Naming Names

Irish surnames reveal a lot more than the history books tell us, writes Ian Maxwell

Few of us know when our name came into existence or how some long-forgotten ancestor acquired it.

We don’t know the history and yet are often ridiculously proud of our names as if, in the words of the Czech writer Milan Kundera, ‘we had thought it up ourselves in a moment of brilliant inspiration’.

This is particularly true in NI, where a surname can denote religion, place of origin and political outlook. 

Divisions within our society have ensured that the Irish man or woman of the 21st century is as proud of their surname as their ancient tribal ancestors who could recite their lineage for several generations.

The Irish pride in their pedigree has been remarked on by many visitors over the centuries.

In his Irish tour of 1732, Englishman John Loveday noted: ‘So great is ye pride of these common people that if a woman be ye same name as some noble family she’ll retain it in marriage unless her husband has as distinguished a name.'

It is widely believed that there are two kinds of surname in Ireland: those from native Gaelic families, and those brought to Ireland by settlers from England and Scotland.

In fact, when compared with Wales, Ireland has a variety of surnames which reveal numerous migrations of peoples over the centuries.

Ireland was one of the first countries to evolve a system of hereditary surnames.

This emerged during the 11th century, as the population increased and more than one person with the same name lived in the same area. More precise identification was necessary.

At first the surname was formed by prefixing Mac, ('son of'), to the father’s Christian name, or O, ('grandson'), to that of a grandfather or earlier ancestor.

Later names were formed according to the occupation of the father, as for example Mac an Bhaird, ('son of the bard'), modern Mac Ward and Ward, or O hIceadha-icidhe, ('doctor or healer'), modern Hickey.

In other cases the name denoted a particular feature or peculiarity of the grandfather or father. Mac Dubhghaill ('black stranger'), modern MacDowell, or a nickname was adopted, such as Mac an Mhadaidh-mada, meaning 'dog' (now MacAvaddy).

Many surnames now commonly taken as Irish have different origins.

The Anglo-Norman invasion of the twelfth century introduced names such as Cruise, Dillon, Nugent, Power and Roche, which have become 'exclusively Irish' over the centuries.

The same can be said for those beginning with ‘Fitz’, a corruption of the French fils, meaning ‘son’.

In south-east Ulster, where The Normans formed a strong community in Co Down, surnames including Hackett, Russell, and Savage remain associated with that part of the country to this day.

The mass migration which occurred during the 17th century government-sponsored Plantation scheme was to have a massive impact on Ulster.

English surnames such as Bingham, Mitchell, Shaw and Turner are just some examples of derived surnames commonly found in NI.

Many of these came to Ulster with settlers from Cheshire, Lancashire, Yorkshire and Westmoreland who tended to favour settlement along the Lagan valley.

Scottish settlers, mainly Presbyterian, had migrated to Ulster before the Plantation and in greater numbers, throughout the 17th century.

They brought with them surnames such as Agnew, Adair, Shaw and Maxwell.

Less well known is the number of Welsh settlers who had migrated to Ireland long before records began.

Branagh, Lynnott and Joyce are evidence of Welsh migration, while the surname Walsh, among the five most popular names in Ireland, is derived from the Old English woelisc meaning 'foreigner'.

It should not be taken for granted that an English or Scottish surname invariably means that an ancestor was of settler stock.

For example Hughes, the second most common surname in Co Armagh and widespread in Wales and England, is not exclusive to those whose ancestors migrated to Ulster in the 17th century.

A significant number are from native stock, descendants of the several O hAodha (O’Hugh) or Mac Aodha (McHugh) septs, whose forebears adopted Hughes as their surname.

The same may be said of the surname Campbell, one of the most common in Scotland. Some who bear this surname may be descended from the Co Tyrone sept Mac Cathmhaoil.

Settlers from many parts of the world have fled to Ireland over the centuries because of persecution.

The Huguenots fled France in the 17th century, settling in many parts of Ireland. They made a major contribution to the development of the linen industry in Ulster and Huguenots surnames, such as Alderdice, Latour, Ricard and Duprey, are their most enduring legacy.

Less well known are German settlers from the Palatinate who fled economic hardship caused by war and severe winters to settle in Ireland in the 18th century.

They established roots in the Rathkeale area of Co Limerick, and in Cork and Dublin, where the surnames Bowen, Gilliard, Millar and Pyper can be found.

In a country where family ties remain strong and many are still acquainted with our first, second and third cousins, family history is becoming an increasingly popular pastime.

Few of us expect to find ourselves descended from ancient kings or princesses, but tracing a name can allow us to see both ourselves in a new light and reveal a much more complex picture of Irish society than the history books would suggest.