What’s in a name? Well everything it seems as for most of us it is our most personal possession and is usually very dear to us and as such intertwined with our personality. Our surname too is most important because it places us in our community, it’s our clan, our tribe. It’s a strong badge of identification. While today the sense of the individual has primacy in our society there are nevertheless layers and layers of bonds of kinships – ties that bind, as they say.

Today as a bit of diversionary summer reading I would like to deal with the origin of surnames in general as well as Irish ones in particular. MacLysaght (Edward) and Woulfe (Patrick) among others have done amazing research work in this whole area and I have, naturally picked and plucked from among their distinguished bodies of work. A surname, or family name, can be defined as a legal identification tag which is transmitted by family members from generation to generation. The use of a surname is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Surnames were adopted in order to legally distinguish between two individuals with the same given name. By surname, we mean a fixed name by which that particular individual is known.

Different areas of the world adopted surnames at different periods in time. For example, surnames were commonly used two thousand years ago in areas occupied or influenced by the Romans. Other areas of the world were slower to begin using surnames, but they were coming into regular use by the time of the Middle Ages, first by the nobility, then by the gentry. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Ireland was one of the first countries to adopt hereditary surnames, and Irish surnames are found as early as the tenth century.

Origins of surnames

Surnames are generally derived from one of four sources: the name of the person’s father (patronymic), the person’s locality, the person’s occupation, or a descriptive nickname for the person. When they were created, they answered one of the following questions: Who is this person’s father? Where is this person from? What does this person do for a living? What is his or her most prominent feature?

The patronymic name suggests the name of the father or grandfather by the use of some form of “of.” In Ireland, “Mac” means “son of,” while “O” means “grandson of.” When “d'” or “di” is found in an Italian surname, it signifies “son of.” In Czechoslovakia, Pavlov is the “son of Paul.” This naming pattern can be seen clearly in Sweden, where each subsequent generation followed suit: Hans Peterson would be the son of Peter; Hans Peterson’s son would be called Jan Hansen. A similar situation can be found in the some common patronymics such as Robertson, Anderson, Williamson, and Johnson.

Place names were often taken as a surname. They were derived from the name of the place where one resided or from a description of the place. More than half the English surnames used today derive from geographic descriptions, such as Churchill. Occupations also helped distinguish one person from another. John Miller may have owned the mill in the same town where John Smith was the local blacksmith. Bedell was the policeman of the village; Fletcher was the arrow-maker. You will often find names which describe ancestors’ vocations, such as Baker, Shepherd, Carpenter, and Wright. Sometimes nicknames became surnames. These types of surnames were often used to describe something unusual about an ancestor’s physique. Small and Petit are obvious examples. These origins feature rarely in Gaelic/Irish surnames for here in Ireland historically it always mattered more ‘of whom you were’ rather than what you did occupationally.

The formative years

Although up to the tenth century, surnames in Ireland were not hereditary, the influence of the church, dating from this period, can still be seen in many common modern Irish surnames, in particular those beginning with “Gil-” or “Kil-“, an anglicised version of the Irish Giolla, meaning follower or devotee. Thus Gilmartin, in Irish Mac Giolla Mhairtin, means “son of a follower of (St.) Martin”. The President’s name McAleese ( Mac Giolla Iosa) means ‘son of devotee of Jesus’. Similarly, the church is the origin of all of those names starting with “Mul-“, a version of the Irish Maol, meaning bald, and applied to the monks because of their distinctive tonsure.

While many of the names appearing in accounts of this time appear similar in form to modern Irish names, incorporating in particular the prefix “Mac” (meaning “son of”), in fact they were not hereditary, lasting only one generation. Nonetheless, Ireland was one of the first European countries in which a system of fixed hereditary surnames developed. The earliest names appear to be those incorporating “Ó” or its earlier form Ua, meaning “grandson”. According to Fr. Woulfe, an early authority on Irish surnames, the first recorded fixed surname is O’Clery (Ó Cleirigh), as noted by the Annals, which record the death of Tigherneach Ua Cleirigh, lord of Aidhne in Co. Galway in the year 916. It seems likely that this is the oldest surname recorded anywhere in Europe.

The Os and the Macs

By the eleventh century many families had acquired true surnames as we would know them today. All of these surnames incorporate the same two basic elements, “O” or “Mac”, together with the personal name of the ancestor from whom descent is indicated. In many cases this ancestor can be quite accurately identified, and the origin of the name dated precisely. Thus, at the start of the eleventh century, Brian Boru possessed no surname, being simply “Brian, High-King of the Irish”, his grandson Teigue called himself Ua Briain in memory of his illustrious grandfather, and the name became hereditary thereafter.

Due to linguistic changes, the origins of many of the personal names such as Niall or Brian which form the stem of the surname remain obscure, but two broad categories can be distinguished, descriptive and occupational. In the first category, we can guess that the progenitor of the Traceys (Ó Treasaigh) was a formidable character, treasach meaning “war-like”, while the ancestor of the Duffs must have been dark-featured, since dubh, the root of the name, means black or dark. Among the occupations recorded in names are the churchmen dealt with above, clerks (Clery, Ó Cleirigh, from cleireach), bards (Ward, Mac an Bhaird, from bard), and smiths (McGowan, Mac Gabhainn, from gabhann). One category of name, common in English, which is extremely rare among Irish names is the toponymic, deriving from the name of a locality. Again it seems likely that this reflects the fact that, for the Gaels, to whom you were related, was much more important than where you came from.

Although the immediate reason for the early adoption of hereditary names in Ireland may have been a rapidly expanding population, it can also be seen as the logical outcome of a process at work from the times of the earliest tribal names. Originally, these indicated identification with a common god, often connected with an animal valued by the tribe, in the case of the Osraige, or “deer-people”, for example.

Although it began early, the process of the creation of surnames was slow, and continued for over six hundred years.

As the population grew and new families were formed, they sought to consolidate their identity by adopting hereditary surnames of their own, usually by simply adding MAC to the first name of the founding ancestor. In the course of this process, then, many surnames were created which are in fact offshoots of more common names. The continuing division and sub-division of the most powerful Gaelic families like this is almost certainly the reason for the great proliferation of Gaelic/Irish surnames. It will be interesting as to how the names of the so-called ‘New-Irish’ will be assimilated into our nomenclature over time.

There you have it, now do you know where you’re coming from. Maybe we will get onto first name terms soon!

Go seachtain eile, slan