Directory of Irish Genealogy

What's in a Surname?

By Sean Murphy MA


A surname may be defined as an hereditary second or family name handed down from one generation to the next, and can be distinguished from first or personal names which refer only to individuals. Surnames can be divided into four broad classes, namely, those derived from ancestral personal names or patronymics, those derived from placenames or toponymics, occupational names derived from trade or status, and descriptive names referring to an individual's person or appearance.

There was no fixed beginning or end to the period during which surnames began to be used in Europe, the process being associated with feudalism and the need to have a more reliable means of identifying individuals for taxation and other purposes. Neither were surnames adopted at the same time by all classes, and in general, the rich and powerful and urban dwellers assumed them first, while the poor and rural dwellers tended to be slower to adopt them. The process started earlier in some areas, while in others it started later and in some places continued even down to the 19th century.

As was the case in other ancient societies, the inhabitants of Ireland in early times were known by one, personal name, eg, Art, Conn or Niall, as surnames had yet to evolve. It is true that the Irish had from a remote period a system of collective or 'people-names'. These names were used in the plural and referred to a whole population group, or probably more accurately, to its ruling dynastic elite or aristocracy. Examples of these people-names include the Uí Néill, descendants of Niall of the Nine Hostages, the Uí Briúin, descendants of his brother Brian, and the Eóganachta and Dál gCais, descendants of Eoghan Mor and Cormac Cas respectively.

While feudalism did not develop in Ireland at the same pace as in the rest of Europe, nevertheless as society became more complex and population grew there must have arisen difficulties of identification, so that personal names were no longer sufficient and a further distinction became necessary. From an early period a system of temporary patronymics was in use, whereby Mac was fixed to the genitive case of the father's name, or Ua or Ó to that of the grandfather, eg, Cormac Mac Airt, Laoghaire Mac Néill, and so on. Yet these second names were not surnames in the modern sense of the term, in that they were not fixed or hereditary or common to all members of a family, and they ceased to be used when the individual so described died.

When this system of transient patronymics itself became insufficient, surnames began to evolve in the 10th and and three centuries following. The patronymic began to become fixed and hereditary, not in a planned way, but by a process of gradual evolution. Keating and O'Curry claimed that surnames were introduced in Ireland as a result of an edict of King Brian Boru, but there is no basis to this claim. Indeed Brian himself did not adopt a surname, as it was only in his grandson's time that the surname Ó Briain or O'Brien first came into existence, 'Boru' or Bóruma being in fact a descriptive name meaning 'of the tributes'. Other early evolving Irish surnames include Ó Cléirigh (O'Clery), Ua Néill (O'Neill), Ua Ruairc (O'Rourke of Breifne) and Ua Ciardha (O'Keary).

Given the high profile of Irish 'clans', it is worthwhile considering what the late Dr Edward MacLysaght, the great authority on Irish surnames, had to say on the subject. In the introduction to Irish Families, he specifically stated that he avoided the term 'clan', in the Irish context because it might cause confusion with the distinct Scottish clan system. According to MacLysaght, Ireland had a more disparate kingroup system based on the 'sept' (variously said to be a corruption of 'sect' or an anglicisation of 'sliocht'). While some may take offence, it is the duty of scholars to point out that the concept of Irish 'clans' is essentially false, just as there is no basis to the idea that every surname has its own coat of arms. The attractions of 'clans' fantasies may be relatively harmless, but the MacCarthy Mór Scandal which broke last year is much more serious, involving the granting of State recognition to bogus Chiefs.

Of course we should also take account of the surnames of successive waves of invaders and settlers which have become naturalised in this country over the centuries, for it is limiting to define Irish surnames as those of Gaelic origin only. Surnames of Norse origin are comparatively few in number, examples including Arthur and Harold. In contrast, surnames of Anglo-Norman origin are very numerous and many have become almost exclusively Irish, examples being Burke, Costello, Cusack, Dillon, Fitzgerald and so on. The plantations of the 16th and 17th centuries saw the introduction of many common English and Scottish surnames, such as Smith/Smyth, Brown(e), Murray, Wilson, Campbell, and so on. Smaller settlements, usually of refugees, have also left their mark in terms of surnames, for example, the Huguenot Boileau, La Touche and Le Fanu, the German Palatine Bovenizer and Switzer, and the Jewish Cohen and Siev. It remains to be seen how far the current wave of immigrants attracted by the economic success of 'Celtic Tiger' Ireland will leave a permanent mark on our surname stock.

An interesting new use of surname analysis is as an adjunct to a study of gene distribution in Ireland being conducted by the Department of Genetics in Trinity College Dublin. The research of Dr Bradley and Dr Hill has shown that there is a correlation between possessing Gaelic surnames and having DNA containing the ancient genetic markers known as Haplogroup 1 (HG1). These markers characterised the ancient population of Europe 10,000 years ago, before being progressively diluted by waves of migration from the east. The Trinity study found rates of HG1 above 90 per cent in Connacht and Munster, with 70 and 80 per cent respectively in Leinster and Ulster. This contrasts with HG1 rates of 50 per cent in France, 33 per cent in Italy and 2 per cent in Turkey. Variant rates between those bearing surnames of Gaelic and settler origin are also mentioned, and we would be particularly interested to see these surnames specified.

It is now over 100 years since the Registrar General, Sir Robert E Matheson, commenced his pioneering study of Irish surnames, the results of which he published in his Special Report on Surnames in Ireland (1909). Using directories of telephone subscribers, the present writer has been engaged in a contemporary survey of Irish surnames. To conclude this piece, we give a comparative listing of the top ten Irish surnames in 1990 and 1890:

Ten most common surnames of Irish telephone subscribers c1990
(with estimated population and rank in 1890)

1 Murphy 52,500 (1)

2 (O)Kelly 41,200 (2)

3 (O)Connor 33,300 (9)

4 (O)Sullivan 32,800 (3)

5 Walsh(e) 29,900 (4)

6 (O)Brien 29,400 (6)

7 Ryan 28,700 (8)

8 (O)Byrne 28,500 (7)

9 Smith/Smyth 27,600 (5)

10 (O)Neill 24,900 (10)