Irish Roots

August 2nd, 2010

John Grenham

Why are there so many surnames in Ireland? Like any good question, all the answers lead to more questions, but some basics are clear. In the 12th century, as patrilineal surnames began to become hereditary in Western Europe, Gaelic Irish society was still based on clans, kinship groups centred on descent from a common male ancestor. Personal names, though not yet hereditary, were already almost entirely based on kinship, using the familiar Mac, son, and Ua, grandson. Such a naming system provided an ideal, readymade framework for the adoption of true hereditary surnames, and the Irish embraced the process with enthusiasm, naming early and naming often.

In itself this accounts for some of the large range of names, but the Norman invasion of Ireland, happening right in the middle of the period of early surname formation, added another layer of complexity. Norman (and Welsh and Flemish and English) personal names were subsumed into the Gaelic process.

The budding off of surnames then continued over subsequent centuries: Mahon O'Brien's children decided he was more worthy of note than the distant Brian Ború, so the surname McMahon came into being. Similarly, Walter de Burgo, one of the Norman Burkes of Mayo, became the forebear of the McWalters.

At the same time, within the Pale, English surnames and naming practices dominated. When the English finally achieved control of the entire island in the 17th century, they tried to make Gaelic names fit their own system. So those surnames were translated, often mistakenly, transliterated phonetically, or just transposed wholesale to the nearest English equivalent. Ó h-Iongardail in west Cork became plain Anglo-Saxon Harrington, Ó Brolcháin in Derry became Bradley.

No wonder we have such a variety of surnames. And no wonder the question "What is an Irish surname?" has no answer.

Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.


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