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

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

Up to this point we have been discussing surnames, the explanation of which may be regarded as fairly certain; but we cannot be surprised to find that there are other names about the meaning of which there is more or less doubt. The study of the native annals, and of the literature generally, will probably bring to light the original forms of these names; for the modern English spelling is often not only not a help in that direction, but is positively misleading. Then, again, we are not always able to translate the original name, even when we have it before us, as the study of ancient Irish has not yet ascertained the meaning of all old words. I shall, at least, endeavour to classify the names which I cannot explain. To summarize all that has been said up to this, the surnames fall into the following classes:—

1. Those in which the prefix is followed by the name of a person or thing connected with religion—typical names are Malone, Mallowney, Maglone, and MacEldowney.

2. Those in which Mul has its various stages of meaning, from 'hero, chief,' as in Molloy, down to 'person'—with Gil also meaning 'person,' as in MacElhill.

3. Those like Mulconry, Mulryan, Kilgannon, in which the second element is a personal name, and the prefixes mean 'follower of.'

4. Those like Mulroy, Kilroy, MacElroy, where the prefixes are followed by an adjective describing personal appearance.

5. Diminutives like Mulligan, Gilligan.

Mulloughney (Class 1 or 4) is a Tipperary name. The Registrar's report gives it as a synonym of Moloney; but this is surely wrong, as the gh represents, I take it, a guttural sound. It is probably mael-lachtna, grey-headed person, or mael-Fhachtna, servant of St. Fhachtna, of Ross. Loughney seems to be a shortened form—compare Lally for Mullally. Possibly Loughrey may be but another form of the same name.

Kilcar occurs as a surname in West Mayo; it is probably d.s. of St. Gilla Carthach, from whom Kilcar, in Donegal, takes its name.

Kilrane may be descendant of the follower of Ryan (compare the spelling Mulrean, Mulrane, fox: Mulryan), or it may contain the name of a minor saint, such as the patron of Cill-Riain or Cill-Rioghain, Kilrane, in Donegal, or Cill-Raighne, near Kinnegad.

Mulhall is probably O'Maoilfhabhaill, 'descendant of the traveller,' a name already mentioned. 'Descendant of the follower of Cahill' is a less likely interpretation, as the form Mulcahill would, I think, have been preserved had this been the meaning.

Mulleady, Meleady, Meledy, are forms of frequent occurrence. Can we see in this a name of the first class. O'Maoil-Ida, d.s. of St. Ita (of Limerick—compare Killeedy), Cill-Ide, Church of Ita? I am afraid this interpretation is not well authorized, and that we must see in these names the modern representatives of the annalists.

Mael-éitigh, exactly equivalent to Cinnéitigh, Kennedy. The translation, 'Ugly-head,' is not very flattering; but it will be consoling to reflect that those who originally deserved these names are dead many centuries.

Mael-caere occurs in the Four Masters, and is now represented by Mulcaire and Wilhere (= ui mhaoil-chaere). The meaning is, apparently, servant of Caere (Class 3). Perhaps this Caere is the original of the present name Carr, Kerr. The name seems to have come to us from Scotland, where the famous Cárr, Cárrach, are used, leading to the English Carr. Some branches of the family, however, claim the Gaelic name Ceárr, left-handed, and have a tradition, that endeavours to justify the name. This form would give Kerr in English, and is the form used in Donegal, where the Carrs are called Mac-giolla-cheáirr, d.s. of the left-handed person. There is also an English MacElhair coming from this Gaelic form. The Gaelic form used about Galway is Mac-giolla-Chearra. Is the Mayo name Morcarey connected?

MacElmeel most probably belongs to Class 4, and means 'descendant of the bald person.' There is not much probability that it contains the name of St. Michael; the name formerly written MacGillmichael seems to have died out. MacMeel has lost the l sound of the giolla prefix—just as MacEvoy has lost it. I think we should also class here MacAdorey, MacEleavey, which seem to be Mac-giolla-dorcha, d.s. of the dark (featured) man, and Mac-giolla-riabhaigh, d.s. of the grey man. Here MacAtamney would at once suggest (as a mere conjecture, however) the analysis Mac-giolla-tSamhna, descendant of a person connected in some way with the old pre-Christian feast of Samhain,[24] the memory of which is handed down in the curious popular observances connected with Hallow-eve. The occurrence of a form MacAtimney is most favourable to this conjecture. In the United States the form MacTammany is more common.

