Synonyms of the Fathers – Frank McNally on the complicated ‘fossil history’ of Irish surnames

An Irishman’s Diary

It's a peculiarity of Ireland, or at least it used to be, that not only do most families here have two surnames, quite a few of them have three.

There is the Irish original, of course, and there is the anglicised approximation of that, by which most people now go. But there is also often, or there was, an English translation of the original, having no visible similarity with the other two.

Examples include Black (for the anglicised Duff, from the Irish dubh), Bird (for Heaney or McEneaney, from éan), and Fox (for Shanahan and its variants, from sionnach).There is also Bishop for McAnespie, Judge for Breho/eny, Rabbit for Cunneen, Small for Begg or Beggan, Short for McGirr, and so on.

Hurley is a common but exceptional case. It is still interchangeable in places with Commane (from camán). But that seems to have been the result of a phenomenon called “pseudo-translation” because the suspected Irish originals of Hurley had nothing to do with hurling.

Among the more direct translations, meanwhile, there are some quirky examples. Quirk(e) is one of them. Irish families with that anglicisation could also sometimes go by the name Oat(e)s, the translation of the root word coirce.

One statute of 1366, for example, ordered that subjects adopt English names, 'leaving off entirely the manner of naming used by the Irish'

Then there is the exotic case recorded once by the register of Cappoquin district, Co Waterford, when a man named Bywater came in to register the death of his brother, one Michael Sruffaun: "On being interrogated as to the difference in the surnames, he said that he was always known by the name Bywater but his brother by the name Sruffaun." As the registrar added by way of explanation: "Sruffaun is a local form of sruthán, an Irish word for a little stream."

That’s among the examples cited in a 1909 book on Irish surnames, by Robert E Matheson, then retiring as the country’s registrar-general.

Matheson had encountered many similar confusions in his work: "For instance, in the middle of a marriage certificate, there would appear such a name as Mary Hurley, while the signature would appear as Mary Commane, the latter being the Irish for hurley stick."

As he explained, this duplication went back to the early centuries of English rule, and attempts to impose standardisation in the Pale at least. One statute of 1366, for example, ordered that subjects adopt English names, “leaving off entirely the manner of naming used by the Irish”.

Another, in 1465, decreed “that every Irishman that dwells betwixt or amongst Englishmen in the county of Dublin, Myeth, Uriell, and Kildare shall take to him an English surname of one town, as Sutton, Chester, Trym, Skryne, Corke, Kinsale; or colour, as white, blacke, browne; or arte or science, as smith, carpenter; or office, as cooke, butler...[etc].

The history of surnames in Ireland is further complicated by the many English and Scottish ones introduced directly in the various plantations

Hence the complicated “fossil history” of Irish surnames, as Matheson called it, although even in his time, the process of anglicised versions being replaced by direct translations continued.

The McRorys of Ulster, for example, were increasingly styling themselves "Rogers", he wrote, while in the Riverstown district of Sligo, the registrar had noted of one local surname "that they were almost all 'Brehenys' some time ago, but are now becoming Judge(s)".

The history of surnames in Ireland is further complicated by the many English and Scottish ones introduced directly in the various plantations.

An unusual but interesting example is Stoney.

The best known Stoneys of Irish history were a big-house family of engineers who settled in Tipperary, mainly. Their descendents include Alan Turing, the code-cracking genius of the second World War, whose mother was an Ethel Stoney from Borrisokane.

But as one Lieutenant Colonel F.S. Stoney pointed out in a letter to this newspaper once (in response to Matheson’s book), there were also some indigenous Stoneys, descended from an ancient sept named Maolclochach, which had been anglicised as Mulclohy before going full English.

Colonel Stoney regretted that his family – originally Danish, via Yorkshire – could not claim such noble Irish lineage. On the other hand, he was relieved that they were also thereby exempt from an ancient curse associated with Coney Island in Sligo.

That used to be Inismulclohy, after a local family. And tradition has it that St Patrick once planned to link it with the mainland via a causeway. Unfortunately, this changed when his hostess there, “a woman named Stoney – i.e. Mulclohy, served up a roast cat for his dinner instead of the roast rabbit he ordered.”

The local rabbit population, after which the island is now named, must have multiplied since. The humans were less fruitful. According to the legend, St Patrick prayed that the native Stoneys would never multiply sufficiently for there to be four of them to carry a relative’s coffin. His bridge project was also cancelled.