Thursday, May 16, 2013

Making Irish surnames English

In 1518 a City Council decreed “neither O' nor Mac shall strut and swagger through the streets of Galway”. The names of the native Irish male population all began with O’ or Mac meaning “grandson of” or “son of” followed by the personal name of the ancestor. In the late 16th century the Irish nation under duress began the process of changing their surnames to be more English sounding.

The English Poet Edmund Spencer who spent 20 years in Ireland called upon the English to commit genocide against the Irish as Earl Arthur Grey had done in 1582 using brutal scorched earth tactics resulting in a serious famine which killed as many as 30,000 people in just six months.

The Elizabethan conquest of Ireland resulted in the establishment of a central government in Ireland for the first time, the outlawing of the native Brehon laws and imposition of English law, the ethnic cleansing of the native population, the despising of Irish manner hairstyles, clothing and all things Gaelic. Therefore it is not surprising that it became unfashionable to have an Irish name.

While the surname change process was initiated by oppression it was not simply due to it alone but was driven by a complex interplay of many different circumstances. For example one could gain significant social advantages by appearing to be English or to appear to be in support of the English. Families might even be able to avoid land confiscations. However written records do not allow us to count the many families went by their original name but used an official name for paper records and interactions with government. (perhaps this is the primary reason for the survival of Irish surnames). A similar practice continues to this day most notably in the forename Liam, almost no holder of this name is called Liam on their birth certificate. They are all called William.

English officials unfamiliar with the Irish language recorded surnames as the heard them and thus wrote the names down a phonetically. For example Mag Oireachtaig (Ma-gur-ach-ti) becomes Ma’Geraghty or Mac Geraghty. Another scribe might hear it different like Mc Garrity or recorded it carelessly. Thus one surname takes on the appearance of many and we get all these variations Gerrity, Gerty, Gerighty, Gerighaty, Gerety, Gerahty, Garraty, Geraty, Jerety, McGerity, MacGeraghty, MacGartie, MacGarty and many more.

Misspellings were also common because the uniformity of spelling we enjoy today was not present in the English language until very recently. An interesting example is William Shakespeare (1564-1616) who spelled his name in a variety of ways. Despite his great learning and literary accomplishments 83 variants of his name have been attested in English source material

Direct translations of Irish names also occurs for example Ó Marcaigh to Ryder, Ó Bradáin to Salmon and Fisher, Mac an tSaoir to Carpenter or Freeman , Mac Conraoi to King, Ó Draighneáin (meaning from a place abounding in briars) is translated to Thornton. Ó Gaoithín (meaning from a windy place) is translated to Wyndham.

Assimilation is the name given to the process of substitution with foreign names of similar sound or meaning like these French examples. Ó Lapáin became De Lapp, Ó Maoláin became De Moleyns, Ó Duibhdhíorma became D'Ermott. Molloy (O’ Maol an Mhuaidh) and Mulligan (O’Maoláin) became Molyneux.

Pure substitution occurs where the connection between the original surname and the substitute is remote for example, Clifford for Ó Clúmháin, Fenton for Ó Fiannachta, Loftus for Ó Lachtnáin, Neville for Ó Niadh, Newcombe for Ó Niadhóg.

Sometimes rare names are often subsumed by more common names in a process called attraction.

Ó Bláthmhaic is anglicised as Blawick or Blowick and becomes Blake

Ó Braoin is anglicised as O'Breen, Breen becomes O'Brien,

Ó Duibhdhíorma is anglicised as O'Dughierma or Dooyearma, becomes MacDermott,

Ó hEochagáin is anglicised as O'Hoghegan becomes Mageoghegan,

Ó Maoil Sheachlainn is anglicised as O'Melaghlin becomes MacLoughlin.

Image taken from “Mapping the Emerald Isle: a geo-genealogy of Irish surnames”. Tip: type in a name of interest or zoom to a place to see the names associated with that place in 1890.


  1. Hi there - - fascinating article. Thanks for sharing this on the history of Irish names becoming English. Wondering about the image with the surname map?? Any way to get a high-res version of this or for the full country? It's awesome. Thanks! - Craig Kanalley

  2. Great share! Students around the world have the same struggle of completing an assignment before its due. Luckily, there is a website that you can visit that will help you with your assignments until they are completed. How convenient is that!

  3. I'm visiting Ireland next month. I would like to know where is my family's résidence in 1856...MCKALE