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

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

ONE of the most striking characteristics of the Irish race has always been a great veneration and affection for those consecrated to the service of religion. As far as we can gather from the native literature, the Druids seem to have held a strong position in the popular favour, even though they spoke of the world beyond with no very certain voice. Celtic Paganism had lost all definiteness of teaching at the time St. Patrick came to Ireland, and the strong contrast between the vague, cheerless generalities of Druidic tradition, and the definite and consoling assurances of the Christian faith was, no doubt, one of the reasons of the wonderfully rapid conversion of Ireland. We are not to be surprised, therefore, that the early Christian teachers who with St. Patrick, or after him, taught the new faith, should hold a warm place in the hearts of the nation. We speak now of but one indication of this, connected with oar present subject. It was very usual in early Christian Ireland, in speaking of the early missionaries, to add to the names of many of them the endearing diminutive terminations -án or -óc (modern óg).[12] Thus, St. Columcille is often found with the name Colmóc; hence Staholmock, or 'house of little Colm.' The Isle of Rona, north of the Hebrides, takes its name from St. Rona, who is also called Ronán and Ronóc (modern Ronóg). The -án form was easily Latinised, and so we usually find these names ending in Latin in -anus, and in English (after the Latin) ending in -an, as Ronan, Colman, Aidan. There was also the still more curious practice of prefixing to the names the endearing particle wo, my; thus 'the church of (St.) Rona' is the translation of the name of a ruin at the east end of Loch Lomond; the name itself is Kil-ma-ron-og, 'Church of my little Rona.' It is the same Rona (venerated at Iona and elsewhere on February 7th) that Walter Scott alludes to when he speaks of

A vot'ress in Maronnan's cell

—mo-ron-án, my little Rona.

Some of our Irish saints have had their names much disguised, like that of Rona in the line just quoted; such as St. Molua, really moLua, or my Lua, possibly one of those from whom Cill-dá-Lua or Killaloe (Church of the two Luas) takes its well-known name, just as Timoleague stands for Tigh-mo-Laga, house of 'my Laga,' usually called St. Molaga. The patron saint of Kinsale, in English called Multose, is in Gaelic [13] mo-Elte-og, my little Elte, a pupil of St. Barre of Cork. Portmarnock, Kilmarnock, Inchmarnock, contain another well-disguised name, for those places are the 'landing-place,' 'cell,' and 'island,' respectively, of m' Ern-óc, my little Erna, the same St. Erna who was with Columba in Clonmacnoise. He is, perhaps, better known by the other diminutive form of his name, Ernan. Hence comes the surnames MacAlearney, MacLerney, MacLarney, Millarney (= o' Maoil-Erna, if not merely a rapid pronunciation of MacLarney), MacAlernon, MacLernon, MacClernand, MacLorinan; all meaning d.s. of St. Ernan, whose feast day is August 18th.

We may take it that a name of this class was the origin of the Latin Columbanus, the Irish Colman being a very common name at all times, and used to the present day.[14] Several of these names are given in a quatrain quoted in the old Martyrology of Donegal:—

Mo-Lua ba hanamchara do Dabid

Dar muir modh-mall,

Is dom Aedhog, is dom Chaemog,

Is do Chomgall.

'My-Lua was soul-friend (= spiritual director) to David over the slow-rolling sea (i.e., in Wales), and to my-little-Aedh, and to my-little-Caem (Kevin), and to Congal.'

This quatrain refers to the time when there was constant and friendly communication between the schools and churches of Ireland and the Welsh and English coasts, when Welsh students came to study in the Irish colleges, and brought back with them to Wales many Irish traditions that can still be recognised in Welsh literature. This was the time when Alfred, a student in Ireland, laid the foundations of that love for learning which afterwards caused him to solicit the aid of his former Irish professors in founding the first University of Oxford. The quatrain also contains the name of one of our saints, a name disguised more effectually than any other, that of St. Aedh, if we may venture to call him so. Aedh is really his name. It is one of the commonest Irish names, and is now represented in English by Hugh, a name with which it has no connection whatever. The saint, however, is never known by his mere name Aedh, but is called either Aedhán, little Aedh, or m'Aedh-óg (pronounced mayogue), literally 'my little Aedh.' The former form is in English Aidan, the latter Mogue. The saint is generally known by the name Aidan, and is the patron of the diocese of Ferns, in which Aidan and Mogue are both used as baptismal names. In a sense, Aidan and Mogue are the same name; they mean practically the same thing, although differing so very much in appearance. The records of the Registrar-General in Dublin bear witness to the fact that many people called Mogue, in familiar and ordinary life, insist on writing themselves down as Moses. But do not both words begin with Mo-? and is not that sufficient reason for getting rid of an old Irish name, in times when Anglicization is fashionable—although this particular case is rather one of Judaization?

