Genealogy expert, Fiona Fitzsimons of the Irish Family History Centre, examines the history behind Irish surnames and explains what they can teach us about our heritage

The earliest Irish historic records, Ogam Stones and vellum manuscripts, show that Ireland was a lineage-society ruled by clans.

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Clans were loose confederations of people that claimed common descent from a noble ancestor, the ancient kings or early settlers in Ireland. Membership of the Clan was by descent on the male line within four generations. Over time this gave rise to many distinct families within the Clan group. The greater part of the Irish population never belonged to any recognised Clan.

"Mac" and "Ó"

From 900 A.D. some of the ruling families in Ireland began to use 'patronyms' as surnames. Up to that time, men and women always had their own 'christian' names, but they were identified either by the name of their father ( mac = son of/ ni = daughter of), or their grandfather (Ó). Once families began to adopt patronyms, then surnames became hereditary over generations. The O'Connor surname for example, has been used for over 1100 years.

O'Neill was first used as a surname by the grandson of Niall Glundubh (d. 919). However this family was one of many noble families in the wider Ua Neill clan-group that claimed descent from Niall of the Nine Hostages (450 A.D.).

Some Irish surnames originated in religious patronage. Children named after patron saints, were often named as devotees ( maol) or servants (giolla) of the saint, and this was integrated in their family name. Do you know that O'Malone is the grandson or descendant of the devotee of St. John (Maol Eoin); or that MacGilbrides are descended from the sons of the devotee/servant of Saint Bridget?

MacGowan is 'son of the blacksmith', MacEntaggart 'son of the priest', Ward from the Irish Mac an Bhaird translates as 'son of the poet.'

Some surnames that use the prefix 'Mac' don't refer to the father's name, but to his occupation, MacGowan is 'son of the blacksmith', MacEntaggart 'son of the priest', Ward from the Irish Mac an Bhaird translates as 'son of the poet.'

Ireland was connected by the sea to the people of Europe. The Vikings, sea pirates traded, and invaded the island and introduced other surnames now common. The names Doyle (of the Dubh Gall – the dark foreigners) and MacAuliffe (son of Olaf), and Doyle are Viking in origin.

The Normans to the 16th Century

The Norman invasion introduced into Ireland, names which in time became 'more Irish than the Irish' including Barry, Burke, Cruise, Power, Fitzgerald and indeed, all the other 'Fitz' names.

English and European settlers in Ireland from the 1200s introduced surnames like Walsh/ Welsh, Taaffe and Fleming, all which tell us the country of origins of these families. Curiously, in Ireland we never went in for names taken from a feature in the landscape, to the same extent as did other cultures in Europe, for example Roche from Rock, also a place-name in France.

Branches of the MacMurrough family already separated into distinct branches of Kavanagh and Kinsella, now anglicised their names to Murphy, Davis, Hendrick, Redmond and Waddock.

In Tudor times, the use of 'Mac' and 'O' as a prefix to surnames in Ireland was outlawed not by Act of Parliament, but by martial law, to force the native Irish and the English of Ireland to adapt to 'English civility'. At this time some Irish names were 'Anglicised' beyond recognition. Branches of the MacMurrough family already separated into distinct branches of Kavanagh and Kinsella, now anglicised their names to Murphy, Davis, Hendrick, Redmond and Waddock.

The 16th Century to the 18th Century

In the 16th and 17th centuries, plantations saw the introduction into Ireland of names like Boyle, Blennerhasset and Morris in the provinces of Munster and Connacht. The surnames of the Scottish Highlands were introduced into Ulster, including Adams, Campbell, Hamilton, Harris, McLean, Donald and Stewart.

10,000 English soldiers settled in Ireland, and married local women, adding names such as Bewley, Goodbody, Richards and Sayers to the tapestry of Irish names.

The Cromwellian Conquest of Ireland 1649-52, saw two million acres of Irish land, one tenth the entire land-mass, offered in payment to the soldiers of the New Model Army. Many of these sold their land for ready money in the following generation, but it's estimated that at least 10,000 English soldiers settled in Ireland, and married local women, adding names such as Bewley, Goodbody, Richards and Sayers to the tapestry of Irish names.

In the late 1600s and early 1700s, religious wars across Europe saw a steady stream of immigration into Ireland by religious refugees, including Behn or Benn (President Obama's ancestors), Colbert (direct ancestors of Stephen Colbert), Switzer and Teskey.

The 18th Century and Beyond

Since 1660 there has also been a small but not insignificant Jewish community in Dublin, who introduced surnames like Jacobs, Pereira and Wolf. From the 1880s, Pogroms in East-Europe increased numbers of Jewish migrants and refugees in Ireland, so that by the early 1900s, the Jewish community in Ireland was estimated at 5,000 strong.

The sheer variety of names found in this small island is part of our cultural heritage, and something we should treasure. But what can you do, if you know the name you're searching for, but can't find any relevant records online?

Top 5 Research Tips for Researching Irish Names:

1. The golden rule is, always search across all variant spellings of your family name. Unless your ancestors left signed documents or letters, any historic document in which your family-name is recorded, was probably written down by a clerk or other public official. So set aside the fact that your family have since time immemorial written Ford with an 'e' at the end or Fitzsimons using a double 'm'. More often than not, your ancestors names were recorded phonetically, or using the most common spelling of the name.

2. Search diminutives of forenames to find your ancestors. Historically Irish people used diminutive versions of their names for every-day use (eg: Kate, Katie), and formal versions of their names for 'official' events (Catherine, Katherine, Kathleen).

3. Irish or Latin use can also 'screen' or 'hide' the version of your ancestor's name that you're most familiar with. Seán, Séan, Shaun, Shane, Eoin and Eugene are all variants of John; Dermot and Digby equate to Jeremiah; Riocard is an older form of Rísteard, both Irish versions of the English name Richard, sometimes anglicised as Rickard; Anna, Hannah and Johanna are all versions of a name, and can appear across parish registers, civil records and census returns.

4. Expect constant change in how a surname is spelt – don't expect that your family name will remain the same across generations and continents. Just imagine what an immigration clerk in New Orelans or Ellis Island heard when a native Irish speaker with broken English and a heavy accent presented themselves. One of the most common 'changes' I see in U.S. records, is the name Matthews spelt as Mathis.

5. Finally, god loves a trier, but be smart in how you approach your research. Check out the 'name variants' in online search-engines; use the wild-card characters (*= an asterix) for alternate letters; and limit your search by setting a time-frame of events.

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