Irish Roots

John Grenham


May 4th

Most people are aware that the Irish surname prefixes "O" and "Mc" declined in use up to the end of the nineteenth century and were then resumed from the start of the Gaelic Revival. In a general way, this is true: there were 9 Malleys to every O'Malley in the 1850s, by 1890 the proportions had shifted to 6 to 4, by 1930 had reversed to 1 to 9, and in 1958 not a single Malley birth was registered. A classic and dramatic change. But not all the changes were so complete or so familiar. Halloran/O'Halloran went from 9/1 in the 1850s to 7/3 in 1890, to 3/7 in 1930, but then seems to have stopped shifting – in 1958, the proportion of O’Hallorans to Hallorans remained about 3 to 1.

In some cases, usually involving “Mc”, the changes went the other way: Kiernan/McKiernan broke down about 60/40 in the 1850s, but by 1958 Kiernan had definitively won. The proportions were then about 80/20. And in a few peculiar cases, s surname shed one prefix, but resumed the other. The McGormans of Clare were anglicised as Gormans but had almost all become O’Gormans by the 1950s.

The point is of all this is not to embarrass or outrage the perfectly respectable O’Gormans of Clare. The point is that our surnames are as much a product of happenstance and the slow tectonic drift of history as any word in any language. They are very slippery badges of cultural identity.

I still remember with some respect coming across the brave attempt at assimilation by one Theodore O’Kechuckwu recorded in Washington Street in the Dublin electoral lists of 1949. Okechuckwu is a perfectly decent Nigerian name, but the O’Kechukwus were not one of the Seven Septs of Leix.


Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.

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