Irish Roots »

  • The centre of the Irish family history universe

    December 14, 2015 @ 6:32 pm | by John Grenham

    There’s only one Irish genealogy website that I visit every day, and that’s It was started by Claire Santry in 2010 and since then has become the centre of the universe – the compact but perfectly-formed universe of Irish family history, that is.

    If you’re interested in new online record releases, public talks, new publications, special offers from subscription sites, changes to repository opening time – in fact anything at all that connects to Irish genealogy anywhere in the world – Claire’s site is indispensable.

    How did it get to this position? The most important factor, I think, is that Claire is a professional journalist by training. The site presents facts clearly and coherently, without frills, paddywhackery or opinions, its easily readable text laid out around interesting illustrations that bristle with useful links.

    She is, it goes without saying, a genealogy nut, but runs the site as a full-time job, sometimes posting five items a day, all hard fact. On several occasions she has scooped me on the launch of sites I developed, an illustration of just how hard she works and what a nose she has for a story.

    And the site has no agenda, an extraordinary quality in a field buzzing with the unmistakable sound of axes being ground.

    Which doesn’t mean it has no power. A rumbling spat between various people involved in Irish genealogy – thumbscrews wouldn’t get names out of me – was threatening to turn nasty earlier this year. Claire wagged one elegant finger at the participants and peace broke out at once.

    She has received recognition of sorts: she came first in the Irish section of the tongue-in-cheek “Rockstar Genealogist” awards this year. But for an income the site depends on the ads peppered discreetly here and there. So turn off that ad-blocker now.

  • John O’Donovan’s glorious letters

    December 7, 2015 @ 9:30 am | by John Grenham

    The same upgrade that put the Valuation Office revision maps on the site (see last week’s column) also added the Ordnance Survey Field Name Books and the O’Donovan topographical letters. The former are parish-by-parish alphabetical listings of the place-names that were to become the standardised English versions on the first Ordnance Survey six-inch maps in the 1830s. The entries include much technical detail linking them to the maps, but also some worm’s-eye-view descriptions of rents, landlords and tenants.

    The O’Donovan letters are of broader interest. They consist of formal correspondence addressed to, or from, the man in charge of the Ordnance Survey topographical department, the antiquarian John O’Donovan, and often provide superb summaries of local place-name lore, even down to the minutest detail: the entry for Darver in Co Louth includes a description and drawing of “a silver ring which Mr Duffy found near his house”. For anyone interested in local history in rural Ireland they are a magnificent treasure trove. And they give the lie to the notion that the OS process of standardisation and anglicisation was brutal, Anglo-Saxon and stupid.

    The versions on the site are typescript copies of the originals made in the 1920s. I’m not sure (nor, I think, is that all of them are here. Certainly, the six counties of Northern Ireland are missing. And it has to be said that there are drawbacks to having them broken up and plotted as links on the maps.

    But they are also browsable page by page, revealing all their gnarled glory, with folk-tales, principal families, ruined churches, annal entries, saint’s biographies and more.

    The voice of O’Donovan himself is also there, and strangely modern. At the conclusion of the second volume of Galway letters, he writes: “I have now done with the territories in the county of Galway and though it has cost me many an hour of severe application to lay down their boundaries I fear no one will have the patience to grope their way through my lucubrations.”

    He needn’t have worried.

  • Floundering with valuation maps

    November 30, 2015 @ 9:46 am | by John Grenham

    Like everyone involved in Irish genealogy and local history, I spend a lot of time looking at Griffith’s Valuation on Griffith’s is the only Ireland-wide census substitute for the mid-19th century and the site is wonderful, not least because it is free.

    One feature, though, has caused much grief to users over the years, the mismatch between the printed records and the maps that accompany them. The maps first used on the site date from several decades after the publication of the valuation, and so can differ puzzlingly from the printed original.

    The reason is that Griffith’s was a property tax survey. For a century and a half the Valuation Office had to record changes in occupier, holding size, lessor – anything that could affect the value of a holding and thus the tax to be paid on it. Handwritten, copybook-style versions of the original were used to list the changes, which were then hand-marked on the office’s own copies of the six-inch Ordnance Survey maps.

    The maps used by askaboutireland consisted of one full baseline set of these map revisions, undated, but probably from the 1870s or 1880s.

    Several months back, askaboutireland, now supported by the Department of the Environment, responded to the problems with these undated maps – by adding mountains of more undated maps. Every single working revision map from the office now appears to be there, layered one over the other, with up to eight separate maps for some areas, and no way of telling which follows which.

