Irish Roots »

  • 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.

  • Irish surnames as historical evidence

    October 5, 2015 @ 10:38 am | by John Grenham

    Over the years, Irish surnames have received a good deal of careful attention, from Fr Patrick Woulfe’s Sloinnte Gaedheal is Gall (1923) to Edward MacLysaght’s Surnames of Ireland (1969) and most recently Seán de Bhulbh’s Sloinnte na hÉireann: Irish Surnames (1997). Ulster names have been particularly well served. Robert Bell’s Book of Ulster Surnames (1997) and Brian Mitchell’s The Surnames of North West Ireland (2010) both dig deeper than an all-Ireland approach allows.

    All of them work to a similar format: summarise received wisdom about surname etymology and meaning; give rough geographic distributions; list well-known bearers of the name. They are essentially dictionaries focused on elucidating the surnames themselves, which makes them mainly of interest to bearers of the surnames and to local historians.

    But the study of surnames, in particular surname distributions, can provide much broader historical evidence, especially now that technology allows historic data to be mined and examined in novel ways. One example: it is now easy to map surname variety across Ireland in the mid-19th-century Griffith’s Valuation census substitute. Simply take the number of distinct surnames listed as householders in each county and divide by the area of the county. The result is an average number of different surnames per area. ( )

    Unsurprisingly, Dublin has the densest concentration of names, but the area with by far the next greatest variety is the ancient tuatha of Oriel, comprising Armagh, Louth and Monaghan. The western seaboard counties (with the exception of Sligo) have surname densities far below average, even though they were the most highly populated areas. The northeastern counties, with their mix of Scots-Irish and Gaelic-Irish, have surname variety well above average. The clear conclusion is that surname variety or density is a respectable proxy for cultural diversity.

    Plenty of onomastics like this can be found at the Society for Name Studies in Britain and Ireland,

  • 10,000 Protestants

    September 28, 2015 @ 8:41 am | by John Grenham

    The Irish Genealogical Research Society ( have just come up with a humdinger of a record-set, the esoteric-sounding “Dublin Presbyterian Colporteur’s Notebook, 1875″.

    What, you might ask (I did), is a colporteur? Not, unfortunately, a composer of witty Broadway musicals, but someone employed by a church to distribute Bibles and other religious tracts. William Malone was paid by Ormond Quay Presbyterian congregation to seek out and visit “unconnected” Presbyterian and other Protestant families. The aim was to recruit new members.

    Between January and October 1875, Malone appears to have noted down details of every household he visited, sometime more than a dozen a day, six days a week, eventually ranging over the whole of central Dublin. Most of the households were poor or working-class and he recorded occupations, education, number of children and places of origin, covering up to 10,000 people, nearly a third of the Protestant population of the inner city at the time. By the look of the notebook, he simply went from house to house, tenement to tenement, like every door-to-door evangelist before and since.

    On the way he recorded plenty of local colour. One case needing “special attention” was Archibald Henry of 50 Marlboro Street “who holds infidel views & ridiculed the idea of a revelation from heaven. Was inebriated.” And he supplies some strong, by-the-way, sectarian commentary. He found one Catholic household “averse to Gospel truth & firmly attached to their own errors”. It ran both ways: “Was threatened with a poker by a Rom C. same afternoon”.

    The lack of nineteenth-century censuses for Dublin means that, as well as giving a vividly-flavoured sense of the period, the Notebook is also a seriously useful census substitute. The IGRS (in particular its indefatigable chairman Steven Smyrl) and the owners of the notebook, Clontarf and Scots Presbyterian Congregation, are to be congratulated on bringing it into the public domain. Members’ access is at

  • We have history

    September 21, 2015 @ 11:38 am | by John Grenham

    Two years ago, Cork historian Barry Keane came across a Home Office file in the UK National Archives, HO 317/78, “Activities of named paid informants against Irish secret societies”. It covered years between 1886 and 1910, but almost all of it had been redacted. When Mr Keane appealed to the home office for the missing information, the entire file was withdrawn. He requested a review under the Freedom of Information Act, was turned down, appealed to the Freedom of Information Tribunal and finally lost that appeal last month.

