Anglicisation of Irish Surnames

Rev Patrick Woulfe

The various ways in which Irish surnames have been anglicised may be enumerated under the following heads:

  1. Phonetically.
  2. By translation.
  3. By attraction.
  4. By assimilation.
  5. By substitution.

1. Phonetically.—This was the method almost exclusively adopted when surnames were first anglicised.[1] The surname was written down more or less as it was pronounced, but without any regard to the Irish spelling, as:

O'Brien for Ó Briain,

O'Callaghan for Ó Ceallacháin,

O'Donoghue for Ó Donnchadha,

O'Flanagan for Ó Flannagáin,

O'Neill for Ó Néill.[2]

The same Irish surname often gives several very different anglicised forms owing to dialectical variations and the vagaries of the phonetic system employed to represent them, as:

Ó Cobhthaigh, Coffey, Cowie, Cowhey, Cowhig, &c.,

Ó Dubhthaigh, Duffy, Dowie, Dooey, Duhig, &c.

On the other hand, very different Irish surnames have sometimes the same anglicised form, as:

Coffey for Ó Cobhthaigh, Ó Cathbhadha, Ó Cathbhuadhaigh, Ó Cathmhogha.

In many instances the anglicised form has in course of time been contracted, as: O'Hare for O'Hehir, O'Kane for O'Cahan; and not unfrequently only a part of the original form is retained, as Ryan for O'Mulryan. Most surnames have been mutilated by dropping Mac or O', and Mac when retained in usually, but improperly, written Mc or M'.

2. Translation.—During the last and the preceding century, many families rejected the old phonetic rendering of their surnames and adopted instead an English surname which was supposed to be a translation of the Irish surname. These “translations” are, in most instances, incorrect. The following are examples of translated surnames:—

Ó Bruic translated Badger,
Ó Bruacháin Banks,
Ó Cadhain Barnacle,
Ó Maoilbheannachta Blessing,
Ó Marcaigh Ryder,
Ó Bradáin Salmon and Fisher,
Mac an tSaoir Carpenter, Freeman
Mac Conraoi King,
Mac Conshnámha Forde,
Mac Seáin Johnson.

The translated form sometimes takes an English termination, as:

Ó Draighneáin translated Thornton,
Ó Gaoithín Wyndham.

3. Attraction.—A surname of comparatively rare occurrence is often attracted to, and confounded with, a better known surname of somewhat similar sound existing in the same locality, and instead of its proper anglicised form assumes that of the better known or more numerous surname. The following are examples:

Anglicised attracted to
Ó Bláthmhaic, Blawick, Blowick, Blake,
Ó Braoin, O'Breen, Breen, O'Brien,
Ó Duibhdhíorma, O'Dughierma, Dooyearma, MacDermott,
Ó hEochagáin, O'Hoghegan, Mageoghegan,
Ó Maoil Sheachlainn, O'Melaghlin, MacLoughlin.

It must be remembered that a surname of comparatively rare occurrence in one district may be quite common in another, and vice versa, and that consequently the attracting surname in one locality may be itself attracted in another.

4. The custom of assimilating Irish to foreign names is old in Ireland. During the Middle Ages Irish scholars writing in Latin, instead of latinising the Irish names with which they had to deal, often simply substituted for them well-known Latin names of somewhat similar sound or meaning. Hence we find such substitution as Cornelius for Conchobhar, Eugenius for Eoghan, Thaddaeus for Tadhg, Virgilius for Fearghal, etc. This practice was well known in the sixteenth century, and was frequently followed in the anglicisation of Irish Christian names. Nearly all the anglicised forms of this kind existing at present were already in use in the time of Elizabeth, the only important exceptions being Jeremiah for Diarmaid, and Timothy for Tadhg, which only came into use about half a century later.

The extension of the practice to surnames is of still later date, few traces of such anglicisation being found earlier than the middle of the seventeenth century. The principal cause of the change of these names, according to O'Donovan, was the ridicule thrown upon them by English magistrates and lawyers, who were ignorant of the Irish language; but an anxiety on the part of the people themselves to get rid of uneuphonious or otherwise undesirable surnames doubtless operated in the same direction. The following are examples of surnames anglicised in this way:

Broderick for Ó Bruadair,

Carleton for Ó Cairealláin,

Harrington for Ó hAarrachtáin and Ó hIongardail,

Reddington for Ó Roideacháin,

Summerville for Ó Somacháin.

In a few instances the assimilation is to a French surname, as:

De Lapp for Ó Lapáin,

De Moleyns for Ó Maoláin,

D'Ermott for Ó Duibhdhíorma.

5. Substitution.—Substitution differs from assimilation only in degree. The similarity between the Irish surname and its English equivalent is in this case much more remote; very often there is no connection whatsoever. The following are examples:

Clifford for Ó Clúmháin,

Fenton for Ó Fiannachta

Loftus for Ó Lachtnáin,

Neville for Ó Niadh,

Newcombe for Ó Niadhóg.

It sometimes happens that the natural phonetic rendering of an Irish surname has, when Ó or Mac is dropped, the same form as an English surname, as: Ó Beargha, Barry; Mac an Bháird, Ward; Ó Buachalla, Buckley.

[1] Most Irish surnames were anglicised during the second half of the 16th century (1550-1600), and appear for the first time in in an English dress in the State documents of that period. The anglicisation seems to have been the work of Anglo-Irish government officials possessing, in some instances at least, a knowledge of the Irish language. The present anglicised forms, generally speaking, date from that period.

[2] It may be remarked that the anglicised form was in most instances originally much nearer the Irish pronounciation than at present, owing partly to a change in the sound of the English letters, and partly to the corruption of the Irish forms. Thus O'Brien and O'Neill were originally pronounced O'Breen and O'Nail.