The 'Muls' and 'Gils': Some Irish Surnames

AuthorEugene O'Growney
SourceFrom The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Volume III
SectionPart I

IT is not generally known that at least one hundred thousand people of Irish birth or descent bear, in their every-day surnames, a record of the zeal for piety and learning which distinguished early Christian Ireland. According to the last census, there are in Ireland alone eight thousand three hundred persons called (in Irish, of course) 'descendant of the servant of the Church.' Then there are thousands of 'descendants of the servants of God,' of Christ, of Mary, of John, of Brigid, of Finian, of Brendan, of Aidan. I am confident that many will read these phrases without at all recognising in them their own family names. So far as I know, the subject is wholly untouched; but now that the Irish people are at last beginning to learn their own language, they will find that their surnames, and many other things which, so far, must have appeared meaningless, have really a striking and often beautiful signification.

In the present paper, I propose to discuss some surnames formed from the names of twenty-six patrons, chiefly Irish saints. The surnames, in their English garb, amount to about seventy. I have thought it necessary to say, first of all, something about Irish names in general.

Most Irish surnames, although grievously disfigured in passing into their present English forms, are easily recognisable as such. It is to be hoped that, by this time, everyone who bears an Irish name knows, at least, that Mac and O, the two familiar signs of Gaelic descent, are just ordinary nouns, meaning son and grandson, but now in our surnames standing for descendant. So that every Irish name beginning with Mac or O means 'descendant of' some ancestor whose name, in the genitive case, forms the remainder of the surname. All Irish surnames are derived from the names of ancestors, and, accordingly, all should have either Mac or O. I speak of names originally Irish, for there are some names of foreign origin, though now, and most deservedly, classed as Irish, such as Burke, Hyde, Walsh which have neither Mac nor O, but either retain the de (in the case of the Norman names), oftened softened to a, as de Búrca or a Búrca, de h-Ide, or assume an adjectival form, as Tomás Breathnach, Thomas Walsh.[1]

In Irish, all names of men have either Mac or O, and names of women have Ni, daughter. Custom has extended the use, in English, of Mac and O to women's names. Mac should be written at full length, not Mc. We do not write Johnsn. Many Irish surnames have lost Mac or O; for this there are various reasons, all discreditable.

The English forms of most of our Irish surnames originated during the last two centuries, many in this century. We must not forget that in 1800, Ireland was to but a slight extent an English-speaking country. Education had been prohibited even in the English tongue. We find the first forms of our surnames, as a rule, in those precious legal documents which declare that Dermot Mac So-and-So or O'So-and-So, being a 'meere Irishman,' is hereby declared to have forfeited the lands, &c. The English forms are but rough and ready phonetic equivalents of the Gaelic names; and as everyone could devise a phonetic system of his own, there were and are often, several forms for the same family name.

To the student of the meanings of Irish surnames the English forms of these names are not only of little or no use, but sometimes are positively misleading. Thus, in names that are now spelled Twomey, Twohill, Gilfeather, MacAvenue, we see what strange results come from an attempted equation of parts of these names with certain English words. To study Irish surnames to any effect, we must leave the English forms out of sight for the moment, and analyze as far as we can the original Gaelic names. Some of these names, coming to us in their present form from prehistoric times, may defy our analysis; but others—and these fortunately happen to be large classes—can be easily resolved into their constituent elements. In the present paper I propose to discuss two classes of surnames. These are the names which begin, or which should begin, in O'Mul- and MacGil- (Gaelic O'Maoil- and MacGiolla-), but which are found beginning in Mal-, Mel-, Mil-, Mol-, Mul-, and MacEl-, MacIl-, Gil-, Kil-, MacL-, Cl-, L-, and other forms.[2]

We take the Mul- names first. Any surnames beginning in O'Mul-,—let us say O'Mulblank,—means 'descendant of Mulblank.' Mulblank is an ancestor from whom the family derives its surname, and as surnames did not come into use generally before the tenth or eleventh century, the ancestral Mulblank must be looked for before that date. In most names of this class, as we shall see, the ancestor belongs to the age of the great Christian schools of Ireland; but some Mul- names originated in prehistoric times.

