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

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

We turn now to another class of names in Mul and Gil. In this class there are two groups; Molloy and Mulconry will serve as types, with forms in Gil to correspond. In the Molloy group the prefix is followed by an adjective or its equivalent; in the Mulconry group the second element is a proper name.

Molloy (Mulloy, Milloy, Meloy—all these forms are met with, the last two, at least, in the United States) is a type of the oldest surnames in Mul. Most of the names of this class have disappeared within English-speaking times. Here the Mul prefix has its original meaning of hero, chieftain; thus mael-muaidh, noble chieftain, gave the surname O'Maoil-mhuaidh, O'Molloy, d.s. of the noble chieftain. Compare the name of the river Moy, 'the noble' river.

Mael-fábhaill was an old Gaelic name, meaning apparently 'one fond of travel,' from fabhall, journey. It seems that the name used to be duplicized Mulfavill, and the form Mulavill is yet used about Gort. But in most of Galway and Mayo, where the name is quite common, the last two syllables are so manipulated as to produce the French-looking name Lavelle. Probably some persons educated in France, and ignorant of the true origin of the name, gave the lead in the use of this form. There is on record an instance where a priest, in the course of a few years, caused the disappearance upon a whole district of an old Gaelic name by always substituting a more modern name for the old ones when proposed at the baptism of children. Let us see now if something can be done to re-introduce the old names, Colum, Ita, Finian, and the like, in the districts specially connected with their names.

Mullanphey, Melanophy is a name more generally known in the United States, owing to the great Mullanphey Hospital of Saint Louis, than at home in Ireland, We find the name occurring in Tyrconnell, early in the seventh century, Mael-anfaidh, chief of the tempest, or tempestuous person. Compare the surname Mulgeehy, also from Donegal, chief of storm, stormy person. It seems that some families have abandoned the name for that of Magee—thus the old name gradually disappears,[20] and there are cases where it has been translated by Wynne, Mael-gaoithe: gaoth=wind=win' in Anglo-Irish = Wynne. In these names we see how the Mul prefix gradually loses its original meaning of 'chief, hero,' for the less uncommon one of 'person,' 'man of,' the same meaning that we find attaching to the Gil prefix in MacElhoney, McIlhune, MacIlhone, MacElhone, MacAloney all for—Macgiolla-O'-chonnaidh, the man of the wood, fuel. Of similar import are Killemet, Killemeade, the man of the wood, timber (adhmad), and MacElhoyle, MacElhill, the man of the wood, forest (coill). All these names are duly translated by 'Woods.' MacAlivery (and probably the Islay name MacLiver, which Professor MacKinnon tells me of), represents descendant of the man of winter (geimhreadh), and is accordingly translated Winters. It may thus be compared with the old Gaelic name Maelmithimh, person dedicated to June, on account of some connection with that month.

The name Mulmoghery, 'one fond of early rising,' has entirely disappeared, being replaced by the translation Early. We find many recorded examples of this name in the annals, such as a 'bursar of Clonmacnoise,' in the tenth century, and a 'lecturer at Clonard,' in the eleventh. Mac-giolla-meidhre has given us the equivalent name Merryman. Another name which has practically disappeared is O'Maoltuille (O'M. alias Fludd,[21] in the Elizabethan records quoted below), now used only near Ballinrobe in the form MacAtilla, but usually translated Flood. The Galway Gaelic form has tuinne, genitive of tonn, wave, instead of tuille, and perhaps this is the origin of the surname Tunney. It is probable, indeed it is positively stated by some families, that some of the present Tullys are in reality Multullys. It is not unlikely, also, that O'Maoltuille in many, or possibly in all cases, represents the old common name Maeltola, or Maeltoile, 'one zealous for the will (of God),' people having substituted the better-known word tuille, flood, tide, for the genitive of toil, will. Another instance of substitution is offered by the history of the old Gaelic name Maelmor, great hero, often translated Malmore. Religious influences caused this name to give way to Maelmuire, servant of Mary, translated Mulmorie in Elizabethan records, and in later times represented by Meyler. Later Norman influences introduced the present translation Miles.

Our next names are those in which the Mul or Gil prefix is followed by a proper name, such as Mul-conry, Mul-ryan. If a man attached himself to the service of another, he would naturally be called 'follower of that other, and this is expressed by the prefix; Mulconry Mulryan, therefore, meant 'follower of Curio' (genitive Conroi) 'follower of Ryan.' So that from some mediaeval personal names we have, not only surnames in O and Mac, but others in O'Mul and Machl. Mulrine is another spelling of Mulryan; and some families, now known as O'Ryan, Ryan, are really Mulryans, and are so called in Irish.

Mulready, Murready, Mulreed come from the same original Riada as the names Macready (= MacRiada), Ready. Mulrooney, Marooney, Moroney are descendant of the follower of some Ruanaoh, or Rooney, whose own name meant 'hero.' Mulcahy is des. of foll. of Cathach, whose name means 'the warlike.' From some one of the name the island of Iniscathaigh or Inniscattery is called. 'Follower of Miadhach (the honourable one)' is the translation of Mulvey. Mulcreavy seems to be Maol-mhic-Riabhaigh, follower of MacCreavy, M'Greavy, a name equivalent to 'descendant or the gray man.' Mulcreavy is sometimes translated by Rice, possibly because the two names, Rice and Riabhach, begin with the same syllable! Kilcawley, Gilkawley, is apparently Giolla-mhic-Amhlaibh, follower of MacAuliffe, Kilgannon, follower of Geanan or Gannon, a familiar name. Mulcrowney, a rare name, stands for Maol-congamhna, contracted to Maol-c'n'amhna. Mac-Congamhna, is the present Mayo Gaelic form of the old tribe-name of the Cinél Cinngamhna. The name is now 'translated' by Caulfield; this translation resulting from a curious and characteristic popular equation: Caulfield = Calf-head = Cinngamhna! Thus English names find a footing. So, Lestrange is regarded by the few people who speak Irish in County Meath, as a translation of Coffey (as if from coimhthidheach, a stranger). Mulcrowney is also connected with the name of the present writer, and has for him, at least, a special interest.[22]

