Irish Roots

John Grenham


May 11th

There are a huge number of surnames in use in Ireland, more than 35,000 at our own site, www.irishtimes.com/ancestor alone. The dropping and resumption of 'O' and 'Mc' I wrote about last week is only part of the reason. What we now consider "normal" surnames, a fixed name inherited through the male line, is a relatively recent introduction in many places. For example, most Nordic societies only adopted hereditary surnames over the last century. Iceland still uses single-generation patronymics: John, son of Brian, is John Brianson, but Brian's grandson Michael is Michael Johnson.

True hereditary surnames began around the end of the 10th century in Ireland, very early compared to most other Western European countries. One reason may have been their ease of use as badges of kinship in a society already based on elaborate extended family relations. As in other Western European countries, however, surnames were adopted unevenly, starting with the most prominent aristocrats. So Brian Ború's grandson Donogh Cairbre adopted "O'Brien" and passed it on to his children and their children in the 11th century, at a time when none of their followers would have had hereditary surnames. About 4 generations later, the children of Mahon O'Brien decided that their own father was more important, and the surname McMahon came into being.

The same process of budding and branching happened again and again among the Gaelic Irish, but wasn't confined to them. William, son of Jocelyn De Angulo, one of the original Norman invaders of Ireland in the twelfth century, became Mac Goisdealbh, (Mac Jocelyn), later anglicised as Costello,

The results are all around us. For one year alone, 1939-40, Dublin city electoral rolls recorded almost 12,000 surnames. You can try to count them yourself at www.dublinheritage.ie/electoral.


Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.


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