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

AuthorEugene O'Growney
SourceFrom The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Volume III
SectionPart II (start of essay - Part I)

It was in the golden age of the early Irish schools, when Ireland was a lodestar that attracted students, scholars, and pilgrims from Britain, France, and Germany—from Rome itself, and even from the distant East—that the names which we shall now examine had their origin. Around the great schools grew up towns filled with native and foreign students, in some cases amounting to thousands. Then even the surrounding peasantry, with that admiration for learning which is characteristic of even the humblest class in Ireland, gloried in the fame for learning and sanctity of the great doctors and teachers of the colleges. What wonder if, in the lecture-rooms of Clonard, and through the neighbouring country, should be found many who bore the name of 'servant of Finian;' if Derry, Kells, Durrow, Iona, and many other shrines should shelter 'servants of Columba;' or if the innumerable places connected with the names of Patrick and Brigid should be visited by pilgrims who would take, and bear ever afterward, the names of those national patrons? Probably the first to adopt this practice were the clerics attached to the church or college founded by the saint.[4]

The adoption of such names would have been facilitated by the custom of changing the names of religious on their entrance of the service of the altar. The national apostle, we know, was in early life called Succat, a name which, could we but explain it, would solve for us the vexed question of St. Patrick's birthplace. St. Columba, too, changed his ancestral name of Criomhthann, 'fox,' for Colum, 'dove.' There are many later examples. Many of the clerics, in all probability, already bore such names as Maelbresail, servant of Bresal, &c., and would find it very easy and very appropriate to substitute a patron saint for the Bresal or other prehistoric ancestor. The practice, if it began with religious, soon extended to all classes, and to both sexes. If we find the names of women recorded but seldom, we must remember that the early annals deal, as a rule, with transactions in which men are generally the actors.

In the tenth century there must have been a large number of persons bearing Mul- names; and a little later, when surnames began to be formed, there were evidently plenty of 'descendants of servants of Patrick' and of other patrons. Hence, though many such surnames became obsolete, and have not reached our days, we have still, in English garb, about one hundred and fifty such surnames.

Let us now see them in detail. From Dia, God, came the name Gilla-de, 'servant of God,' often recorded in mediaeval annals, and giving us in later times the surname Mac-Giolla-de, 'descendant of the servant of God,' in English dress Gildea, Gilday, Kilday (United States). O'Dea, O'Day (U.S.), is an old Gaelic name of pre-Christian origin, but the rage for anglicization has led some persons of the name to change it for Goodwin—Dia-God-Good.

Coimhde, Lord, gave the personal name Giolla-coimhde, 'servant of the Lord,' and thus arose the surname MacG. coimhde, 'descendant of the servant of the Lord.' O'Donovan gives the English form as MacGilcarry, which I have not met in use; but we have MacIlharry, hence an unwarranted form MacIlhenry (U.S.). It is possible that MacIlhargy and MacIlhagga are the same name, although the former would seem to come from St. Forga, as noted below. 'Descendant of the servant of Christ' has survived in the two forms; the Mul- form is Mylechrist, now used only in the Isle of Man, and the Gil- form is Gilchrist, Gilchreest, Kilchrist. In all these names the initial K represents the final consonant of the Mac- prefix. The name Iosa, Jesus, gave Maol-Iosa and Giolla-Iosa, both of frequent occurrence in the old annals. We read of one 'servant of Jesus,' who was Archbishop of Armagh, or, as the annalist puts it, 'successor of Patrick;' another was Maelisa O'Daly, poet-in-chief of Scotland and Ireland, who died in 1185. Walter Scott, who has so much of the mediaeval spirit, has quoted the name in the Lady of the Lake:—

'Hail, Malise, hail! his henchman came.

Give our safe-conduct to the Graeme.'

From the Gil- form comes 'descendant of Jesus' in the various forms MacAleese, Maclise, McLeish, Gilleece, Gillies.