Mulroy, Kilroy, MacElroy are types of another class of names, in which the prefix is followed by an adjective, usually one denoting the colour of the hair. In such names we may take Mul to represent the Gaelic maol, skull, a noun from maol, bald.[23]

It would matter little what the origin of the Mul prefix is in these names, as Mulroy would be either 'descendant of red-skull,' or 'descendant of the red (haired) individual;' the idea conveyed is much the same. There is no difficulty about the Gil prefix; here, as before, it means 'person,' or, as our philological friends are fond of translating it, 'wight, 'carle.'

The surnames can be most easily classified after the adjectives from which they are derived. Thus Dubh, black, gives Maliffe, MacElduff, Kilduff—descendant of black-haired person. Bán, white-haired, gives MacIlwaine, Gilbane, Gillivan. Mulvane I have met once with the very unIrish praenomen Phineas—the bearer was evidently a descendant of an early immigrant among the Puritans of New England. Ruadh, red-haired, gives Mulroy, Milroy, Mulroe, MacElroy, Kilroy, Gilroy, MacElroe, all meaning descendants of a red-haired person.

There is also the Mulroy Bay in Donegal, taking its name from St. Maelrabha, from whom is called also Loch Maree in the north of Scotland. I have noticed a surname Maree in Mayo, and it also may be from Maelrubha, who was greatly honoured in early Christian times. He is mentioned by the Four Masters, under date of 671, as 'Abbot of Bangor in Ulster, and of Abercrossan in Alba.'

From buidhe, yellow, come MacElwee, Kilboy, MacEvoy. Odhar, dun-coloured, gives us MacAleer, MacLear, MacAlery. Crón, brown, liath, grey, and lachtna, greyish or drab, give Mulchrone (Mayo), Killilea, and Mulloughney, unless this last is d.s. of St. Fachtna, patron of Ross, as it may well be, for all the guidance the sound gives.

Riabhach means literally striped, brindled, but is used for 'iron-grey.' It gives Mulreavy, Milreavy, Mulleavy, Leavy, MacGillreavy, and probably MacAleavey, descendants, of the grey-haired man. Maol, bald, gives MacElmoyle, MacElmeel, MacMeel. Kildunn (Mayo) is from donn, brown-haired. Mulgrew, Magrew, and probably Kilgarriff, certainly come from garbh, coarse, as MacElveen, descendant of the smooth or sly person, is from mín, smooth. Kilgar, Gilgar, a Donegal name, is from gearr, short.

The great majority of our Whites, Blacks, Grays, &c., belong to this class, the English names being translated from the Irish. In 1465, by an Act of Edward IV. of England, it was decreed 'that every Irishman … in the County of Dublin, Meath, Uriell, and Kildare … shall take to him an English surname of one town … or colour, white, blacke, browne … !' And even at the present day, according to the records of the Registrar-General, there are instances of families having two surnames, one the English, and the other the Irish word for the same colour. Thus, according to the records of the Registrar's office, there are families that go by the two names of Gormley and Bloomer (gorm = blue); others that have the two names, M'Glashan and Green (glas = green); others again are called both Colreavy and Gray (riabhach, gray). The word maol, bald, gives the noun maolán, a bald head. From this come MacMullan, MacMillan, also O'Mullen, Moylan. The Mulligans, Milligans, are descendants of a person whose name, maolagán, means simply little bald man. O'Maolagáin is represented in parts of Donegal at least by 'Molyneux.'

McGillan, Gillan, Gilligan, Gilgan, MacElligon (U.S.), are all from the diminutives of giolla, and mean descendant of the little fellow.

The prefix MacGiolla, as used in the various classes of names which we have reviewed, is often used by itself as a surname, just as Mack is used as the surname of some families, the name of the ancestor having fallen off. MacGiolla thus used is represented in English by McGill, Magill, Gill, and Mackle.

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[20] Immigrants of the last century to New England bore the old forms of these names, and then, living among a Puritan population, landed on the Irish surname to some descendant with an old Testament-given name; thus I find an article by one "Micaja McGehee," in the 1891 volume of the Century Magazine.

[21] Silva Gadelica, ii. 574.

[22] Relatives of mine, of the last generation, used, in writing only, the name Gaffney, as if their usual name was but a form of O'Gomhna or MacGamhna. This tradition leaves the r unexplained. On the other hand, an old Irish-speaking neighbour of ours insisted that the name was 'the Irish of Caulfield,' a statement I could not understand until recently. The original is Mac-Congamhna, shortened to MacC'n'amhna, Magramhna. Compare the colloquial Gaelic O'Connach for MacDonough.

[23] It is the theory of some that this word maol is the original form of the Mul prefix, not only in this class of names, but wherever the prefix is followed by the name of a person or thing connected with religion, the word passing from its natural sense of 'bald' to mean 'tonsured,' and then coming to mean 'a cleric,' 'priest,' 'one consecrated to,' 'one devoted to.' Others regard the Mul prefix, except in the class of names we are about to consider, as mael, in its various senses from 'hero' to 'slave.' Hence we find Maelthain O'Carrol. the anmchara, soul-friend or director of Brian Boru, rendering his name in Latin by Calvus perennus, while a distinguished French Celtologue translates it 'esclave de l'Eternel.' It seems to me that the first translation is too literal to be intelligible; taking the name as one given for religious motives the meaning seems to be 'constant client or votary,' or, better still, 'a priest for ever.'