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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Irish Surnames



When surnames were first introduced into Ireland in the 10th century, the country was a rural, agrarian island in which its inhabitants stayed on the same land and neighborhood for generations. The social neighborhood of the Irish was limited to a “shanks’ mare” or by walking to find a potential mate and build a family. Most families time was spent working, and free time was limited except for Sundays. In short, the people stayed put. The size of the social “neighborhood” expanded as horse drawn carts became more common in the 19th century.

As a result, surname variation from county to county and parish to parish did not vary appreciably across the generations. Moreover, the early introduction of heredity surnames brought to Ireland by the Normans predated many other European countries. The dearth of Irish civil records from the infamous destruction of the Public Record Office of Ireland in Four Courts complex in 1922 (amongst other historic events) highlights the importance of studying surnames to place our Irish ancestors.


Like many other ethnic groups, Irish surnames are derived from personal characteristics like Kennedy (“cennedie”, as in “ugly head”) and Dempsey (Diomusach meaning proud). Still others derived from animals such as Whelan (from faol, meaning wolf) or (“Coinin” for a rabbit). Rank and occupation account for surnames such as McGowan (Gogah) for a Smith and McCleary (cleireach for a clerk).When surnames were first introduced into Ireland in the 10th century, the country was a rural, agrarian island in which its inhabitants stayed on the same land and neighborhood for generations. The social neighborhood of the Irish was limited to a “shanks’ mare” or by walking to find a potential mate and build a family. Most families time was spent working, and free time was limited except for Sundays. In short, the people stayed put. The size of the social “neighborhood” expanded as horse drawn carts became more common in the 19th century.

As a result, surname variation from county to county and parish to parish did not vary appreciably across the generations. Moreover, the early introduction of heredity surnames brought to Ireland by the Normans predated many other European countries. The dearth of Irish civil records from the infamous destruction of the Public Record Office of Ireland in Four Courts complex in 1922 (amongst other historic events) highlights the importance of studying surnames to place our Irish ancestors.

Like many other ethnic groups, Irish surnames are derived from personal characteristics like Kennedy (“cennedie”, as in “ugly head”) and Dempsey (Diomusach meaning proud). Still others derived from animals such as Whelan (from faol, meaning wolf) or (“Coinin” for a rabbit). Rank and occupation account for surnames such as McGowan (Gogah) for a Smith and McCleary (cleireach for a clerk). 

To read the rest of this article by Michael Brophy, become a member of ISBGFH and gain access to our members only publication, British Connections

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