Irish Roots

John Grenham


May 25th

Our concern over what is and isn’t an Irish surname is understandable when you look at what happened to Irish surnames in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, after the final defeat of Gaelic Ireland. In the Gaelic tradition the main function of the name was to denote kinship. To Irish ears, what the English newcomers called themselves – Stone, White, Bird, Carter – was self-evidently absurd. This just made the irony all the more bitter when the newcomers won, and absorbed Irish names into the English language.

First, the signifiers of kinship, Ó and Mac, were treated as purely optional. Then the surname roots were transformed in a bewildering variety of ways. Some were simply transliterated phonetically: Mac an Dhéanaigh became McAnany (or McEneany or McAneany…). Some were translated. Mac an Dhéanaigh, meaning “son of the dean” became Deane. And some were mistranslated: because Mac an Dhéanaigh sounds as if it contains éan, the Irish for bird, Mac an Dhéanaigh became Bird.

The greatest indignity visited on Gaelic surnames, however, was transposition. Irish originals were simply transmuted into English names with some kind of superficial similarity. So the Ó hIongardáil and Ó hArrachtáin in west Cork became Harringtons, the Donegal and Tyrone Ó Brolcháin became Bradleys, the Mayo MacSheoinín became Jennings'.

Small wonder that after independence, one of the most important aims of Irish language activists was the recovery of original Irish surnames. Unfortunately, in many cases, their enthusiasm created a mirror image of the old colonial blinkers: every surname, whatever its source, had to have an Irish original, and if one didn’t exist, it would be invented. I was very puzzled to discover at the age of ten that my father and myself had different surnames, at least in the first official language.


Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.

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