    His appeal was rejected on two grounds. The first was precisely the reason our own Central Statistics Office gave for not releasing the 1926 census: if people know they might be identified three generations into the future, they won’t co-operate now. This was laughable when put forward by the CSO, and even more so when a Metropolitan Police officer – behind a screen at the appeal hearing, no less – claimed that making the century-old informers file available would put the entire UK covert human intelligence system at risk. A very sensible minority dissent on the tribunal described this argument as “self-evidently absurd”.

    The other reason for refusal, that descendants of those named in the file might be in danger, or exposed to opprobrium, is less absurd. Maybe Cork is now all sweetness and light, but I’m not so sure about elsewhere in Ireland. After a talk I gave in Armagh a few years back, one of the audience questions was from a woman who wanted to know where the historic files naming “the touts” were stored. I don’t think she was researching her own ancestors.

    I’m with the tribunal majority on their decision. Some things just take longer to become history here.

    You can make up your own mind: the full official transcript of the hearing is at

  • Some deeply geeky genealogy

    September 14, 2015 @ 9:32 am | by John Grenham

    A recent research project took me to a headstone in Terryglass in north Tipperary ( It was erected by a Daniel Hogan in memory of his father John, who died in 1856, and it included mothers’ maiden name, siblings, ages at death – wonderful stuff that took the family well back into the 18th century.

    My focus was also Daniel Hogan, listed as occupying 40 acres in the townland of Cappanasmear in Terryglass in Griffith’s Valuation, published for this area in 1852. Could they be the same person?

    Circumstantial evidence is all that survives. How many households in Terryglass were headed by a Daniel Hogan between 1827 and 1857? The baptismal registers (roots show no fewer than 12 separate Hogan families headed by a Daniel. Not good news. But the Cappansmear Hogans were the most prosperous, so there was still hope.

    The Griffith’s manuscript notebooks for Terryglass from 1845 were next. Daniel was there, but the difference with the published record showed the effect of the Famine on the townland. In just seven years, three of his neighbours’ holdings had vanished.

    Because the Valuation was a tax record, it had to be updated regularly. The first revision, dated 1857, showed the ongoing catastrophic impact of the Famine. Of 21 houses listed in Cappanasmear in 1845, by 1857 only 11 remain. And Daniel is gone, his house demolished, his land absorbed into neighbours’ holdings. This doesn’t look like someone who was erecting a carefully-carved gravestone a year before.

    Where did the family go between 1852 and 1857? An 1855 state census shows three of them in upstate New York. And Daniel’s wife, Honora, records that she arrived in the US two years previously and has been a widow for a year. So my Daniel could not have been in Terryglass in 1856 and could not have put up that wonderful headstone.

    Negative outcomes can be just as important as positive ones. But I still hope something disproves my disproof.

  • Were there Irish slaves in Barbados?

    September 7, 2015 @ 9:20 am | by John Grenham

    I recently had my knuckles rapped for a sentence about migration on the Irish Ancestors site ( “In the seventeenth century, in the aftermath of the Cromwellian wars, substantial numbers of the most destitute were shipped as slaves to Barbados”. The problem was the word “slaves”.

    There is no contesting the basic facts. The victorious Cromwellian Commonwealth practised vicious social hygiene, not just in Ireland, but throughout the three kingdoms. Vagrants, petty criminals, homeless orphans, and other victims of war were rounded up and shipped out against their wills to supply forced labour in the West Indies, Barbados in particular. The earliest historian of Barbados, Jill Sheppard, wrote: “by 1655 a total of 12,000 prisoners of war was alleged by the planters of Barbados to be employed by them, which would have represented nearly half the total white population”.

    Were they slaves? The labour they did was slave labour, and their circumstances were much worse than those of the indentured workers who travelled at the same time and later, not least because indentured work, though often harsh, was voluntary and time-limited. Refusing to call them slaves is quibbling.

