Sir James Ware on the Surnames of the Ancient Irish

AuthorSir James Ware
SourceExtract from The Whole Works of Sir James Ware concerning Ireland, translated by Walter Harris, and published in Dublin in 1764, published in The Cabinet of Irish Literature, Volume 1 (1880), edited by Charles A. Read

Surnames have been added to the proper names of the ancient Irish either from gome remarkable action, or from the quality of the mind, or from the colour, or mark, or defect in the body, or from some accident, and sometimes ironically. Thus Neill, king of Ireland, was called Nigialac,[1] because he had exacted nine hostages from the petty kings, and held them for some time bound in fetters. King Bryen was called Boruma, because he had recovered from the provincialists of Leinster an annual tribute called by that name. Caenfela was called the wise; St. Barr, Finn Barr, or Barr the white; St. Cornin, Fada, i.e. long Cornin; and Æd, Clericus Barbosus, the bearded clerk, from an overgrown beard he affected to wear.

… The same practice prevailed among the Grecians. Seleucus, the third king of Syria, was called Ceraunus, the thunderbolt, from his violent temper. Ptolemy, the seventh king of Egypt, was known by the name of Physcon, from the grossness of his paunch; and, to pass by other instances, the last Ptolemy save one was called Auletes, or the piper, from his excessive fondness of the pipe. So among the Romans Marcus Valerius was called Corvus, and his posterity Corvini, because in a single combat he slew a Gaul, who had challenged him, by the help of a raven. One of the Scipios got the name of Africanus, the other of Asiaticus, from victories obtained by them in these two different quarters of the world. So a man born in the absence of his father was called Proclus, if after his father's death, Posthumus, and if lame, Claudius …

It is to be observed that the old Irish besides surnames took other names, by ancient custom, from their paternal names, as Dermod MacCormac, or the son of Cormac; Cormac MacDonald, or the son of Donald; Donald MacTirdelvach, or the son of Tirlagh.

At length, in the reign of King Brien, the surnames of the Irish, or family names, began to be fixed, and handed down to posterity with the aspirate h or the monosyllable va prefixed, which was afterwards changed into the vowel O, and signifies one descended from some chieftain or head of a principal family, as O'Brien, O'Connor, O'Neill. Yet it must be confessed that some centuries after King Brien's reign numbers of families took no fixed or certain surnames. It has been observed by writers that about the year 1000, in Brien's reign, surnames also began to be ascertained in France, England, and Scotland, first among people of distinction, and afterwards by degrees among the inferior sort. Finally, after surnames were settled in Ireland, some particular children of Irish families had additional sobriquets or nicknames given them, as Bane-White, Boy-Yellow, Bacca-Lame, Moil-Bald, and the like; and the same custom also gradually crept in among some families of English birth.


[1] Nigi signifies nine, and geall a pledge or hostage.