoots of more common names. Thus, for example, the McMahons and the McConsidines are descended from the O' Brien family, the former from Mahon O'Brien, who died in 1129, the latter from Constantine O' Brien, who died in 1193. The continuing division and sub-division of the most powerful Gaelic families like this is almost certainly the reason for the great proliferation of Gaelic surnames.

In districts where the same surname largely prevailed, nicknames were introduced to distinguish one from the other, and in the course of time many of these supplanted the real surnames. Strangers, too, were often called by names indicating their place of origin, for example, Muimhneach (Munsterman), Laighneach (Leinsterman), O' Dubhghaill (dark foreigner, referring to the Viking Danes). Other surnames of Viking origin are Harold, Henrick, Howard, and Cotter.

The arrival of the Anglo-Normans introduced a whole new set of family names, many from their place of origin in Normandy, France, while others were acquired after their ancestors had settled in England and Wales, a century before coming to Ireland. The ones most obvious of Norman origin are those beginning with 'Fitz', a corruption of the French 'fils', meaning 'son', and used by the Normans in the same way as the Gaels used Mac. As well as those of purely Norman origin, the twelfth-century invaders also included many of Breton and Flemish extraction.

As the Normans began to adapt to Irish ways, their surnames underwent the same process of subdivision as already seen in Gaelic surnames. Thus, for example, in the thirteenth century the descendants of Piers de Birmingham were calling themselves Mac Fheorais (son of Piers), which was later anglicised as Corish, a well-known name in Wexford.

The great variety of English surnames was well illustrated by the Register General for England and Wales: "Derived from almost every imaginable object, from the names of places, from trades and employments, from personal peculiarities, from the Christian name of the father, from objects in the animal and vegetable kingdoms, from things animate and inanimate; their varied character is as remarkable as their singularity is often striking. Some of the terms which swell the list are so odd, and even ridiculous, that it is difficult to assign any satisfactory reason for their assumption in the first instance as family names, unless indeed, as has been conjectured, they were nicknames or sobriquets, which neither the first bearers nor their posterity could avoid."

Referring to Welsh surnames he stated: "In Wales, however, the surnames, if surnames they can be called, do not present the same variety, most of them having been formed in a simple manner from the Christian or fore-name of the father in the genitive case. Thus, Evan's son became Evans, John's son Jones, etc..."

Of course we could go into a lot more detail on this subject, as there are as many Irish surnames as there are stars in the sky, it seems! But any way you put it, our surnames give us a link to our past & what characteristics our ancestors may have had.

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