MacElrone seems to have religious connections. The ending appears to be the same as in the name of the famous Abbot Maelruain of Tallaght; but how he obtained his name of servant of Ruan, or who (if a person at all) Ruan was, are questions I cannot answer. Another name that seems to go back to the ages of the Irish saints is the Tipperary name Mollumby, which at first sight recalls the well-known inscription at Clonmacnoise: 'A prayer for Suibhne mac Maele-umai.' But how few ever heard of this venerable Gaelic saint and scholar, the thirty-fourth Abbot of Clonmacnoise, who is set down by the Irish, English, and Welsh annalists of the time as doctor Scotorum peritissimus—the most learned teacher of the Gael. In 891 he, with other learned Irish teachers, was called to England to advise with King Alfred, who was then busy developing the studies of the University of Oxford, founded, in 886, in imitation of the great Irish schools, where Alfred, like many another English student, had found hospitality and education. Probably the Abbot of Clonmacnoise had been one of Alfred's own teachers in his student days.

The name Mael-uma, if we may venture to attempt a translation, may mean 'worker in brass,' and would be an appropriate name in those days for the craftsmen who wrought such marvels of metal-work as we can see in museums. But, if this is the meaning of the name, the modern form would be O'Maoil-umha, and could not be the original of Mollumby; so perhaps we should place this surname in Class 1, and explain it as Maoil-Lomma, d.s. of St. Lomma or Lommán. A saint of the name is remembered at Portloman, on the southern shore of Lough Owel, in Westmeath; and the first Bishop of Trim bore the same name. The form Malumy, which I find in a list of Antrim names, is, therefore, nearer to the original Gaelic, if it is the same name, as it most probably is if the accent is on the middle syllable.

Mulvany, Melveney, O'Melveney (Los Angelos, California), Mulvenna, MacElvenna, MacIlvany, Gilvany—all these forms evidently mean descendant of the follower or servant of some person named Bena, Mena, or Menach, Benach; but who this person is, whether a saint or a Gaelic ancestor, is a problem. If we look upon the names as coming from an ancestral name we shall probably be right in regarding that ancestor as Maenach, from whom the O'Dooleys take their tribal name of Clann Mhaenaich. The names given above would then belong to Class 3, and would mean descendant of the follower of Maenach. From a person of the same name comes the name O'Maonaigh, which is O'Mooney in the North of Ireland, and is, perhaps, the original of Meany in the South. On the other hand, can we find in these names the name of one of the Irish saints? I have seen, but where I cannot recollect, and no one that I have consulted can ascertain, the name of a Menóc, one of the 'host of the saints of Erin.' This name presupposes a simpler form, Men or Mena, and I have noticed a mention of a place called Kilvany, which might contain the name. I prefer the first interpretation; the latter, if correct, would have the advantage of explaining the names Manogue, Minogul, Minnoch, and Mannix, all meaning d.s. of St. Mena or Menoc. I hope that someone who has an opportunity of consulting suitable authorities will be able to locate the reference to St. Menóc.[25]