    For the moment. When the full handwritten revision books eventually become available online, it will be possible to date the maps by comparing them with the written records. The result will be a superb, visual, decade-by-decade archive, showing in minute detail the process of change in every street and field on the island over almost 150 years.

    In the meantime, be reassured: it’s not just you. Everyone is floundering.

  • Have Irish surnames stopped changing?

    November 23, 2015 @ 10:19 am | by John Grenham

    After independence, official Ireland understandably set about undoing the grievous distortions wrought on Gaelic surnames by English-speaking administrators. Every surname now had to have an official Irish-language school version, on the basis that we were all Gaels and had had our original names stolen from us.

    Never mind the tunnel view of history and the hair-raising presumption that Ireland was racially pure, the implicit understanding of surnames was simply nonsensical.

    Because the most important fact about all surnames is that they are words. They don’t go to any particular church, salute flags, vote or fight. They simply swim in the ever-changing sea of language, evolving as all languages do under the pressure of accents, education, fashion, politics, economics.

    For example, the American pronunciation of the surnames Cahill (“KAY-hil”) and Mahony (Ma-OWN-ey) often has Irish people sniggering up their sleeves. But these pronunciations are much closer to the original Irish-language versions of the names. The fork in culture between Irish-America and Ireland preserved something over there that we over here have anglicised more thoroughly.

    Whether American or British, the language Irish surnames have swum in for almost two centuries is English. Seen in this light, the 20th-century Gaelicisation of surnames, the great wave of adoptions of Os and Mcs, was not the reclamation of something lost but a further evolution, the flawed reinvention of an imagined past – ask Theodore O’Kechuckwu, living at 1 Washington Street in Dublin in 1949:

    The evolution of surnames has not stopped, though it has slowed, not just in Ireland but throughout the developed world. Mass literacy and computer technology have make it more difficult for change to occur – simply seeing your name in print on a computer screen every day lends it apparent permanence.

    Apparent only: I have no doubt that in a few centuries people will look back in amusement at our quaint surname spellings.

    The series on surnames over the past weeks was a reaction to finishing, finally, the integration of surname variants from the civil registration birth registers into the Irish Ancestors website. We now have over more than a million variants. Data mined from them is at

  • How the Os and the Macs came back

    November 16, 2015 @ 9:50 am | by John Grenham

    Received wisdom in Ireland has long been that the process of reclaiming and resuming the Gaelic patronymic prefixes “Mc” (mac, “son of”) and “Ó” (“grandson of”) paralleled the resurgence of interest in Gaelic culture in the second-half of the 19th century. In the words of Edward MacLysaght, “when the spirit of the nation revived”.

    The process was never straightforward. Inevitably, some people mistakenly claimed the wrong prefix. The most notorious example is the Gaelic family Mac Gormáin – all are now either O’Gorman or plain Gorman. MacLysaght’s explanation of what happened still can’t be bettered: “Probably the man chiefly responsible for the substitution of O for Mac in the name was the celebrated gigantic Chevalier Thomas O’Gorman (1725-1808), exile vineyard owner in France who, after being ruined by the French Revolution, became a constructor of Irish pedigrees.”

    Mistakes apart, the story told by MacLysaght and others about surname prefix resumption remains that of steady progress eventually flowering into independence.

    The figures from birth registrations tell a different story.

    The proportion of total births recording Mc (or Mac, or M’) was 10.14 per cent in 1865. In 1913, it was 10.48 per cent. So there was a slow increase, but certainly nothing dramatic (see ). It is tempting to surmise the great flood of “Mc” resumption only took off when it became clear in the early 1920s where power would lie in the new Ireland.

    Interestingly, the story is different for surnames starting “O’”.

    In 1865, 1.67 per cent of total births used “O’”. By 1913, it was 3.2 per cent, almost doubling in five decades ( Perhaps the difference is that “O” surnames were found predominantly in Munster (and Donegal), traditionally nationalist regions, whereas “Mc” surnames were concentrated in north and east Ulster, with a solid unionist majority.

    The devil remains where he always is, in the detail.

  • Dragging the old Gaelic surnames into English

    November 9, 2015 @ 10:54 am | by John Grenham

    The process of dragging the old Gaelic surnames into English was messy and surprisingly long drawn out. As late as the 19th century, some parish registers still provide a time-lapse record of the changes happening.

