Irish Roots

July 26th, 2010

John Grenham

Although it is tricky to pin down what precisely constitutes a unique surname - are Locklin and Loughlin the same or distinct? - there is no doubt that Ireland has a huge range of surnames relative to other parts of the world. In Shanghai, for example, 70% of the 20 million population carry one of the 20 most common surnames. In Ireland, only 11% of households in the mid-nineteenth century Primary Valuation have one of the top 20 names. At the other end of the scale, surnames with less than 20 households in the Valuation make up 77% of all the surnames recorded, but only 7% of the total households, while the top 200 surnames, only about 1% of the total surnames listed, cover 42% of all households.

What this means is that the structure of surname frequency in Ireland is very distinct: a relatively restricted number of surnames - Kennedy, Doherty, Flynn, Delaney - covers the majority of the population, but the variety of surnames then increases exponentially as the names become less common. One feature of these rarer names much beloved of genealogists is just how geographically restricted they are: Berkery to Limerick/Tipperary, Mungovan to west Clare, Hanahoe to Mayo, Feenaghty to east Galway. Every researcher prays to have at least one ancestor with such a name.

The reason all of this comes to mind is the major and ongoing expansion of the surname variants section of the Irish Times ancestors site, www.irishtimes.com/ancestor. From 30,000 surnames and c. 100,000 variants a year ago, the site now includes more than 80,000 names and half-a-million variants. Of its nature, the job is endless; just when you’re sure there cannot possibly be another way of (mis)spelling "Gallagher", up pops "Goulahar". So far Loughlin takes first prize, with 98 recorded variants, but there are many rivals.

Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.


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