Irish hereditary surnames date back to the 11th century
and are among the oldest in the world. They developed spontaneously,
as the population increased but there seems to be no grounds
for accepting the suggestion that the system was introduced
by Brian Boru, who died in 1014.
Initially surnames were formed by placing Mac
in front of the fathers name or O before
that of a grandfather or earlier ancestor. Names with the
prefixes Mac and O were found in
records which pre-date the tenth century but these did not
last. In general, Mac is associated with the northern half
of the country and the O with the southern portion.
Later, other surnames were adopted incorporating the Irish
words giolla and maol, both meaning servant
or follower and often used in conjunction with
the name of a saint. Thus we have Mac Giolla Mhartáin
which translates as Gilmartin or Martin. Likewise, Mac Giolla
Mhuire (son of the servant of Mary) translates as Gilmore.
Similarly, many surnames are derived from the occupation
of the father or grandfather. Mac an Bhaird (son of the
bard) translates as Ward, while the earliest form of ORiordan,
Ó Rioghbhardáin indicates the surnames owes
it origins to the position of royal bard.
Less frequently surnames indicate characteristics of an
ancestor. The name MacDowell owes its origin to the phrase
black stranger. Some surnames have their roots
in nicknames. Names such as McAvaddy and Madden have their
roots in the word madra, the Irish for dog.
Other surnames owe their existence to epithets indicating
some personal characteristic added to the Christian or surname
which eventually replaced the original name. Some surnames
without the prefix Mac and O evolved
in this way, with bán (white) becoming Bane and ruadh
(red) becoming Roe.
Most of the surnames in Ireland today are of Irish origin,
even in Ulster but the proportion there is smaller. Many
of the surnames found there were introduced during the Plantation
of Ulster in the 17th century. However the relationship
between the peoples of Ireland and Scotland is more complex
The Gaelic speakers of the highlands of Scotland were descendants
of settlers from Ireland. The name Scotland is derived from
the word Scotus the Latin for Irishman. In Ireland surnames
with O outnumber those with the prefix Mac.
The latter prefix is not necessarily a sign of Scottish
origin, nor is there any reason to suggest that Mac
is indicative of Scottish origin and Mc a sign
that the name belongs to Ireland. Mc is simply
an abbreviation of Mac.
During the era of suppression of Catholic Ireland which
began in the early 1600s the use of prefixes O
and Mc or Mac was widely dropped
and only revived with the re-emergence of national consciousness
in the late 19th century. In 1866 only 4% of the (O) Sullivan
family were using the prefix O, by 1890 it had increased
to 13% and by 1944 reached 60%. Another example is that
of the (O)Connells, where use of the prefix increased from
9% to 33% between 1866 and 1890.
Interestingly, many surnames of the O variety
have never revived the prefix, including the most numerous
Irish surname of all, Murphy. Others to fall into this category
include Connolly, Donnelly, Doyle, Foley, Hogan, Kennedy,
Nolan, Quinn and Sheridan. Among the OBriens
and ONeills the prefix was widely retained,
while the equally important OKelly family generally
discarded the prefix.
The prefix Mac has proved more resistant to
change, partly because of its existence among Scottish surname
in Ulster, but also because deletion of the prefix greatly
alters the appearance of the name. There is little discernible
difference between Brien and OBrien, but the opposite
is true of McGrath and Grath. However where Mac
has been dropped there has been little effort to revive
it. Names such as Clancy, Egan and Keogh originally had
the prefix Mac.
In some cases the resumption of prefixes led to the adoption
of the wrong prefix, with the substitution of O for Mac
being more common.
The introduction of the English language had a distorting
effect on many Irish names as many of those preparing legal
documents had no knowledge of the Irish language. Most of
the MacGowans (Mac an Ghabhann = son of the smith)
of County Cavan became Smith by translation. A native inferiority
complex also had a distorting impact on Irish surnames.
Mistranslation had a devastating impact on some Irish surnames.
Mac Giolla Eoin (son of the servant of John) became Monday
instead of McAloon because of the supposed similarity between
the latter part of the name and luan the Irish word for
Monday. In some cases the name McEneaney has become Bird
due to the mistaken notion that the former is derived from
the Irish word éan which means bird.
Some surnames came about through abbreviation. MacLysaght
or Lysaght was originally translated from the Irish Mac
Giolla Iasachta as Macgillysaghta. Others came about through
a crude process combining abbreviation with distortion as
in Muckle, which is short for Mucklebreed, which itself
is derived from Mac Giolla Bhríde (son of the servant
of St. Brigid).
Many distortions, abbreviations and mistranslations of Irish
names took place when people were part of the mass migration
to the United States of America in the late 19th century.
Many emigrants were illiterate and immigration officials
often mistranscribed them. Farrelly became Farley and Connolly
became Conley in some cases. McEneaney, McAneaney, McAneny,
McEnaney are all variant spellings of the same surname
The process of absorption has seen some rare names being
replaced better known ones with a similar sound. For example,
Sullahan became Sullivan, Griffey became Griffin, Collen
became Cullen and MacEnchroe became Crowe.
Apart from native Irish surnames there are many of Norman
origin which are now regarded as Irish, including such names
as Burke, Cusack, Dillon, Nagle, Power, Roche and Taaffe.
Costello was the first Norman name to become completely
gaelicised and adopted the Mac prefix. Most Norman surnames
retain the prefix de in their Irish form, e.g. de Búrca
(Burke), de Róiste (Roche), de Paor (Power).
Sometimes the use of de can be misleading. A branch of the
Devlin family changed their name to DEvelyn for the
sake of appearances. Similarly there are instances where
Mullins was changed to de Moleyns.
Some surnames of Norman origin begin with Fitz, derived
from the French fils meaning son. The best known of these
is Fitzgerald, which translates as Mac Gearailt in Irish.
Fitzpatrick (Mac Giolla Phádraig in Irish) is an
exception as it of Irish origin.
Harold and Trant are examples of the few pre-Norman Norse
names found in Ireland. Names such as Lefroy, Lefanu, Trench,
Guerin and Saurin were part of the Huguenot influx in the
17th century. Ruttle and Switzer are examples of Palatine
names found in Co. Limerick.
Last but by no means least are the surnames of English origin.
Some are in evidence since the Middle Ages but most arrived
relatively recently. The Bagenals and the Edgeworths are
among the Elizabethans settlers in the 16th century. The
Plantation of Ulster in the early 1600s and the Cromwellian
settlement in the middle of the same century saw the widespread
introduction of English and Scottish names.
The Cromwellian settlement saw immigration to most parts
of the country and in succeeding generations many of those
settlers intermarried with the native population. Names
include Woodcock and Upton.
In the last two hundred years commercial activity has led
to the introduction of a small number of additional English
surnames. Nowadays, it is hard to distinguish what proportion
of English names are really of English origin. The example
of Smith has already been noted. In Co. Cavan the Smiths
were originally McGowans or OGowan.
Many surnames are still found mainly in the area of origin,
even with increased mobility and a gravitation towards the
greater Dublin area. Moriaritys are mainly found in Co.
Kerry, ODriscolls and Riordans in Co. Cork.
The derivation of some Irish names can be fraught with difficulties
and not as obvious as they appear. The surname Enright would
appear to be derived from the Irish word inreachtach meaning
lawful. But there is evidence to suggest that it is derived
from the word indreacht meaning attack.
The origin of the name Ryan is more problematic. Experts
differ as to its origin. It may be derived from an old Irish
word for water or it could mean a person who marshals or
puts order on things.
Taking all these factors into consideration we hope that
after consulting these pages you have a better understanding
of the origins of your surname.