Irish Surnames: An Introduction

Irish surnames are very important, especially the unusual ones and there are so many unusual names to be found in our records.

What is an Irish Surname?

First of all, we have the question “What exactly is an Irish surname?” Is it a name which originated in Ireland and was only ever found in Ireland? Is it a name as gaeilge (through Irish)? Is it a name which was brought in to Ireland with the Normans? Or does that remain a name of Norman origin, which is found in Ireland.

If a person tells someone that their Grandparents came from Ireland and that story is handed down through generations for 300 years and then some member of that family decides to trace their ancestry – and they just know that their ancestors came from Ireland, and they ask a question somewhere – a mail list, a message board or at a genealogical society meeting and other people tell them “That is not an Irish name because it is not found in the Mathesons Report on Irish surnames and it is not found in any of the books published by Edward McLysaght”, then I ask you what is the descendant to do? If they are told that the name is found in England, Scotland, Wales, France or Spain, but not Ireland, by those who possess the publications I’ve mentioned, where do they turn? If their ancestors said they came from Ireland, then to my mind, those people must have been born in Ireland regardless of where their parents or grandparents came from.

Origin and Accents

Edward McLysaght gives the origin of some Irish surnames, where they may have been found in Ireland, where they were most common, some being found only in one county. He lists some variations, some synonyms, he tells where a name may have been changed to something which seems totally unlike the original between one county and another. He, through his lists does give some idea of surnames which can sound the same.

Now, if we stop to think, the accents in many Irish counties are different, definitely noticeable between places like Cork, Donegal, Dublin, Belfast. Words are pronounced differently. In some places people sounded an ‘e’ as we do an ‘a’ today, they said dis or dat – dropping their ‘th’, or in other instances an ‘h’ was put beside a ‘t’ in most words whether it actually is or was there in the spelling of the word as per any dictionary. In the midlands the ‘a’ sound is accentuated, longer in a word than when the same word is pronounced by someone from somewhere else.

The Correct Way!

In records we have to deal with the accents of people who for the most part used Irish as their spoken tongue, we have to deal with ‘olde’ English where there is a ‘y’ in words in place of an ‘i’, where a word beginning with ‘f’ may have had two ‘ff’s, where when we had two ‘s’s in a word they were written as two f’s’. We have to remember that the person writing any word down may have come from another county, may have written as he or she heard the word – phonetically – and if that name was found in the county they originated in, then they will have written the name as it was spelled in their own county. So, my ancestor may have spelled his name one way, someone else may have written it down a second way and when I go to the records for that county I may never find either variation, that is if I stick doggedly to the name as I know it to be spelled. However, if I stop to think and I check those names which may sound the same regardless of spelling, then I can strike gold!

So many times I have seen people on mail lists looking for this name or that name in Ireland or in a county and begin told by others that the name is not Irish, being told that the ‘correct’ way to spell a name is this way or that way. But in my opinion, there is no ‘correct’ way to spell a name – there is today’s way of spelling it, there is yesterday’s way of spelling it and there are many variations in yesterdays way – all depending on literacy and phonetics. Who is able to judge the ‘correct’ way? If people have carried a spelling through generations, and then they go looking for their ancestors in the county their ancestors said they came from, and all the people who have been doing all the transcribing of records over the years had corrected the spellings as they found them in records to the ‘correct’ spelling of the time – then surely the end result would be absolutely so different from the original as to be another name altogether? In the same way as a few words are whispered to someone in a group and then the ‘same’ words are whispered to the next person and so on, until the last person repeats what was supposed to have been said by the first, and it is totally different from the original.

What right have we to correct these words – what right have we to decide on the ‘correct’ version, who decides which is right and which is wrong?

I would ask those of you who do transcribe records to please not change the spellings as you find them, those spellings may be the hint that some other person seeks at another time.

Variations, examples

People hear that Irish records were written in Irish or that some names were written in Irish. The number of times that I personally have seen surnames written in Irish have been few and far between. However, there are some names we see, which may come from the original Irish form of a name, this may accounts for some synonyms we see, where one form of a word may begin with ‘C’ or ‘W’ and the other form begins with a ‘Q’. The letter ‘Q’ is not found in the Irish alphabet, and depending again on the original name spelling and the person transcribing the record they may have heard ‘Q’ and not ‘C’ or ‘W’. For example: ‘Ó Cuineáin = Queenan’, and then again I’ve heard names through English which begin with a ‘W’ being pronounced as if they began with a ‘Q’

I remember being asked once why it was that so many Irish Roman Catholic records were written in Latin, whereas in England most of the records were written in English. At the time, I had no answer, since then I have read that Latin records were generally kept in those areas where Irish was spoken. Since then I have also read that the Irish were very proficient in Latin, that they actually spoke Latin and Greek as well as Irish, and many were considered illiterate because they didn’t speak English, no census taker, enquirer ever thought to ask “Have you read Homer or the Iiliad?”

While I see these questions on the mail lists, ‘Is this an Irish surname’ what is the Irish for this surname?’, I never see anyone come along and ask ‘How many ways could I spell this surname, how many of those ways would not seem similar enough for me to recognise them as being possibilities for my surname as I go through records?’

Let me give you some examples,
Easy enough to spot the variations
Achmooty* /Aughmuty* /Aghmuty /Ahmuty /Auchmuty
Ahearn* /Aheran /Ahern /Aherne* /Ahearn* /Aheron
Archdeacon* /Archdekin /Arcedeckne /Aercedeckne /Arsdekin /Arcedeickne
Bagnall* /Bagnel /Bagnell /Bagnal /Bagenal
Bailey* /Bailie/ Bailie*/ Baillie/ Bailly /Baily /Bayley /Baylie /Bayly*
Barber* /Barbor/ Barbour*
Daily/ Daley/ Dally/ Daly* /Dawley* /Dalyly
Delahayde /Delahide/ Delahoide /Delahoyde

With a bit of guesswork:
Eayres/ Ayres* /Eyres/ Eyre*/ Ayre*
Ellard*/ Aylward* /Elliard
Fair* /Phair* /Faire
Fay* /Fee*/Foy*/Fey*/Fye*
Archbold* /Archaball

And then we come to the difficult ones, the names which sound the same but look different.
Adlum/Odlum – easy enough
Agar/Eagar – not too bad either
Aghoon/Whitesteed – McLysaght says so, different counties!

If we look to the above examples, we can see a common theme – the vowels a and e can be substituted for one another as can the other vowel letters, an ‘l’ may be doubled or on it’s own and we still have the same sound to a word, the ‘h’ can be dropped depending on whether it is emphasised in a word or not, the ‘c’ and the ‘q’ can be substituted for one another as can the ‘w’ and the ‘q’ and the ‘k’ and ‘g’.

This is not to say that these substitutions are standard and that no matter what your name you will find a variation.

The main surname lists are simply guides, guides to possible variations on names, as they develop then I will begin surnames as per county, similar lists to these which will give surnames and variations as I have seen them in records for that county.