How Irish Surnames Have Changed Through Centuries

Before the tenth century, people in Ireland used a single name alongside their sept (tribe) name.

The tenth-century saw Brian Boru become High King and unite armies from Connacht, Munster, and Leinster. The population was growing and people were traveling outside their traditional clan territories.

New neighbors needed a way to distinguish between different people with the same name and from the same sept. We can date the appearance of hereditary surnames in Ireland to this time.

Other countries in Europe had also started adopting hereditary surnames from the late 9th century, but Ireland is also one of the first countries to do so.

Mac and O

The first system was to distinguish between a father and his son and grandsons.

“Mac” means “son of” in Gaelic and was put before the father’s first name. So, the son of Donagh (Donnacha) was MacDonagh.

“Ua” and “ó” mean “descendent of”, and “O” was usually used for a grandson. So, the grandson of Niall was O’Niall (or O’Neill).

These are a form of patronymic surnames i.e. they derive from the father.

Daughters were “Nic” or “Ní”. So, the son of Gorman was O’Gormáin while his daughter was Ni Ghormáin.

Introduction Of Anglo-Norman Names To Ireland

The Normans were descendants of Danish travelers who settled in France in the 9th century. When William the Conqueror took the English throne, the victorious Normans spread out through Britain.

The Anglo-Normans arrived in Ireland in 1169 led by Robert Fitzstephen who landed in Wexford. Settlers spread through the land over the 12th and 13th centuries.

“Fitz” is the Norman equivalent of “Mac”, as it means “son of”. So Fitzstephen was the son of Stephen. You’ll find the Fitz prefix all over Ireland, with Fitzgerald being one of the most common Irish names now.

It’s estimated that just under 10% of Irish surnames are Anglo-Norman. Walsh is the most common Irish surname that comes from Anglo-Norman roots.

Aside from the patronymic Fitzes, some Anglo-Norman names can be recognized as representing the places where the settlers came from. These are known as toponyms.

Nugent is an example of a common name in Ireland. The Norman Nugents invaded England with William the Conqueror in 1066. Their home town was Nogent-le-Rotrou, just south of Normandy.

You’ll also find Berminghams in Ireland. That was the name of the lands given to a Norman soldier by William of Orange for his duty in the conquest of England. Those lands now of course are home to the city of Birmingham.

Anglicization Of Gaelic Surnames

The English administration in Ireland took increasing steps to curb the influence of the Gaelic language.

Public administration and the legal system were all conducted in English. The Irish people increasingly found it necessary to adopt anglicized versions of their surnames when dealing with officialdom.

Genealogists should be aware that the contemporary transcribers often chose an approximate English sound for the names that they heard spoken.

Dropping Mac and O

One of the most common practices in the records was to simply drop the Mac or O prefix.

Phonetically similar (i.e. sounds like)

Another practice was to pick the nearest sounding English name.

 For example, O’hAilpíne (sounds like O Halpeena) became Halfpenny.

Translations (good and bad)

Another practice was to provide a direct translation. This is why you’ll find Anglicized names that don’t sound anything like the Gaelic version.

Mac Gabhann (pronounced Mac Gowan) means the son of the Smith (blacksmith). There is a huge amount of Smiths in County Cavan, whose forbears were MacGowans.

Mac Gilla Eoin means the son of the servant of Eoin (John). Because it kind of sounds like MacAloon, it was translated as Monday.

Huh? Well, “Luain” is the Gaelic word for “Monday”.

Different variations for the same name

Of course, there was no rigid system around these changes. This meant that the same person can appear in records under various versions.

It also means that brothers and sisters can have different versions of the name. I know of one family today where three first cousins are variously McCarthaigh, McCarthy, and MacCarthy.

Edward MacLysaght wrote a seminal book in 1978 on the Surnames Of Ireland. He recounts a tale of coming across a grave in the United States with six members from the same family.

These were the six names on the headstone: McEneaney, McAneaney, McAneny, McEnaney, McEneany, and Bird.

Bird? This is another case of a translation. The name sounds like “éan” which translates directly into English as “bird”.

Gaelic Revival

The late 19th century in Ireland saw a renewed interest in Gaelic traditions and culture. The Gaelic Revival led many to adopt some form of a Gaelic version of their names.

This could simply be tacking on the O or Mac to their surnames.

However, some went further and translated their names back to a more Gaelic version.

I was having difficulty tracing a branch of my Cavan family until I realized that they were Smith when they emigrated to the United States. But when some returned in the early 1900s to Ireland, some became MacGowans.