St. Aidan, or Mogue, was much honoured in early Ireland and Scotland. In the latter country he is found venerated at Kilmaddock, in Perthshire, and his name in the form Maddock (Scott refers to him as St. Maddox) is familiar to students of Scottish archaeology. As we might expect 'servant of Mogue' was a popular name; we read of one who was 'Abbot of Armagh' in 1136. This was the friend of St. Bernard, whose Gaelic name Mael-mhaodhog, or servant of Mogue, is Latinised Malachy (O'Morgair). The surname directly descended from this name is rarely met with now-a-days in its proper form, Mullavogue or Mullawogue, most bearers of the name having taken the name Molloy, as less jarring on English ears. This also accounts for the fact that in Donegal, at least around Killybegs and Glencolumcille (so far as I can learn from Mr. J. C. Ward and Mr. Patrick O'Byrne) the English name Mulloy is used by families called in Gaelic O'Ludhog, the usual English of which is Logue. Evidently this Gaelic name is but part of the full O'Maolmhaodhog, d.s. of Aidan, just as Lally is but a shortened form of Mulally. O'Ludhog represents fairly well the Ulster sound of the Gaelic name, after the mao of the prefix has been dropped. In Westmeath the Leinster pronunciation of the same ending is well represented by the local surname Leeogue, which, like Logue, also means d.s. of Aidan.[15] So that the primatial see of Armagh, adorned centuries ago by a 'servant of Aidan,' is once more filled by an eminent inheritor of the same title. The Gil- form with the same meaning is MacGiolla Mhaodhog, now MacElvogue. Boolevogue also seems to have taken its name from the saint.

One of the great Irish school-founders was St. Carthage, who first conducted the great school of Rahan, and afterwards, when obliged to abandon Rahan, founded Lismore. This saint has two names; in Gaelic he is usually called Mochuda and his English name, borrowed from the Latin form Carthagus,[16] is founded on his other Gaelic name, Carthach. Mochuda (= mo-Chuda = my Cuda) may have been his personal name, and Carthach, or Carthy, the name of his clan. Hence the surname MacGillicuddy, d.s. of St. Mochuda. Other forms are MacElcuddy, MacElhuddy (Huddy?), and, apparently, MacElligott.

Another name with the diminutive terminations -án and -óg is that of St. Fintan; at least it seems to me that the surnames MacAlinden, McClinton, McClintock, are Mac-Fialla-Fhionntain, Fhionntog,[17] d.s. of Fintan. Fintan is one of the few ancient names still in use as a baptismal name.

St. Fintan is one of the many saints who, like Columba, Fillan, Erna, Mogue, were venerated in both Scotland and Ireland. There were many bonds of union between Ireland and the highlands; the people were of the same race, they spoke the same language; had the same traditional literature; for ages they professed the same faith, and venerated the same patrons, Patrick, Brigid, and Columba, being the chief in both countries. And, although, for many centuries there has been no active intercourse between the Gaels of Scotland and those of Ireland, and although the two countries have been influenced in very different ways, still we find many traces of old times in the language and customs of Scotland. The Scotch-Gaelic forms of the surnames are the same as ours, except that they write MacIlle phonetically, instead of MacGiolla. In some localities of Ireland a ciolla would be the phonetic form, as a ciolla-mhaire, Gilmor. This Gaelic name is used in the Highlands and is often translated Morrison. The Scotch have few Mul names, MacMillan, Mellis (for Maelisa, according to Mr. Flannery), and Maolmoire, servant of Mary, which we shorten too much, to Maoilre. One name is curiously misspelled by our Highland cousins: MacIlleathan, properly Mac Ille Eain, our Mac Giolla Eoin, d.s. of St. John

There is at least one Highland saint who has left his memory in two surnames, St. Cattan of Kilchattan—there are three places of the name, in Argyle, Bute, and Colonsay—as recalled by the surnames Mulhatton and MacElhatton, d.s. of St. Cattan. The saint was probably one of the Clann Chattan of Caithness, of whom Scott writes in the Fair Maid of Perth. The adjectival form Cattanach is used as a surname in Scotland.