The name of Mary was particularly honoured by the early Christian Irish, and we find record of numbers of people, of all ranks of life, who bore the name of 'servant of Mary.' In the Four Masters we note, among others, 'a daughter of Nial,' an 'abbot of Ardbraccan,' a 'tanist of Leix,' a 'priest of Clonard,' a 'successor of Patrick,' or Bishop of Armagh, who bore this name, in either of its forms Maelmhuire or Gillamhuire. The scribe of the Lebhar Brec, one of the greatest Irish manuscripts that has come down to us, was a 'servant of Mary,' whose father was Conn, 'friend of the poor.' One of the most striking characteristics of our native Christian literature, from its earliest period down to the present day, is its constant and tender reference to the name of Mary. In Scotland, where the Christian faith was carried by Irish missionaries, we find that even in the districts now for three centuries non-Catholic, the cry of suffering in the old tongue is still a Mhoire, Mhoire! O Mary, Mary! [5] Both in Scotland and Ireland Maolmhuire is in common use as a baptismal name, and in Ireland it has given the surname O'Maoilmhuire, 'descendant of the servant of Mary, in English Mullery, Mulry.' As a baptismal name, the English translation was first Meyler, and later Miles, a name which really has no more connection with the Gaelic form than has Ned with Nebuchadnezzar. From the Gil- form came the surnames MacElmurry, Kilmurray, Kilmary, Gilmary, Gilmore—all intended equivalents for Mac-Giolla-Mhuire.

To the lively faith of the Gael, the angels were very real, We have a striking poem of early date (if not, as tradition would have it, the composition of Columbcille himself) describing the angelic patrons of Arran. To St. Michael, in particular, there was a peculiar devotion, and to the present day his name is of frequent recurrence in those household hymns of great antiquity, which, in the Gaelic-speaking districts, have never been superseded by the forms of prayer we are accustomed to in modern times. On the Sceilg mhor, the great lonely Skelligs rock that rises precipitously out of the Atlantic to the west of the Kerry coast, is buried, according to the old legends, the warrior Ir, one of the great ancestors of the Irish. These, too, for many centuries, have been a favourite shrine of St. Michael, and on the adjoining mainland the surname Mulvihil (Mulville, Mulverhill, U.S.), or descendant of s. of Michael—O'Maoilmhichil is most abundant. MacGilmichael, with the same meaning, was formerly an Ulster name, which is possibly now represented by MacElmeel, although that name may be from the adjective maol, as noted further down.

'Servant of the saints' is now obsolete as a first name, but has left us the surname Mac-Giolla-na-naomh, d.s.—descendant of the servant—of the saints, in English spelling MacElnea, MacAneave. Eoin Bruinne, or 'John of the Bosom,' is a usual, and, as all will admit, a most appropriate name in Gaelic for St. John. As we might expect, we find that s. (servant) of John was a popular name: one of this title, Maeleoin, or Malone, was Bishop of Trim in 929. The surname O'Malone, 'd.s. of St. John,' is well known, and the Gilla-Eoin form survives in Maglone, MacAloone, MacLoone, Gilloon. In Scotland the word Eoin is pronounced Eain; Highland scholars now spell it Iain; the more English form, Ian, is familiar to readers of nowaday literature. The Highland 'd.s. of John' is, accordingly, Mac-Giolla-Eain—or, as they misspell it, Mac-Illeathan—and is anglicized MacLane, McLean.[6] Maelpedair, Maelpoil, two names we find in the old books, have left us only Mullpeters (U.S.); from the other forms we have Gilfedder, Gilfidder, Gilfeather, and Gilfoyle, Kilfoyle—d.s. of SS. Peter and Paul respectively.

The teacher of St. Patrick, St. Martin of Tours, has always been honoured in Ireland, and Martin as a baptismal name, is very common at the present day. The feast of St. Martin is still observed with curious ceremonies in some places. Maelmartin, s. of Martin, is recorded as having been used by various individuals in Clonard, Clonmacnoise, Kells, and Connor. It is now obsolete, but Gilmartin, Kilmartin are to the fore—d.s. of St. Martin. Churches, cells, and holy places without number recall St. Patrick, our great national apostle. Templepatrick, Donaghpatrick, Kilpatrick, Toberpatrick mark, in many places, the lines of his progress through Ireland. The annals of the middle ages are filled with the names of princes, priests, abbots, and bishops who bore the title of Maelpatraic, s. of Patrick, now obsolete, and Giolla-patraic, which has left us the surnames Kilpatrick, Gilpatrick, MacElfatrick, MacElfederick. These two last names occur only in north-east Ulster. The MacGillapatricks, most notable, were the princes of Ossory, and their descendants, as well as many other families of the name, have translated themselves to Fitzpatrick, although the prefix Fitz is wholly out of place here. The name of our saint is offered by some modern lights of philosophy to explain the legend of the banishment of the snakes from Ireland, and the subject deserves a passing reference. Scientific men are nothing if not iconoclasts, and, according to the latest theory, St. Patrick had nothing to do with banishing snakes. Snakes had disappeared from Ireland at least by the time of the Danish invasion, and the Danes, noticing the absence of the reptiles, and hearing much of the name of St. Patrick, interpreted this name as an Irish attempt at padrekr, from the Scandinavian paddarekr, toad-expeller. And so, according to this theory, the legend arose at first among the Danish-speaking invaders, and afterwards was adopted by the Irish.[7]