    In west Cork, children baptised as “Fowlow” (Ó Foghlú, from foghlaí , “a robber”) in the 1820s become “Fowly” in the 1830s and finally “Foley” in the 1840s. In Leitrim, members of the same family are first “Breheny” (from Mac an Bhreitheamhan, “son of the judge”), then “Judge” and finally, God help us, “Abraham”, mangled out of “McAbrahan”.

    These two examples illustrate the most common ways surnames were anglicised, phonetic transcription and translation, both almost always treating the O or Mc prefix as irrelevant. The results could be rough and ready, approximate versions of what a record-keeper thought he heard or imagined he understood.

    The stretch from Ó Murchú (“grandson of the sea-hound”) to “Murphy” has always seemed a phoneme too far to me. Because any Anglophone record-keepers who knew Irish had only a smattering, mistranslation was the rule, not the exception. Mac Conraoi (west Galway), Mac Fhearadhaigh (Oriel), Ó Maol Conaire (Roscommon), and Ó Conraoi (east Galway) all ended up as “King” in English, simply because they contain elements that to an untutored ear sound like , “king”.

    But the ultimate insult to the old surnames was transposition. A lazy or exasperated record-keeper would give up any pretence of translation or phonetic transcription and just pick an English surname that bore some resemblance to the Irish original. The resemblance was often remote: “Bradley” for Ó Brolacháin; “Harrington” for Ó hIongardáil; “Holland” for Ó Maol Challann; “Davenport” for Ó Donnuartaigh.

    The three centuries before independence saw a great influx of English and Scottish families, among them, no doubt, plenty of actual Bradleys, Harringtons, Hollands and Davenports.

    As guides to ethnic origins, surnames in Ireland can be very treacherous indeed.

  • How Gaelic surnames were Englished

    November 2, 2015 @ 11:00 am | by John Grenham

    Hereditary patronymic surnames, O (“grandson of”) and Mac (“son of”), were a central part of Gaelic Irish culture from at least the 11th century, testament to the deep need for public markers of family membership.

    This was not the product of some mystical Celtic yearning for blood connection. Far from it.

    For almost 1,000 years, the main unit of Gaelic society was not the nuclear family as we conceive it, but a very particular version of the extended family, the derbhfhine, all the descendants of a common great-grandfather.

    Among other things, property ownership rested with the derbhfhine, not the individual. So what you could own depended on who your kin were.
    No wonder genealogy loomed so large and surnames that signalled kinship were so important.

    The name you bore was transparent to those around you, not just, as today, a convenient marker, but instead laden with resonance: stories, possessions, reputations, feuds, homeplaces . . . Gaelic surnames were deeply ingrained in everyday social interactions, as vital and ordinary as language or weather or food.

    Imagine, then, the reactions of the Gaels when the first English arrived. John Bird? George Winterbottom? William Featherstone? The initial response must have been simple hilarity.
    How could there be people with such ludicrously opaque names, telling nothing of parentage and kin?

    The laughing can’t have lasted long. Over the course of the long, catastrophic 17th century, the old Gaelic institutions crumbled under the weight of the English conquest and took with them the centrality of Gaelic surnames.

    And after only a few generations, those whose grandparents had laughed at the opaque stupidity of English names were having their own names mangled into opacity by English-speaking administrators: Harrington, Waters, Rabbit, Kidney, Boner . . . all names deriving from perfectly traditional and transparent O and Mac patronymics and all stripped of meaning to force them into English.

  • Norman surnames

    October 26, 2015 @ 11:11 am | by John Grenham

    The Norman arrival in Ireland in 1169 was just one end-point of their extraordinary expansion out of Flanders and northern France between the 11th and the 14th centuries.

    Superior military technology, used with ruthless brutality, allowed them to conquer and settle a vast swathe of the medieval world, from Byzantium in the east through parts of Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain, as far west as the Canary Islands. When they got to Ireland, they were not using true hereditary surnames. The eldest-son-takes-all practice of primogeniture meant younger sons had to go off and fend for themselves, a factor driving their expansion. Perhaps that weakened the need for hereditary names that signalled wider family connections.

    But the Gaelic Ireland they overran was in the middle of an explosion of surname-creation, with great networks of extended family names budding and sub-budding off central stems as families grew or waned in importance. The grandchildren of Brian Ború understandably wanted to flag their connection (Ó Briain), but the sons of one of them, Mathghamha Ua Briain, picked their own father as an origin point and became (in modern Irish) Mac Mathúna, McMahon. Four generations later, Constantine (Consaidín) O’Brien, bishop of Killaloe, was the source of the Mac Consaidín line, the Considines. A great multi-generational flowering of names was taking place.

