Celtic Surnames

AuthorTomas O Flannghaile
Date1896
SourceFor the Tongue of the Gael
SectionPage 3

Irish names in England are mostly the growth of the present century. Few Irishmen came to England in the last century, and those who did were mostly Anglo-Irish of the Pale—fewer still, of course, came in the seventeenth century. When the national life of Ireland was destroyed by the Union, and Irish lords and gentlemen had to make London their chief resort instead of Dublin, they led the way for a somewhat extensive exodus of Irish families to England. The rise of manufactures in the northern English towns led to a further immigration of Irish Celts, and the flow still continues, though it is but small in proportion to the stream that pours westward into the United States. And if Irish names had lost much of their Celtic form and flavour before they appeared in England at all, the tendency to a still further assimilation to English names was now all the greater.

But, in fact, our Irish surnames had already begun to lose much of their distinctive character in Ireland itself. The old rule commemorated in the lines:

"By Mac and O you'll always know

True Irishmen, they say"—

no longer held good—even in the limited sense of the expression "true Irishmen," that is, Irishmen of the old race—the Clanna Gaedheal. (Happily "true Irishmen" in the best sense of the word are not unknown among some also of the newer races found in Ireland—though, mobhron, they are far too few!) It was true enough, no doubt, till the end of the seventeenth century, but in the course of the eighteenth a great change had taken place. An O or a Mac to a man's name was no recommendation to him in the eyes of the powers that then ruled the country. The people were taught or forced to believe that they must have an English name or an English form to their name, no matter what the Irish form was. Hence the wholesale suppression or discontinuance of the Milesian prefixes Mac and O. Attorneys, attorneys' clerks, process servers, and such like supporters and expounders of British law, had much to do with the corruption of our family names and the stereotyping of the corrupt forms. But, indeed, to modify one's name in some degree was almost a condition of life. Ignorance, too,—the result of want of education—in many cases drove the tradition of their name and origin out of men's minds, so much so, that of a person who had retained, or had resumed the O to his name, many would ask (and the foolish question is still sometimes heard) "Who gave him the O? Where did he get the O?"[2]. And to such a degree have many of our names been "translated" or burlesqued into English, that some of our people are led by their un-Irish names to think that, like others around them, they too are Cromwellians or Williamites, when really they are of the ancient and noble stock of the Clanna Gaedheal.

All our surnames in their Irish forms have an O or Mac, but the former seems to have been preferred—certainly the O's are by far the more numerous, being in their native forms in the proportion of three or even four to one of the Macs. Whilst there are Macs in all the provinces, they are most numerous in the north where they appear to prevail even over the O's. Some might explain this by the accession of modern Scottish names at the time of the Stuart plantations. But a good deal of this Scottish infusion was Lowland rather than Highland; moreover, long before those plantations and in the days of Ulster's independence, the Macs appear to have been more numerous than the O's, though certainly the O'Neills and O'Donnells held the sway for power and authority. Why the Macs almost exclusively prevail in the Highlands is probably because the Irish ancestors of the Scottish Gael had left Dalriada (Co. Antrim) at a time when this mode of forming patronymics was the general practice all over Ireland, and long before the other form had begun to prevail.

But after the eleventh century, or thereabouts, the O began to prevail more than the Mac, and thus, in course of time, the O-names became more distinctively Irish than those beginning with Mac; and it is therefore little wonder if in the eighteenth century when war was made on everything Irish our family names suffered wholesale change. Suppression, ignorance, voluntary disuse—from one or other of these causes it has happened that those who have retained the O in the English forms of their names are but a small minority of those to whose names it really belongs; and as the Mac was not so distinctively Irish, and could be more easily incorporated with the rest of the name, it arises also that in any considerable list of Irish names the Macs now are more numerous than the O's, though even those that preserved the Mac are but a small proportion of the names that should have it. Occasionally of course in a limited number of names the O's may predominate, while occasionally, too, a number of Irishmen may meet not one of whom is an O or a Mac, in the anglicised form of his name. Now, however, that times are altered, it is much to be desired and, indeed, may be hoped, that Irishmen will resume the fuller and more distinctive forms of their fine old names.

Rarely indeed have any of our family names retained their Irish spelling in English. O'Neill and MacNeill are perhaps the solitary instances—these are absolutely the same in English and Irish. Doubtless their shortness and simplicity of form helped to preserve them. There are some, however, in which very little change has occurred—as O'Brien (Ir. O Briain), O'Connell (better with one n—the Irish being O Conaill), O'Grady (for O Grada, O'Gara (Ir. O Gadhra), O'Clery (Ir. O Clérigh or O Cléirigh), O'Beirne (where the final e is quite useless, the Ir. being O Beirn or O Birn); so MacCormac (for MacCormaic), MacColl (for MacColla), MacArtan—sometimes spelt with an unnecessary C, MacCartan (for MacArtain), &c. And it is to be noticed that with certain names, especially those ending in-an (anglice)—when they have dropped the O and the genitive inflection they at once assume the original Irish forms—at least the forms they had a thousand years ago—and become in each case identical with the name of the ancestor from whom the family was called: as Ronan (for O Rónáin), Scannlan (for O Scannláin), Branagan (for O Branagáin), Corcoran (for O Corcoráin), &c. Persons therefore bearing these names thus shortened might in future ages at least be confounded with their ancestors, and names which are now merely patronymic and hereditary, might be mistaken for the significant names they were once.

The longer names, however, have, in most cases—though they may have retained the O or Mac—suffered a wholesale suppression of consonants, and the anglicised forms are in general but feeble and flabby representatives of the vigorous and sonorous names they were once, and are still in their true Irish forms. Such are O'Conor (for O Conchubhair), MacMahon (for Mac-Mathghamhna), O'Feely (for O Fithcheallaigh), O'Hurley (generally for O H-Iarfhlaithe, though sometimes it represents other names), O'Reilly (for O Raghallaigh), Aherne (for O h-Eichthighearn), &c., &c. Either our organs of speech have deteriorated during the late centuries, and we are therefore unable to pronounce our names as once we could, or what is more likely, having forgotten how to spell our names correctly, we were too easily satisfied with the way petty officials of all sorts spelt them for us.

Note

[2] We knew an old Irishman once who used to say:—"The divil an O ever we heard of but a gintleman." As if the prefix were some title and not merely a mark of Milesian or Gaelic origin.

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