    Does this make what happened to them the moral equivalent of the African slave trade? Absolutely not. African slaves taken across the Atlantic in their hundreds of thousands as pure chattels, unconditionally the property of their masters, with their children and children’s children also condemned secula seculorum. The noxious racism developed to justify the system puts the Puritans’ expedient sweeping of beaten opponents off the streets in the halfpenny place.

    My knuckles were rapped for apparently supplying ammunition to the most recent white supremacist perversion of history: The Irish were the first slaves. We got over it. Black America should get over it.

    This is so stupid it’s not worth arguing with. It’s certainly no reason to deny that a short, brutal episode of slave-export from these islands took place in the mid-17th century.

  • The late, unlamented Certificate of Irish Heritage

    August 31, 2015 @ 4:38 pm | by John Grenham

    When the recently-defunct Certificate of Irish Heritage ( was set up back in 2011, it attracted ill-informed begrudgery from many people, including me. The vision of a cash-strapped government flogging “Kiss me Officially, I’m Officially Irish” hats to gullible Yanks was irresistible. It was also grossly inaccurate.

    The origins of the scheme were purely laudable. When article 2 of the Constitution was revised in 1999 as part of the Northern Ireland peace process, as well as dropping the territorial claim so offensive to unionists, the new article stated “the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage”.

    This was a simple recognition of the uniqueness of the historic Irish diaspora and the enduring connection many still feel after multiple generations.

    After the economic collapse of 2008, the Farmleigh Economic Forum suggested the government should explore ways of recognising and cementing that connection. The certificate, which would offer official State recognition, was one such way.

    The idea was handed to the Department of Foreign Affairs, who appear to have held it between thumb and forefinger at arm’s length. I suspect they could see leprechauns on the horizon. Initially, the procedure to qualify was far too cumbersome, involving piles of official documents, notarised copies, affidavits sworn before a law officer . . . and a hefty fee. It was harder than getting a passport. The historic diaspora’s affection for Ireland is genuine but soft. No wonder take-up was tiny. By the time the requirements were relaxed, it was too late.

    But the most basic problem was the official Ireland offering them recognition has only a distant relationship to the Ireland their ancestors left.

    After all, the Republic is very young, represents only part of the island and only part of the Irish identity, and was selling, in effect, a bureaucratic box-tick. It’s a pity it wasn’t handled better. If only because any revival is likely to come from the National Leprechaun Museum.

  • Why we love Heritage Week

    August 24, 2015 @ 3:48 pm | by John Grenham

    It would be nice to think that the reason for the huge success of National Heritage Week in Ireland is our deeply-ingrained respect and love for everything our ancestors left us.

    But we really have very little sentiment about what we’ve inherited. Since the start of the 20th century, we’ve shed a national language and a national religion, three currencies, membership of a kingdom, an empire and a commonwealth and demolished more great houses than you can shake a shillelagh at. And since the start of the 21st century, we’ve reinvented ourselves over and over, as business moguls, four-hour commuters, consumerist party animals, rock stars, gay reality-show celebs, and penitent capitalists.

    So what explains our enthusiasm for Heritage Week? Part of it must be the chance to get into so many buildings usually closed to us – all-consuming curiosity about the neighbours being a vital part of the Irish national psyche (and also a sadly unacknowledged motivator behind a lot of genealogy).

    But the real reason is, I think, more banal. We just love nothing more than a party, and what better excuse for revelry than a past we still disagree about?

    Of course we don’t actually need any excuse at all. In the early 1980s, I came back from living in sunny, civilised Italy to grimy, recession-hit, phlegm-hawking Dublin.

    And there was a permanent party going on. The pubs were full to bursting with red-faced drinkers laughing their heads off. It was a glimpse of how we might look to foreigners – on a good day.

    Heritage Week is a European initiative, so I tried to find out what Italians think of it, to compare to Ireland. A Google search for settimana del patrimonio nazionale found precisely one hit. On an Italian guide to Dublin.

    The Week runs until next Saturday, See for events. I’ll be doing my own turn for the cause in Dublin City Library and Archive in Pearse Street on Wednesday at 5.30.

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