Irish Roots


December 31st 2012

The Os and the Macs

John Grenham

An axiom of all research is that absolutely no reliance can be placed on the precise spelling of surnames. So the reason I'm blue in the face is not apnoea or an impending heart attack, it's from telling people over and over and over that it makes no difference whether your Quin family have been insanely fussy about spelling their surname with one N for the past three centuries. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the person writing the name down was not a Quin, and couldn't give a hoot.

And then look at what Irish research throws up: A family in Leitrim whose surname appears in a parish register as "Breheny" (from Mac an Bhreithiún, son of the Brehon lawyer or judge) in the 1830s and "Judge" in the 1840s; O'Sullivans recorded in the Beara peninsula as Bunow, Caobach, Bawn, Barrule, . ; Cadogans who are O'Driscolls and Caniffes who are O'Mahonys. Is it any wonder that Irish researchers' insistence on surname variation can seem a bit hysterical?

But useful information does exist in patterns of surname spelling, only not at the scale of individual families. The best-known Irish variation is the treatment of "O" and "Mc/Mac" as optional in English-language records. In Griffith's Valuation in the mid nineteenth century, some 16,000 households were recorded as O', but more than 100,000 as Mc. Evidently, O was more easily ignored than Mc. Look more closely at where the names are recorded, and it emerges that almost 70% of the Mc households are recorded in the nine counties of Ulster, while the eight counties along the Atlantic seaboard account for almost 60% of the O names.

This is hard historical evidence. But what does it show? That, in Ulster, the last stronghold of Gaelic culture, people retained their grasp on surnames? That Ulster's Scots Gaelic cousins encouraged a popular retention of Gaelic surnames? Or that Ulster people were (are?) just more stubborn than the rest of us?


Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.

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