St, Brigid, 'the Mary of the Gael,' had many mediaeval clients named Maelbrighte and Gillabrighte. The famous scholar of Mayence, who is known in Latin as Marianus Scotus, was, in Gaelic, a 'servant of Brigid.' We have now Mulbride, MacGillbride, MacBride, Kilbride, and—horresco referens—Mucklebreed; all meaning d.s. of St. Brigid.[8]

There are, of course, many places named Kilbride, or church of Brigid, and Tubberbride, or holy well of Brigid. A 'Bride's Well' existed in London until Reformation times. Whether the Irish or the Swedish saint was the patron, I do not know; probably the Irish saint, as the Swedish name is properly Birgitta, Anyhow, when the Reformation came there was no further use for the holy well, but somehow jails were in great demand, and so even the buildings surrounding 'St. Bride's Well' were 'converted,' and henceforth rendered service as a prison, and the name 'bridewell' became synonymous with 'prison.' To such base uses do even words descend![9]

'In the east and the west,' as the old phrase ran, or in Scotland and in Ireland, St. Columcille is venerated as the one in whom all the highest ideals of the Gaelic mind are found united. Tradition has it that his name in childhood was Criomthann, 'fox,' and that his late name, Colum, 'dove,' was assumed on his entrance into religious life. Out of Ireland he is better known by the Latin Columba, 'dove.' The name 'servant of Colum' has descended in the form Maolcoluim, Malcolm, used only by Scotch families, although a more suitable Irish and Catholic name it would be hard to find. From it come the rather rare surnames Mulholm, Maholm, and from the Gil- form comes MacElholm, descendant of Colum. At a baptismal name, Colum is still used in the Gaelic-speaking districts of both Ireland and Scotland (in the latter country in the form Calum), giving the surnames MacColum (Scotch MacCallum), Colum, descendant of a person named Colum. The rage for anglicization has led to the fearsome form 'Pidgeon,' used as a surname by some benighted individuals.

In his student days Columba had been a pupil of both the Finians, of Clonard, and Moville. Of him of Clonard says the Donegal Martyrology: 'Finian of Clonard, in wisdom a sage; tutor of the saints of Erin in his time. ... In life and ethics he resembled Paul the Apostle.' The same ancient record likens Finian of Moville to James the Apostle. There are several saints now named in English Finian, in Latin Finianis. The older form Finan, used by Bede, was much nearer to the original Gaelic Finnán,[10] a very common name in ancient Ireland.

'Servant of Finian' has left us the surname Mac-giolla-Fhionnáin; in English, MacAleenan, MacAlinnion, MacLennon, McClennan, Lennon, Glennon, Gleenan, Gilfinnen, Finnan, and the translated form Leonard; that is to say, some d.s. of Finian have assumed the foreign name Leonard, because it had a certain resemblance, in the first syllable, to Lennon. I once spent a very pleasant couple of weeks at the house of one Padraig Mac-Giolla-Fhionnáin in Southern Connemara. In English he was known as Paddy Leonard; and this particular servant of Finian would have made the fortune of a dozen folk-lore societies, as his memory was a regular treasure-house of Gaelic tradition.

Some of the Irish Gilfillans, I am inclined to think, are rather Gilfinnens, and take their name from Finian, and not from St. Fillan, who is more identified with Scotland, and is alluded to in Scott's well-known lines:—

Harp of the North! that moldering long hast hung
On the witch-elm that shades St. Fillan's spring.

His name is preserved also by Glenfillan, one of the most beautiful spots in the Highlands, where, at the head of Lough Shiel, lies the little island of St. Fillan, with its ancient bells of the saint, a short distance from Glenaladale, the home of the MacDonalds, from where come Archbishop Angus MacDonald and Bishop Hugh MacDonald, both good Gaelic scholars and lovers of the old tongue. 'Servant of Fillan,' is represented now by the names Gilfillan, Gilliland, MacClellan, MacLeland, Leland. As a baptismal name Finian is still used in Kerry, but in Cork the 'translated' form Florence has taken its place in English. Derrynane, the home of O'Connell, is the 'wood of Finian.' Doire Fhionnain—this is not Finian of Clonard or Moville, but Finian of Inisfallen.

