Irish surnames

Variant surname spellings are ubiquitous in Irish research. Before the 20th century ‘O’ and ‘Mc’ (meaning, respectively “grandson of” and “son of”) were universally treated as optional. McMahon may appear as Mac Mahon, Mahon, Mahen; O’Reilly will usually be Reilly (or Riley, or Rily, or Riely…). Widespread resumption of the prefixes only began with the Gaelic Revival at the end of the 19th century. And remember that a large majority of the population in 19th century Ireland were at best semi-literate, often spoke Irish as their first language and certainly had more urgent priorities than arguing about spelling. In addition, from the first contact with English-speaking record-keepers in the 17th century, Irish surnames had been translated, pseudo-translated, transcribed phonetically and transposed to their nearest English equivalent. So Mac Gabhainn, from gabhann, meaning ‘blacksmith’, became Smith, Gowan or McGowan; Ó Brolcháin became Bradley; Mac an Bhreithiún (son of the judge) became Judge, Breheny, Brehan or even, Lord save us, Abraham. It is not rare for members of the same Irish family to appear in the same record with sometimes radically different surnames. To have any chance of success in researching Irish records, you have to keep an extremely open mind about surnames.

previousPrevious - Irish Place Names
Next - Irish recordsnext