Mulqueen, Mulkeen, Kilcoyne, are names which are like those in the previous paragraph. If they contain the name of a saint, it is probably St. Kevin, as both Mael-Caeimhghin and Gilla-Caeimhghin occur in the Index to the Four Masters, but they rather seem to mean descendant of the follower of Conn—a name from which came also Quinn, M'Queen, Kilgun, MacElgunn, seems to be 'follower of Gunn.' They could hardly mean 'the man with the gun.' The name MacElrath (MacIlwrath, Mucklewraith), not uncommon in Ulster, is probably Mac-giolle-raith, d.s. of Rath, an ancestor from whose name are derived Magrath (= MacRaith), Magraw, MacRae, and perhaps also O'Raine. One might be tempted to class it with Moloney and such names, as 'd. s. of grace,' but this is not a likely meaning. Perhaps one of the Maloney class is found in Magillivray, which may be 'one zealous for judgment day'—Mac-giolla-brâtha represents well the pronunciation. Carmichael is another Scotch name that, at first sight, would seem to belong here; but I think that with Kirkpatrick it is to be regarded as originally a place-name, which afterwards was adopted, like York, Birmingham, and others, as a family name. Caer- now seems to be the Welsh word for 'seat,' just as Kirk- is the familiar Lowland-Scotch for 'church.' Anyhow, they are both Lowland and non-Gaelic names, the Highland forms being MacMichael (in Gaelic Mac-giolla-mhichil) and Kilpatrick. Another Scotch name is Maclurg—one would like to class it with MacIl-Largy, but it is not very probable that a local Irish patron, as far as I know, like Forga, would be remembered in Scotland. Maclehose is another Scotch name that would seem to belong to the Gil-class, but I am unable to throw any light on it. It is, perhaps, like Meiklejohn, a Lowland name with no connection with Gaelic. Maclure (M'Clure, MacLure) is probably Mac-giollá-uidhir, d. s. of the brown-haired person, the same as our MacAleer.

I had finished these notes when there came into my hands a large volume of 600 pages containing an immense list of Irish surnames as they were written in Elizabethian times. It is the Twenty-Second Report of the Deputy-Keeper of the Public Records in Ireland (Dublin, 1890, price two shillings) and is full of interesting points, although it is merely an index to other publications. Very few of our surnames then existed in their present forms, as given in this 'index of Fiants;' they are much nearer to the original Gaelic forms as McEna for McKenna, and often preserve the Gaelic system of spelling. Many of the names then in full force have now disappeared, or have been much changed. Mulmorie, servant of Mary, occurs commonly.

'O'Maeltulye' was still in use—perhaps, indeed, it is our present name Tully. This index throws some light on the difficult names, Mulooly, Gilooly (Gilhooly, Gilhool, &c.). The old Gaelic Maelguala—which I cannot translate —seems to be the original of Mulooly, and the form Gilla-guala would explain the various forms McGilgowlye, Gillegooly, Gilleguly, occurring in the Fiants. But these would not explain the form Gilhool, which is still in use, and which is evidently the descendant of the names McGillehole, McGillechomhaill (here the Fiants preserve partially the Gaelic spelling), occurring in the Elizabethan index, and traceable to the Gaelic original meaning 'servant of St. Congal' recorded in the Annals. The Four Masters give a spelling Mac-giolla-shúiligh, descendant of the sharp-eyed person; but I fancy the worthy annalist invented this on the spur of the moment. There were, probably, two sets of names, one from the obscure guala (probably a personal name) quoted above, and the other from the name of St. Congal of Bangor. And it would be strange, indeed, if his name should not be put in remembrance with those of the other Irish saints. Few were more honoured in early times, says the Book of Leinster: 'Congal, of Bangor, in Ulster, Abbot, of the race of Trial. A man full of God's grace and love was he; one that trained and edified many other saints, in whose hearts and minds he enkindled and inflamed the unquenchable fire of God's love, as in Erin's ancient books is evident. In life and manners he resembled James the Apostle.' Such a one could not fail to have clients in early Ireland, and accordingly we find both Mael-comhghail and Gilla-comhghaill on record, servants of Congal.

From these come at least some of our present Muloolys (many of whom have adopted the more usual name Molloy) and Gilhoolys. Owing to the strange habit of throwing away family names that are any way rare, and adopting names somewhat similar and more common, it is now impossible to say what is the original Irish form of many names. Thus, we have seen in this paper, that the name Molloy has been adopted by two other families who had no right whatever to it. In the same way, which the name Malone may be usually taken to stand for d.s. of St. John (O'Maoil-Eoin), there can be little doubt that it sometimes stands for the obsolete O'Maoilbhuadhain and other names.

