Sunday, March 23, 2014

Making Irish surnames English - 1518

Irish Medieval History


Making Irish surnames English - In 1518 the authorities of Galway decreed “neither O' nor Mac shall strut and swagger through the streets of the city”. The names of the native Irish male population all names began with O’ or Mac meaning “grandson of” or “son of” followed by the personal name of the ancestor. In the late 16th century the Irish nation under military and social duress began the process of changing their surnames to sound more English. Despite popular beliefs the 12th century Norman conquest was not an English conquest. The 17th century marks the first true English conquest of Ireland which is reflected in the fact that it was suddenly un-cool to have an Irish surname in Ireland!

To give readers an idea of the duress the population was under the English Poet Edmund Spencer (who spent 20 years in Ireland) called upon the English to commit genocide against the Irish. He lauded earlier works like that of Earl Arthur Grey who in 1582 used brutal scorched earth tactics which resulted in a serious famine which killed as many as 30,000 people in just six months.

The Elizabethan conquest of Ireland (1565-1603) marks the first time a central government was established in Ireland. The native Brehon laws were outlawed and English law imposed. People were cleared off their land in a process we now call ethnic cleansing. To add insult to injury all things Irish were despised, including the Irish manner of hairstyles, clothing and everything else. Therefore it is not surprising that it became unfashionable to have an Irish name.

While the surname change process was initiated by oppression it was not the sole cause. In the new political and social climate one could only hope to ascend through the social ranks by appearing to conform to the new social order. Gaelic families might use their surname to demonstrate their loyalty to the new power, while families of Norman descent hoped to mitigate discrimination and avoid having their land confiscated by calling themselves "the old English". Thus surname change was an imperative of survival as the alternative was to face annihilation be it social, financial or physical.

In reality many families had two names, one for official documents and another which they were commonly known by to their friends, neighbours and relations. A similar practice continues to this day most notably in the forename Liam, almost all bearers of the name are not called Liam on their birth certificate but William.

Surname change was subject to a number of different processes which has led to the surname forms we have to day.
Phonetic variations - English officials unfamiliar with the Irish language recorded surnames as the heard them and thus wrote the names down phonetically. For example Mag Oireachtaig (Ma-gur-ach-ti) becomes Ma’Geraghty or Mac Geraghty. Another scribe might hear it different like Mc Garrity or recorded it carelessly. Thus one surname takes on the appearance of many and we get all these variations Gerrity, Gerty, Gerighty, Gerighaty, Gerety, Gerahty, Garraty, Geraty, Jerety, McGerity, MacGeraghty, MacGartie, MacGarty and many more.

Misspellings - were also common because the uniformity of spelling we enjoy today was not present in the English language until very recently. An interesting example is William Shakespeare (1564-1616) who spelled his name in a variety of ways. Despite his great learning and literary accomplishments 83 variants of his name have been attested in English source material

Direct translations - of Irish names also occurs for example Ó Marcaigh to Ryder, Ó Bradáin to Salmon and Fisher, Mac an tSaoir to Carpenter or Freeman , Mac Conraoi to King, Ó Draighneáin (meaning from a place abounding in briars) is translated to Thornton. Ó Gaoithín (meaning from a windy place) is translated to Wyndham.

Assimilation - is the name given to the process of substitution with foreign names of similar sound or meaning like these French examples. Ó Lapáin became De Lapp, Ó Maoláin became De Moleyns, Ó Duibhdhíorma became D'Ermott. Molloy (O’ Maol an Mhuaidh) and Mulligan (O’Maoláin) became Molyneux.

Pure substitution - occurs where the connection between the original surname and the substitute is remote for example, Clifford for Ó Clúmháin, Fenton for Ó Fiannachta, Loftus for Ó Lachtnáin, Neville for Ó Niadh, Newcombe for Ó Niadhóg.

Attraction - sometimes rare names are often subsumed by more common names.

Ó Bláthmhaic is anglicised as Blawick or Blowick and becomes Blake

Ó Braoin is anglicised as O'Breen, Breen becomes O'Brien,

Ó Duibhdhíorma is anglicised as O'Dughierma or Dooyearma, becomes MacDermott,

Ó hEochagáin is anglicised as O'Hoghegan becomes Mageoghegan,

Ó Maoil Sheachlainn is anglicised as O'Melaghlin becomes MacLoughlin.

The Gaelic revival movement of the 19th century caused many families to reverse the Elizabethan changes and they chose to restore the Mac and O to their surnames. This process will be looked at in our next post.

Image taken from “Mapping the Emerald Isle: a geo-genealogy of Irish surnames” 1890. A searchable map based on the 1890 census is available here.

Tip: type in a name of interest or zoom to a place to see the names associated with that place in the year 1890AD.

Note if your surname does not appear in the search results zoom in and look around on the map. Have fun.

A high res print ready copy (35mb) is also available to download here

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