One of the ancestors of Finian of Clonard was the famous pagan warrior Celtchar, who was destined to have among his descendants not only such a pillar of the Christian Church as Finian, but also a most bitter enemy of the new faith in Ronan, who had two girls tied to stakes on the beach, to be drowned by the incoming tide, for refusing to abjure Christianity. Ronan had a son to whom he gave the name of Maelcelchair, or servant, admirer of the great pagan ancestor already mentioned. Such, however, is the irony of fate, that this same Maelcelchair became the apostle of south-west Kerry, where his beautiful stone oratory, Kilmalhedar, still stands in perfect preservation, one of the chief glories of Irish archaeologists.

Bishop Erc, of Slane, in Meath, was one of the early nomadic missionaries who travelled from place to place preaching the Gospel. From his name comes the surname Mullarkey, d.s. of St. Erc.

Dunshaughlin takes its name from St. Seachnall—in Latin, Secundinus—whom tradition represents as nephew of St. Patrick. For many centuries, 'servant of Seachlann' (the metathesized form of Seachnall) was a popular baptismal name, and is represented in English history books by Melaghan, and often by the foreign name Malachy, with which it has no further connection than some phonetic resemblance of the first syllables. One of the name was the Malachy that—

wore the collar of gold

Which he won from the proud invader.

This is the Malachy who is buried in an island in the beautiful Lough Ennell, now, I regret to say, more usually called Belvedere, in Westmeath. The name is still in popular use as a given name in the forms Loughlin (more informally 'Lack,' 'Loughie ') and Malachy ('Mal'), the Utter form being usual in the south-west, where the other Biblical forms, Jeremiah and Timothy, are also mistakenly used. The surname O'Melaghan, d.s. of St. Secundinus, has become merged in that of MacLoughlin; and this probably accounts for the abundance of folk of this name in Ireland—17,500, according to the census of 1891. The forms Loughlin, Laflin, Claflin (U.S.), are also met with.

A great body of Gaelic literature centres around the two St. Kierans, of Saighir, now called Serkieran, and of Clonmacnoise, by the Shannon. From him of Clonmacnoise, probably come the names O'Maoilchiarain, MacGiollachiarain, Mulhern, Mulheerin, MacIlherron, d.s. of St. Kieran.

Kilalla takes its name from St. Alladh—hence the Latin form of the name of the diocese, Alladensis. From him the surnames Mulally, Lally, d.s. of St. Alladh, Another bishop of the same see was St. Cellach, from whom the place name Kilkelly, or church of Cellach, and also the surname Kilkelly, MacGiolla-Ceallaigh, d.s. of St. Cellach. This St. Cellach had a very chequered career. Born of a royal house, he was destined for the service of the altar, and became a student at Clonmacnoise. The student was called, by the death of his father in battle, to be the reigning prince, and afterwards was, in turn, a fugitive, again a cleric, Bishop of Kilalla, a hermit on an island of Lough Con, and finally victim to the jealousy of his enemies. Something of a poet, too, was this western hermit. Awaiting his death the morning of his murder, and seeing, as he thought, all those dark omens to which Gaelic tradition attached deep meaning, he sang a lay, of part of which this is a translation:—

“Hail to the morning fair, that, as a flame, falls upon the earth! Hail to Him, too, who sends it—the many-virtued morning, ever new! O morning fair, so full of pride—sister of the brilliant sun—hail to thee, beauteous morning, that lightest my little book for me! Thou seest the just in every dwelling, thou shinest on every tribe and race, hail! O thou white-necked, beautiful one, here with us now—O golden-fair and wonderful!

My little book, with chequered page [Scripture] tells me my life has not been aright. Maelcroin [one of the assassins], 'tis he whom I do well to fear; he comes to smite me at the last. O scaldcrow, and O scaldcrow! gray-coated, sharp-beaked, wretched bird; thy desire is apparent to me; no friend art thou to Cellach. O raven! thou that makest croaking, if hungry thou be, O bird, depart not from this rath until thou hast a feast of my flesh. Fiercely the kite of Chuan-Eo's yew-tree will take part in the scramble; his horn-hued talons he will bear away tilled; he will not part from me in kindness. To the blow that kills me the fox in the darkened wood will answer at speed; in wild and trackless places he, too, shall devour a portion of my flesh and blood. The wolf in the rath on the eastern side of the hill will come to rank as chieftain of the meaner pack. On Wednesday night last I saw a dream, I saw a dream: the wild dogs dragged me east and west through the russet ferns. I saw a dream: into a green glen men took me. Four were they that brought me thither, but (so meseemed) ne'er brought me back again. I saw a dream: to a house my fellow-students led me; for me they poured out a draught; a draught they quaffed off for me. O tiny wren! most scant of tail, dolefully thou hast piped a prophetic lay; surely thou, too, art come to betray me, and to curtail my gift of life.

