Surnames in Ireland

Surnames in Ireland


If you took all the Gaelic Surnames out of Ireland – what would be left? A lot of names!

Today we’re looking at Viking, Norman, Galloglass and Planter (English and Scottish) names.
Let’s take a few examples using one of our Readers – Patricia Clarke (thanks, Patricia J ). Patricia gave me six of her family names: Byrnes, Clarke, Halpin, Leonard, Martin and Rafferty.

While I may be COMPLETELY incorrect with the specifics of Patricia’s actual family – we’ll use them for illustration!

The Melting Pot of Ireland.
I often get asked the question: “Is my surname Irish?” My answer is simple: If your family has lived on this island for some time then YES – even though the name may be of Norse, English, Scottish origin etc. Let’s remind ourselves of the mix of people have lived on this small island:

  • Up until 500BC – “Fir Bolg” and the “Tuatha Dé Dannan” lived in Ireland
  • Around 500BC – Arrival of the Celts (we call the “Gaels” today) – intermarry with people on the island
  • Around 800s – Arrival of the Vikings – who intermarry with the native Gaels. Start of the “surname system”
  • 1100s Arrival of the Normans – and their surnames – who intermarry with the natives
  • 1200s Arrival of the Galloglas (Scottish Mercenaries) – and their surnames
  • 1500s – English take control of the island and start of major “plantations” of settlers from both England and Scotland – who bring their surnames

Viking Surnames.
Patricia had the surname “Halpin” on her list. When found in Ireland, this name is typically of Norse origins.

The Vikings appeared in Ireland about the 800s – and established strongholds in most of the current-day cities – Dublin, Waterford, Cork, Limerick and Wexford.

Gradually, the native Gaels learned to fight back and through intermarriage the Vikings were subsumed into the Irish culture and DNA melting pot.

Names such as Cotter, Dromgoole, Doyle, Jennings, Lappin, Higgins, McLaughlin, McManus, Halpin, Swan, Grimes, Sweetman, Storey, Hendrick, O’Rourke, Cosgrave, Kitt, Broderick, Kirby, Hewson, Dolphin and Coppinger would all be modern-day Irish surnames of Viking descent.

At this stage, most of those names would be considered “normal” Irish names.

Maybe you see one of your names here?

Norman Surnames.
The Normans arrived in Ireland in 1169 at the invitation of a deposed Gaelic king, Dermot McMurrough. Looking at Patricia’s names – there is one of specific Norman origin – Martin – one of the more common names in Ireland today.

Initially, the Normans kept their own identity,  but became subsumed into gaelic culture over subsequent decades. Norman descendants today can be recognised by their surnames  such as Condon, Bermingham, French, Butler, Barry, Power, Prendergast, Barrett, Plunkett, Roche, Burke, D’Arcy and Cogan. Other norman names begin with Fitz (from the Norman for son) include Fitzgerald, Fitzgibbon and Fitzmaurice.

Patricia’s family surname of “Martin” probably came to Ireland around this time. One of the more famous Martin families were one of the “Tribes of Galway”.

Galloglass Surnames.
After the arrival of the Normans in Ireland the Irish Chieftains needed to halt their advances –the Norman’s arms, armour and tactics were superior to anything the Gaelic Chieftains had. They turned to the Gallowglass or ‘foreign Gaels’ – a band of elite warriors from the Hebrides Isles of Scotland who were of Norse/Scottish descendancy.

The first Gallowglass arrived in Ireland in 1259 and these mercenaries were soon in demand from the warring Irish Chiefs.

The McCabes and MacSweeneys were so successful that their clans transplanted completely to Ireland while others such as the MacDonalds, MacNeills, MacSheehy, McCoys and MacRorys maintained their lands in Scotland as well as establishing new territories in Ireland – especially in the Ulster area.

English and Scottish Planter Surnames.
From the time of Henry VIII – the English administration took an active interest in making Ireland a more “civilised” place. One of their strategies was to transplant large numbers of Scottish lowlanders and English border natives (with their protestant culture and farming methods) into areas of good land in Ireland displacing the Gaelic lordships of the region.
Plantation of parts of Ireland started in the 1550s and lasted until 1714. During this time Ireland took in between 150,000 and 250000 English and Scottish immigrants (the population of Ireland in 1700 was about 1 million).

They arrived as adventurers, tenants, people seeking a better life/escaping religious persecution or as payment for soldiering. Most remained distinctly apart from the Gaelic Irish – maintaining their own protestant cultur. Others such as 10000 of Cromwell’s soldiers were paid with land grants. Most of these were single men and married with the native Irish women.

There is, of course, a whole story here about land displacement, rebellion, religious and racial persecution – but we won’t be going into that here.

Instead – let’s focus on the surnames.

English and Scottish border surnames are distinctly different from Irish and Scottish highland surnames. With Gaelic surnames, the persons lineage is to the forefront (MacCarthy = son of Carthaigh OR O’Carroll = of the Carrolls).

English surnames tend to be mostly occupational (Smith, Cooper, Wright etc.) or related to a place (Churchill, Harland, Hall, Wood etc.). Patricia gives us the surname of Leonard – a common English name. But, is it a “planter” name?

When tracing you family ancestors in Ireland – with an “English” surname, there are two things to bear in mind:

  1. Gaelic names are often associated with specific territories for hundreds of years – and have often moved as extended families. This makes it easier to talk about where in Ireland a Gaelic surname comes from. With English “planter” names – there is rarely such a family movement context. Research depends on tracing the records of individuals.
  2. Through the 19th century the of Anglicisation of Gaelic names took place. This often resulted in Gaelic names being translated to a similar English a name. My own Irish name is O Coileain – which becomes Collins when translated to English. Other confusing examples are O Laithbheartaigh which translates in some places to Laverty and some other places to Armstrong. A final example would be Clifford – if this is for a family from Kerry it is almost always a Gaelic family – anywhere else in the country it would be an English planter name.

That’s the end of our trip through the melting pot of surnames that belong to so many people from this Island – all Irish, but with so many stories behind the individual surnames.

Text by: Your Irish Heritage ©