Here we may give a few names omitted from the first part of this paper. St. Senach has left us MacElhenney, McAlinney, Gilheany, McIlhaney, McEllany, MacElkenny, another form of Kilkenny, already given. Maelmochta, client of St. Mochta, of Louth, is now represented by Moughty, a rare name (Westmeath); Kilcullen, like the place-name similarly spelled, indicate a St. Cullen, there is one of the name in O'Gorman—MacIlhargy seems to be d.s. of St. Forga, of Killargy or Killargue; and the Antrim MacIlhagga is either the same name or a form of MacIlharry already mentioned. Mulvennon, at first sight, would seem to be d.s. of St. Benen or Benignus, one of St. Patrick's converts, and afterwards his constant companion; but I am told that in Galway the form Mulvrennan is heard: in that case the meaning is d.s. of St. Brendan. As we have seen, Mulrennin is another form, and still another is Mulreany. This last form is misleading, although it is now, perhaps, the form in most general use in English, the Gaelic form used by the same persons being O'Maoilréanail (for -réanain).[18]

We cannot always translate the Mul prefix by the same English word. When it is followed by a saint's name, 'servant of ' or 'client of' is a good translation; but there are some names in which 'one who loves,' 'one zealous for or anxious for' will better represent the meaning. Such a name was Maeldomhnaigh, 'one who loves the church,'[19] giving our modern surnames Muldowney, Mullowney, Moloney, and similarly MacEldowney, Gildowney, Downey, all meaning 'descendant of one who loves the church.' Compare Colum Cille, 'Colum who loves the church, cell,' and the obsolete Maeldithraibh, 'one who loves the hermitage.' There were many beautiful names of this class in ancient Erin, such as Maelaithgin, 'one anxious for regeneration,' Maelbeannachta, 'one anxious for blessings,' Maelbeatha, 'one anxious for (eternal) life.' This last name is given as the proper title of Shakespeare's Macbeth, whose more familiar name is equivalent to 'son of life,' a usual phrase for a converted person, believer. There was also mac bais, 'son of death,' a reprobate. Macbeth is still in use as a surname, with the alternative for us, McBeith, McAbee, MacVeigh, McAvay. Maeldeoraidh, 'servant of the stranger, pilgrim,' is the original of Muldarry, Mulderry; we have also MacIlderry. Gillespie is servant of the bishop. Used as a Christian name, it is translated Archibald, in Scotland. Maeltola, 'one devoted to the will (of God),' was a common name, and perhaps some who now bear the name Tully may be descended from an ancestor of this title.

Here end the surnames connected with religion, with the exception of those about which there is more or less doubt, and which we discuss further on.

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[12] There is a curious and somewhat analogous usage in English in such expletive phrases as 'by'r lakin' =: by our Lady-kin (Shakespeare), 'ods bodkins'—by God's body-kins, and some others which I have not seen in print, though they exist in our Anglo Irish dialect, such as 'upon me soukins ' (aliter) 'sukkins' = my soul-kins, and similarly 'fekkins'—faith-kins. These last examples are from Meath, the -kin, -kins, is the diminutive termination as in mannikin.

[13] So I am informed by Father Lyons, P.P., Kilmichael.

[14] It is curious to note how at present people called in Gaelic Colum are named Colman in English. The name Colman in this place calls to mind the theory—which has the merit of novelty at least—that the name Columbanus, derived from an Irish Colman, gave rise to a South-European family name Colombo or Columbus, one of which family discovered a new world, known later as Columbia. Perhaps it is needless to add that the author of the theory hails from the country in question.

[15] What then accounts for the other Gaelic form of Logue, O'Loig? I believe it is a recent formation taken from the English form itself. A real Gaelic name would not end in -oig, even in the genitive, as the -óg termination, in such names as Maedhog, was invariable in all cases.

[16] Not Carthage, although I have heard et intercedente beato Carthagine sung at a solemn function.

[17] Professor MacKinnon writes the name Mac Ille Fhionntaig. In Irish-Gaelic we do not change the óc, óg, termination.

[18] Compare Dingle from Gaelic Daingean, and Bandanil for Baldwin in Finghin O'Mahony's 15th century translation of Manndeville.

[19] Domhnach, church, from Latin dominica (domus), also means a shrine. Also means Sunday, dominica (dies). Maoldonaich is yet used in Scotland as a Christian name, and for some reason unknown to me is translated Ludovic.