Irish Roots »

  • 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.

  • 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.

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