O Maelcroin, and O Maelcroin! pelf it is that thou hast taken to betray me; lor this world's sake hast thou accepted it, accepted it for sake of hell. All precious things whatsoever I had, on Maelcroin I would have bestowed them, that he should not do me this treason. But Mary's great Son above thus addresses speech to me: 'Thou must have earth, thou shalt have heaven. Welcome awaits thee, O Cellach!”[11]

As Kilkelly comes from Cellach, so Kilkenny, both the names of the city best known outside Ireland as the residence of the famous legendary cats, and the surname of the same form, comes from the name of St. Canice. Kilkenny, accordingly, means d.s. of St. Canice. There were at least four early missionaries of the name, one of whom is venerated at St. Andrew's in Scotland. The Gaelic form of the name Canice is Coinneach, and gives the surnames Kenny in Ireland and MacKenzie in Scotland.

Mulholland, Maholland are d.s. of St. Callan, from whom comes also Tyrholland,or the House of Callan, in the diocese of Clogher.

Senanus is known to general readers better than the majority of our early saints, on account of Moore's poem of the Holy Isle, as the saint had

Sworn that sainted sod

Should ne'er by woman's foot be trod.

Kiltannanlea, or Church of Grey Senan, still preserves his name, and also the surname Gilsenan, Giltenan, d.s. of Senan. Not improbably, however, some of the older name, MacUinnsionain, have been absorbed by the more familiar name, Gilsenan. Some of the names have 'translated' themselves to 'Shannon.'

Gilvarry, a western surname, comes from St. Berach. abbot, of Cluaincoirpthe, in Connaught. Mulrennin, in Gaelic O'Maoilbhrenainn, means d.s. of St. Brendan, the navigator whose name marks the map of Ireland and Scotland from Mount Brandon to St, Kilda, and whose Voyages are a curious medley of Pagan tradition blended with actual experience of explorations of the Atlantic.

This brings us to a second class of saint-names in Mul and Gil, which deserve to be treated separately.

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[4] On the theory that the Mul- prefix stands for maol, a tonsured cleric, this would, of course, be the case always.

[5] In Irish-Gaelic a Mhuire, Mhuire (a wirra wirra). So also, a Mhuire is truagh (a wirra iss throoa), O Mary, pity.

[6] On account of some similarity of bound between Luan, the word for Monday, and the last syllable of 'd.s. of John,' this name is in parts of Donegal translated Munday! To my own knowledge, a young man named MacKeane (MacTain) was advised, by one who should have known better, to transform himself to Piggott—MacKeane=muicin=pigotte! He refused, and kept to the grand old Gaelic name, nor did he regret it a few years later.

[7] See Folk-lore, December, 1894.

[8] Readers may, perhaps, question the actual use of some of our less common surnames, but I give only names I have heard myself or taken from the daily papers (especially reports of local meetings), or others whose use is guaranteed by the Secretary of the General Registry Office in Dublin, Mr. Mathieson, to whose reports and personal letters I am much indebted

[9] Although Birgitta and Brigid are now different names, the former may possibly have been of Irish origin. At the time of the Danish invasion some Scandinavian names were adopted in Ireland, such as Auliff, Ivar, Otter, Sitrice, which have given us modern MacAuliffe, MacIvor, MacKeever, Ivers, MacCotter, Cotter, MacKittrick, and some Irish names, such us Oscar, Niall, Fergus, were adopted by the Scandinavians, who use them to the present day.

[10] It is a diminutive of the adjective finn, now fionn, fair-haired; but a recent and not unplausible theory takes the word, in these saint-names, to mean fair, pure, holy. The names of Finnan of Clonard, Finnan, also Barr-fhinn, of Moville, and Finn Barre of Cork, are all Latinized Finnianus (also Vennianus and Vennio, Venionera). There is also a modern form Finghin, translated by 'Florence,' although there is no apparent connection.

[11] See Silva Gadelica, i. 56; ii 59. This is the best book procurable to give a general idea of the character of Irish literature.