It’s a rather arrogant exaggeration to say that everyone wants to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, but it is true that those with some family ties to Ireland are more likely to remember them around March 17. And it’s a great excuse to drink Irish whiskey or the most popular beer served when I was a student in Ireland, Heineken, which if not Irish, at least comes in a green bottle.
Last year about this time I came across a website with information about Irish surnames and I thought it would make a great blog post. And it’s only taken twelve months to delve into the topic. Since anybody with internet access can post an article online, there’s no guarantee that what’s out there on the subject of Irish names is accurate or even a good guess. But it’s still fun to look. Here’s what I found:
- The Irish Times newspaper website has a “surname search” tool that seems almost too good to be true. You type in a surname and it gives you a map showing the number of households in each county with someone of that name during the years 1848-64 (based on a property valuation survey). It also provides spelling variations, associated names, history of the name and other information. But if you want a lot of detail, you need to subscribe to their Irish Ancestors service. http://www.irishtimes.com/ancestor/surname/.
- Another site, operated by an enterprising man from the suburbs south of Dublin named Michael Green, is looking to sell you all kinds of merchandise with your family crest on it. But there’s a lot of information tucked into the site as well, including the history of Irish surnames in general. In the Gaelic clans, first names were generally sufficient until about the 11th and 12th Centuries. The earliest were simply MacName or O’Name, which meant “son of” or “grandson of.” Mr. Green says that the Gaelic Scots all originally came from Ireland (and “Scotus is supposed to be Latin for “Irishman). So when the Scots later came back to populate northern Ireland in conjunction with English subjugation of the land, many of them were returning to their homeland without realizing it. Today, most Irish names can be classified as Gaelic Irish, Anglo Irish, or Cambro-Norman. Supposedly. He also gives the meaning of the name “Fitzpatrick” as someone devoted to St. Patrick, whereas I’d been told by a professor years ago that “Fitz” meant “bastard son of” and therefore Fitzpatrick would be Patrick’s out-of-wedlock child. Presumably a different Patrick. You can check out this website at http://www.ireland-information.com/heraldichall/irishsurnames.htm.
- For a real quick look (like looking up a name in a baby name book) visit http://surnames.behindthename.com/names/usage/irish. This site cover many other nationalities as well. But it’s quick, not thorough. For instance, the site told me my last name means “unlucky.” But the Irish Times site said that’s a regional and less common version of the Irish spelling of my name. So I hope I’m from the common side of the family.
- “Irish Central” discusses the history and family movement of the 100 most popular Irish names. Many of them are different from the 100 most popular Irish names I found on Michael Green’s. So the lesson here is if you don’t find your name on one site, keep looking. The name “Disney” made the top 100 even though it’s apparently derived from a place in France. I should have checked to see if this website was supported by advertising with a cartoon mouse theme. http://www.irishcentral.com/roots/top-100-irish-last-names-explained-103125099-237791581.html
- Finally, this no-frills site lists Gaelic names, their Anglo versions and information about early clan location and origins. I’m inclined to trust it more because it’s not fancy and not trying to sell anything. The main part of the site has a collection of fabulous maps showing how the island was settled during the different centuries. http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~irlkik/ihm/irenames.htm
Whether or not any of this is accurate or applies to me, it has definitely inspired an interest in learning more about the clans of Ireland and life before the Viking raiders and English armies charged in and changed the power structure.
I will probably never be able to pronounce my name as it would sound in Gaelic, but I can “sign” it.
—Catraoine Ó Connalláin Ó Dubhhláin
If you enjoy reading accounts about the disreputable reputations some Irish immigrants gained when they crossed the Atlantic, you might enjoy my story Restitution about an Irish peddler in the days leading up to the American War of Independence.