What, then, was the meaning of the name borne by the original Mulblank? In other words, what is the meaning of the Mul- prefix? In modern Irish the Mul is written maol, and this maol represents different older Irish words in different names. (a) In most of our present names the Mul stands for 'servant of,' or 'votary of.' And most of these names are of Christian origin, and of very great interest. Thus, many centuries ago, a person devoted to St. John, for example, would assume the name Maol-Eoin,'servant of John' Hence arose the modern surname O'Maoil-Eoin, descendant of the servant of John—O'Malone, Malone. (b) In other surnames the Mul stands for an old Gaelic word meaning 'hero, magnate.' (c) In others, Mul probably represents a word for 'head.'

The Gil- names have had a similar origin. Many centuries ago there lived persons who answered the name, Gilblank. In some of these names, Gil, Irish giolla, older form gilla, meant 'servant,' as Giolla-brighde, pron. gilla-breeda, servant of St. Brigid. And now we have the surname, Mac-Giolla-Bhrighde, descendant of the servant of St. Brigid—in English Gilbride, Kilbride. In others of the Gil- names the Gil- prefix must be translated by 'person, fellow,' as Mac-Giolla-bháin, descendant of the white (haired) person, now MacIlvaine.

The Mul- names originated much earlier than those in Gil. In fact, we find no record of Gil- names until after the Danish invasion; and some maintain that the word gilla is of Danish origin. On the other hand, we find Mul- names of pre-Christian, and even of prehistoric origin. As far as can be ascertained, the original form of the prefix was a word maglos, connected in meaning with the Latin magnus, and meaning 'magnate,' 'hero,' or something similar. There is a Gaulish inscription, of course of the prehistoric period, mentioning a certain magalomarus, or 'great hero.' When Irish came to be written in the Roman alphabet, the word had become mael, and we have record of great numbers of mael names of the pre-Christian period. Thus we have Mael-Midhe, hero of Meath; Mael-Caisil, hero of Cashel. Then we find the prefix assuming the secondary meaning of 'one devoted to a servant of,' as Mael-Bresail, servant of Bresal; Mael-cluiche, addicted to play, gambling; and Mael-bracha, devoted to malt! We see, therefore, that the mael prefix had the meaning of 'servant' even in pre-Christian times, and we may assume that it is the same word, originally maglos, which we find in names like Malone, and all names meaning servant of a saint.[3]

No doubt, people already accustomed to such names as 'servant of Bresal' found it very appropriate, when they fell under strong religious influences, to assume such names as 'servant of Patrick,' 'servant of (St.) Michael,' 'servant of Mary.' Accordingly, we find that such names were used very soon after the conversion of Ireland to the Christian faith. In an old life of St. Cellach of Killala, himself one of the early Irish saints, we find mention of persons called 'servant of St. Ibar' (one of the most ancient Christian missionaries in Ireland), and 'servant of Senach' (another early Irish saint). The bulk of these saint-names, however, do not occur so early; they are found chiefly in the annals of the seventh to the tenth century, the earliest entry in the Four Masters being that of 'servant of Brigid,' at the year 645. As we have seen, the Gil- names do not occur so early, the first such record made by the Four Masters being that of a 'servant of Kevin,' at the year 981.

Reserving the other names in Mul and Gil, we shall find it convenient to discuss, in the first place, the large, and, from the Catholic standpoint, most interesting class of surnames which contain the name of a patron saint.

NextPart II


[1] From such names, possibly, originated the practice of saying an Brúnach, an Búrcach, corresponding to the modern English titles of The Magillicuddy, The O Neill—forms unknown in classical Irish, although they are found in modern Scotch Gaelic. Possibly, however, the usage is of French origin.

[2] There are a few surnames in O'Gil. The Scotch surname, Ogilvy (Ogilvie), which is sometimes quoted as the only O name in Scotland, is probably not Gaelic at all. The accent of the name is on the first syllable, and the name is probably a Lowland, not a Highland, one.

[3] Some writers, however, think that the prefix, in the surnames formed from the name of a saint, is the adjective mael, bald, applied by the Irish to the first Christian missionaries on account of their remarkable tonsure. We find in a mediaeval poem the phrase Melcisedec mael. M., the priest, and St. Patrick himself is often called 'adze-head.'