Some Irish Surnames and Their Meaning

Paddy Neary

It could be said that Irish surnames are inseparably associated with Ireland’s long and fascinating History. It is not generally known that Ireland was the first Country in Europe to enforce the adoption of surnames. This law prescribing their use was passed more than a hundred years before the Norman invasion of 1169. Whereas surnames did not come into use in England until the days of Elizabeth 1 (mid 16th Century) nor in Wales until the late 17th Century.

Ireland’s population was much smaller in numbers and mass movement was uncommon. It was usual for a person to be known by one name, i.e. a male was known Eoin Art, Niall, whilst a female might be known as Grainne, Madbh, Blathnaid. The Gaelic clan system became established and this enabled people to identity with tribe and clan. Single names began to break down in the 11th Century as the population was growing and there was a need for means of identification. The solution was to adopt a prefix such as Mac/Mc. meaning son, or O meaning Grandson or descended from. For females Ni replaces O reduced from Inion, meaning daughter. Nic replaces Mac meaning daughter of the son of. The vast majority of Gaelic names were created in the 11th and 12th Centuries. It should be noted that the Scot Gael are actually descendants of Gaelic emigrants to Scotland. The word Scotus is Latin for Irishman.

Clans eventually broke up into a number of distinct septs or groups. These groups were headed by an original member of the clan and dominated a particular part of the country side. The sept system was an integral part of Gaelic society and survived and was even propagated by the Norman invaders. The system did not survive the English invasion and colonisation of the Seventeenth Century. It was a disadvantage to have a Gaelic sounding name. The Penal Laws enforced by the Colonists attempted to completely subjugate the Gaelic way of life. It was about this time that Gaelic names were changed to their Anglo equivalent or translation. The revival of Gaelic consciousness in the later 1800s saw many Irish families reassume the Mac, Mc, O or other forms of their Irish name. There are many different origins of Irish names today, but the vast majority can be broken down into three categories, Gaelic Irish, Cambro-Irish and finally Anglo Norman.

There are interesting meanings to some of the more well known names.

Murphy, came from O’Murphy, Mirphey, and Morphew meaning “Superior”

Kelly came from O’Kelly, Kielly, Keeley, meaning “for war”

O’Connor came from Connors, Conerty, meaning “helper”

Doughherty came from O’Doherty, Daughaday meaning “destroyer”

Sullivan was originally Sullifant, meaning “quick sighted”

O’Donnell, McDonald , Daniel, meaning “dark chief”

Moloney, Mullany , meaning “thoughtful”

McCormack, O’Cormack, meaning “son of the crown”

Flynn, O Floinn, meaning “bright red”

Finnegan , Flannigan, meaning “ red/ruddy”

Curry, Corr, Mac Corry, from the Gaelic Mac Mhuirich, meaning “Son of Murdoch”. A John Corr was a major land owner in Toberhanny, South Tipperary but was banished to Hell or to Connacht by Cromwell. Corr, a close ally of the Butlers of Ormonde, was rewarded for his loyalty with grants of land not in Toberhanny but in Cuffes Grange. The family remain here to this day.

To conclude the talk, some Kilkenny names and their meanings:

Brennan: from O’Braonain, meaning descendant of Branan, ” little raven”. They were a branch of the Cerball mac Dunlaine of Uí Duach (Three Castles) in Ossory.

Fitzpatrick from Giolla Phadraig meaning “a devotee of Patrick”. Giolla Phadraig was a King of Ossory slain in 996 A.D. His sons were subsequently styled Mac Giolla Padraig meaning the Son of a devotee of Patrick. The MacGiolla Phadraigs were Kings of Ossory up to the arrival of William Marshall who curtailed their power and later by the Ormond Butlers. Brian Og Mac Giolla Phadraig was the first noble to surrender and accept re grant terms of Henry V111. As a result in 1541, Brian became the first to assume the surname Fitzpatrick.

Walsh: Welsh, Brannagh meaning “Briton” or “Foreigner”, taken to Ireland by Welsh soldiers during and after the Norman invasion.

Shortall: from olde English “scort hals” meaning short neck, came to Ireland with Strongbow. James Schortall Lord of BallyLarkin and Ballykeefe who erected the family monument in St Canices Cathedral in 1507, and built the square tower of the Black Abbey.

Butler: from De Buitleir, originally French Le Bouteillier meaning “one who supplies the bottles”, specifically the wine. The name was bestowed on Theobald Fitzwalter one of the knights who travelled to Ireland with Richard de Clare (Strongbow) during the Norman invasion. Fitzwalter and his descendants were granted the honour of presenting the Sovereign at his/her Coronation with the cup of wine. The Butlers acquired vast tracts of land and held the prisage which was a form of tax (10%) on all wines imported to this country until 1828 when the Government of the time bought back the prisage. The family came into ownership of Kilkenny Castle in 1391, and presented the Castle and adjoining parkland to the people of Kilkenny in 1967 for the nominal sum of £50.


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