Surnames of the Sean-Gaill

Rev Patrick Woulfe

The surnames brought into Ireland by the Anglo-Normans were of four kinds:—

1. Patronymic.
2. Local.
3. Occupative.
4. Descriptive.

1. The Norman patronymic was formed by prefixing Fitz (a corruption of the French "fils," Latin "filius"), denoting "son of," as Fitz-Gerald, Fitz-Gibbon, Fitz-Herbert, Fitz-Simon. The English added "-son," as Richardson, Williamson; or merely the genitive suffix "-s," as Richards, Williams. Welsh patronymics were formed by prefixing "ap" or "ab," from older "Map," cognate with the Irish Mac, which, when it came before a name beginning with a vowel or h, was in many instances incorporated with it, as Ab Evan, now Bevan; Ab Owen, now Bowen; Ap Howel, now Howell and Powell.

English surnames in "-s" and "-son," and Welsh surnames in "Ap" were, however, at first extremely rare; they became common only at a much later date.[1] The type of patronymic most common among the Anglo-Normans was that in which the father's name appears in its simple and unaltered form, without prefix or desinence. Fitz seems to have been dropped early.[2] The great bulk of Anglo-Norman patronymic surnames are of this type.

The names from which these patronymic surnames were formed were of Norman, Anglo-Saxon, Norse, Danish, Flemish, Breton, Welsh, and even Irish origin.[3]

2. Local surnames were taken either from specific place names, or common local designations, or some local landmark; and the language in which they occur may be either Norman-French or English. If the surname was from a specific place name and the language Norman-French, the local element was preceded by "de"; if English, by "of," familiarly pronounced "a," as: Robert de Arcy, David de Barri, Torkaill of Kardif, Samsun of Stanlega. The local element may be the name of a country, province, county, city, town, village, or even farmstead. Surnames derived from places in Normandy alone denote Norman origin.

When the source of the surname was a common local designation, or mere landmark, the Normans prefixed "de la," "del," or "du"; the English "atte," which became "atten" before a vowel, as Henry de la Chapelle, Richard de la Felda, John de la Hyde. Robert del Bois (du Bois), Robert atte Brigge, Gilbert atte Wode, Walter atten Angle, Simon atten Ashe. The local element may be either Norman-French or English or Welsh.[4]

3. Occupative surnames are those derived from office, profession, trade, or occupation generally. They were originally all common nouns, and usually Norman-French. The definite article "le," the English "the," was generally, but not always, prefixed, as: le Archer, le Baillif, le Botiller, le Boucher, le Erchedecne, le Marescall, the Miller.

4. Descriptive surnames are those which convey personal description, and they are of various kinds according to the different ways in which a person can be described. They are generally Norman-French or English, but we have a few surnames formed from Welsh and Anglo-Saxon nouns and adjectives.

Physical peculiarities are represented by "le Gras," "le Grant," "le Petit," "le Bran," "le White," "the Black"; mental and moral by "le Prat," "le Curteis," "le Salvage," "l'Enfant," "the Babe"; animal characteristics by "le Bacoun," "le Veel," "le Wolf," "the Fox"; nationality by "l'Engleys," "le Fleming," "le Lombard," "le Waleys."

Many of the early Anglo-Norman families assumed surnames after the Irish fashion by prefixing Mac to the names or other designations of their ancestors, as:

Mac Fheórais,
Mac Sheóinín,
Mac an Mhíleadha,
Mac an Ridire;

but most of them retained their original surname in an hibernicised form, as: Dalatún for Dalton, Réamonn for Redmond, Hoireabárd for Herbert, etc. The Norman Fitz was replaced by Mac, as Mac Gearailt, Mac Siomúin for FitzGerald, FitzSimon. English surnames ending in -s and -son are similarly hibernicised; but Anglo-Norman patronymic surnames which had neither prefix nor filial desinence have the same form in Irish as the Christian name. The diminutive suffixes -el, -et, -ot, -in, -on, -oc, -uc, -kin, and -cock are represented in Irish by -éil,[5] -éid, -óid, -ín, -ún, -oc (óg), -uc (ac),-cín, and -cóc respectively.

The prefix "de" of Norman surnames is represented in Irish by "de," as de Búrc for de Burgh, de Léis for de Laci, etc. "de" is sometimes incorporated with the local part of the surname, as Dátún for de Autun, Déabhrús for d'Evereux, etc. "de" also sometimes stands for "de la," as de Múra for "de la Mor; or perhaps its English equivalent "atte Mor." "de la" itself, in the few instances in which it survives, is incorporated with the second part of the surname, as Dalaithid for "de la Hyde," Dalamara for "de la Mare." "de", pronounced do, is possibly for the Norman "du," the equivalent before masculine nouns of "de la." The English "of" is, of course, represented by "a" in Irish, but "a" is sometimes a worn down "de," as in "a Blác", "a Nóra." The English "atte," or "at the," is also represented in Irish by de, as de Bhóid for "atte Wode," at the wood. The n of the extended form, "atten," is attracted over to the second part of the name, as de Nógla for "atten Angle," at the corner; de Nair for "atten Ashe," at the ash.

The Norman definite article "le" and the English "the," used with occupative and descriptive surnames, are both represented in Irish by de, "le" having apparently been translated into its English equivalent "the" before the surname was hibernicised, as de Faoit for "le Whyte," the White, de Bláca for "the Blake," the Black, de Bhorc for "the Fox," de Bhulbh for "le Wolf," the wolf, de Bhailéis, de Bhailis for, "le Waleys," the Welshman, etc.

There was, almost from the first, a strong tendency to drop all these enclitic particles, and in many instances they had actually been dropped before the surnames to which they had been attached attained an Irish form; hence many of these surnames have no prefix in Irish.[6] Norman diminutives, it should be remarked, like Blanchet, Porcel, Russel, never took the article and consequently never take "de" in Irish.

[1] The early Anglo-Norman invaders, coming as they did from Wales, were called Breathnaigh, or Welshmen, by the Irish; but Welshmen they certainly were not, at least to any appreciable extent, as the almost complete absence of Welsh Christian names from among them amply proves. English surnames in "s" and "son" were peculiar to the Danish districts in the North of England, from which few, if any, of the early invaders came.

[2] Nothing is more common at the present day in certain parts of the country than to hear a man designated, no matter what his surname, as Maurice William or John James, meaning Maurice, son of William, or John, son of James. This is but a survival of the Norman practice.

[3] The name Colman which occurs in the Domesday Book is an instance.

[4]A small number of surnames—perhaps not more than thirty—are formed after the Norman fashion from Irish place-names. These, however, were not brought in by the invaders, but taken by them from places where they settled in Ireland.

[5] Or éal. The usage is not uniform.

[6] This is true of nearly all English surnames which came in after the fifteenth century. In my list I have inserted de in every instance where I had the authority of old Anglo-Irish records or the present spoken language for its use. "de" should not be used before surnames derived from personal names. Norman diminutives, or Anglo-Saxon or Welsh nouns or adjectives.