    As they did wherever they settled, the Normans eventually integrated. They out-Irished the Irish when it came to fissiparous surname adoption. Just a single family, the de Burgos of Connacht, spun off dozens of modern names: Davey, Davitt, Doak, Galwey, Gibbons, McNicholas (Mc)Philbin, Gillick, Jennings, McRedmond … all stemming from the forenames of prominent de Burgos, all following precisely the Gaelic Irish tradition.

    The upshot is that almost all so-called Norman surnames were created and adopted only in Ireland. “Hiberno-Norman” is too grudging. “Irish” will do.

    The best popular account of Norman surnames in Ireland is by Dr Paul McCotter, available online at

  • Viking surnames

    October 19, 2015 @ 9:10 am | by John Grenham

    There is no such thing as a Viking surname. True hereditary surnames were only introduced in Scandinavia in the late 18th century, more than 700 years after the heyday of Viking expansion. Hereditary surnames still don’t exist in that most Viking of countries, Iceland, where personal names continue to last only a single generation.

    So why does Sean de Bhulbh’s magisterial Sloinnte na hÉireann: Irish Surnames list no fewer than 97 Irish names that have Norse or Viking roots? All the stranger when you consider that surnames only began to be widely adopted in Ireland from the 11th century, well after Viking power in Ireland was broken.

    But there is no doubt about the origins of these names: McAuliff, son of Olaf; Groarke, Mag Ruairc, son of Hrothkekr; McBirney, son of Bjorn; Reynolds, Mac Raghnall, from the Norse first name Ragnall. Some might have originated with Gaels imitating their neighbours, but the simplest explanation is that Viking settlers adopted Gaelic naming practices, dropping their own single-generation names.

    Other Norse-origin names provide evidence of the importance of those naming practices. Doyle is Ó Dubhghaill, from dubh, “dark”, and gall, “foreigner”, a descriptive formula first used to describe the invading Vikings, and in particular to distinguish darker-haired Danes from fair-haired Norwegians. O’Loughlin and Higgins both stem directly from words meaning literally “Viking”, Lochlann in Irish and Uigínn, an Irish version of the Norse Vikinger. These names are permanent badges of otherness – think “Johnny Foreigner” – but families were perfectly prepared to adopt and endure them, a measure of just how intense was the need to have a hereditary and patronymic surname in medieval Ireland.

    We adopted them early and we adopted them with gusto. Extended family networks were the very essence of Gaelic society: what better way of flagging your network than embodying it in your name?

    Which is why there are no Viking surnames except for Irish Viking surnames.

  • Rootsireland improving dramatically

    October 12, 2015 @ 12:00 pm | by John Grenham

    Over the past few months, I’ve spent more and more time using what is still the only absolutely essential website for Irish genealogy, the Irish Family History Foundation’s transcription site, Complaining about the IFHF and rootsireland has become second nature for most people involved in Irish family history (mea culpa), to the point where it can be hard to admit when they get things right. The challenge of recent online expansions by the National Library ( and Irish Genealogy ( seems to be producing results.

    First, the pace of addition of new transcripts is accelerating: Monaghan, very poorly served in the past, has recently seen an explosion in the numbers of Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and civil records on the site. And the cut-off year for new transcriptions is edging later and later, past 1920 in some cases, bringing to light almost an entire new generation.

    The IFHF centres’ ground-up approach can sometimes work very well indeed. In Donegal, local knowledge and local contacts have allowed the Ramelton centre to winkle out not only all the surviving church records of every denomination up to 1900, but every single local registrar’s record of births, marriages and deaths up to 1920, making it finally possible to disentangle the mind-bogglingly intertangled Gallaghers and Boyles and O’Donnells and Sweenys. Simply zero in on a registrar’s district, and search on the fathers’ names of bride and groom. Wonderful, if quasi-legal.

    There is still plenty to complain about: the Stalinist pretence that rootsireland is the only Irish genealogy website on the planet (“There is no genealogy service in operation in Co. Kerry”); the need to manoeuvre around the unsignposted gaping holes in some county’s records (Wexford, I’m looking at you); the complete absence of record images and the resultant difficulty trusting many of the transcriptions.

    But they’re getting better. They’re not going away, you know.

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