Irish Surnames

A large number of Irish surnames are well-known and easily spotted. Anyone with an O’ or Mc is from Ireland, but that is not exactly the case. Did you know that Ireland has a long history of last names that stretches back further than more of the rest of Europe? A lot of these names, including first names have been Anglicized, meaning they’ve taken on an English version, but you’ll find people with Celtic heritage taking back the original spelling. For example, O’Kelly is Ó Cheallaigh, O’Neill is Ó Néill, O’Sullivan is Ó Súilleabháin, O’Toole is Ó Tuathail and so on.

The O means grandson or descendant. On the other hand, Mc or Mac means son. Mac is less common in Ireland, as it is Scottish and so used more in Northern Ireland. A lot of Mac last names were turned into Mc, some changed to Ma. Here are a few examples: McDermott is Mac Diarmada in Gaelic, and now more commonly recognized as McDermott, Mac Domhnaill is MacDonnell, or McDonnell, and MacMahon or McMahon is Mac Mathghamhna. There are some O surnames of Scottish descent, so as you can see, these are not hard and fast rules, But give a good indication anyway.

Rather fascinatingly, woman had a different prefix to indicate that they were the daughter of, instead of son. It has almost universally been replaced with O, Mc or Mac. But Nic or Ni were used.

Other surnames have been anglicized and lost their original Mac, Mc or O. Also, depending on the origin of the name, the spelling has changed considerably. It may be helpful to identify a last name in this manner to discover its original and fill in details about family history. Norse first names, like Olaf can be seen in the surname McAuliffe and Randal (Mac Raghnaill) anglicized to Reynolds.

Surnames with the prefix of Fitz can be traced to the Normans. These include FitzSimmons, FitzHenry and FitzGerald. There are also names that started out with the prefix of de, like the French, but these have mainly morphed into other names. Occasionally the Gaelic Mac, Mc or O has changed to a Fitz, as in Fitzpatrick.

It’s not surprising that many of the surnames of Ireland are similar, if not exactly the same as Scottish surnames, given the close proximity and  the forced immigration of Scotland. This can be seen especially in Northern Ireland. Other influences, either through war or trade, like in the case of England and Wales, names are similar their counterpart. So though it is easy to spot many Irish names, it’s not always accurate or given the full picture to assume they are indeed Irish. And then there are all the surnames that are not easily identifiable.

One thing that is rather wonderful about surnames is that they can pinpoint where a family lived, what occupation they dealt in, historical events they were involved in and what other influences were particularly important early on. You might even discover that people can show you were your family lived, even if it is a few generations back.


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