A few more names and we shall have done. Muldoon, a name of which we have very early record, is, of course, d.s. of Dun; but whether Dun was a person, or as it seems perhaps more probable, a place, we have no reason to decide. Here we may recall that one of the earliest of the Imrama, or voyage narratives, is that of Maeldun, which Tennyson has rendered in verse. If Muldoon means 'one fond of the dun or fort,' it is of the same class as Mael-achaidh, 'one fond of the field,' a name on record in the annals, but now obsolete. We have, however, Kilahy and Killackey, which may be the Gil forms with the same meaning. Are Leahy, Lahy, in any way connected with this? Kilgallon, is a name on which I cannot throw any light; also Mullany, although I think O'Donovan has a reference to it somewhere in his voluminous notes. Kilcline might be analyzed as d.s. of the stooped (claon) person, but the old Elizabethan forms McGillacleyne, McGillacloyne, McGillacleyny, rather point to d.s. of knavish (cluaineach) person. But compare the Elizabethan Malacline, for Melaghlin, seemingly Mulhane is but a form of Mullen; compare Culhane and Collins both from O'Coileáin. Names ending in—ane (pronounced aan) abound in Cork and Kerry; the sound given to the Gaelic ending áin, in these names, is quite exceptional in modern Gaelic. The Gaelic equivalent of Lysaght seems to be Macgiolla-iasachta, d.s. of the 'borrowed' person! Why so called, I surely cannot tell. Cuskelly (Elizabethan McGilla cosglie) and McCluskey also appear to belong to this class; and, apparently, also McGlew, McLagan, McClatchy. The names Kilgore, Kilburn, MacIldowie, are obscure to me.

In addition to Gaelic names in Mul and Gil, there are names of foreign origin beginning in the same way; such as Mulgrave (which was the original of some of our McGrews or Mulgrews), Gilbert, Gilbreath, a form of Galbraith, Gillick seems to be an abbreviation of MacUlick, a name that occurs frequently in the Elizabethan records. The name Gilleran (Killeran) occurs in the annals, and is yet in use; the annal form is O'Gillarain ('O'G. abbot of Trinity Church at Tuam,' died 1256), and if the final syllable is short, as it seems to be, the name is not of the class we have been considering. It is probable that we have the Mul prefix also in O'Máille (O'Malley).

I find, on review of this paper, that we can count more than two hundred fairly different modern forms of our Mul and Gil surnames.

I bring to an end this very imperfect treatment of an interesting subject. Most of the surnames are familiar to us all; some that are rather rare I have collected from current newspapers and similar records. The index to the Annals of the Four Masters contain the original Gaelic forms of many of the names. I owe to the kindness of Mr. Patrick O'Burne, of the New York Gaelic Society, a copy of the part of this index containing all names of the classes here discussed. I have also to thank Dr. Meyer of Liverpool, and Professor Mackinnon, of Edinburgh, for their courtesy in answering many queries of mine in reference to old Gaelic and Highland names. It is pleasant to find men of learning so ready to place their knowledge at the disposal of inquirers. Mr. Matheson, of the Registrar-General's Office, in Dublin, has published two very interesting lists of synonyms and alternative forms of surnames in Ireland. Such work, however, can be done but imperfectly by anyone, however zealous, who has not a knowledge of Irish, as many things will be quite clear to a Gaelic scholar that would be a mystery to another.

I venture to express the hope that those who have access to Irish books and manuscripts, and particularly to the works, printed and manuscript, of O'Donovan, and the Genealogies of MacFirbis, will supply whatever is needed in the way of correction and improvement to this paper, written at a distance of many thousand miles from Ireland, and with no access to authorities of any kind.


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[24] Compare the English surnames Christmas, Pentecost, Easter, Hallowes, Spring, Summers, Winter, March, &c.

[25] About Scarriff, according to the Registrar's report on surnames and their synonyms, Minnogue and Mannix are regarded as the same name, the latter name being formed from the root minóg, manóg, by the addition of s, as Cairns, Burns, are formed from Kieran, Byrne.