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Irish Place Names and Family Names
– James G. Ryan, Ph.D.
Editor's Note: This article has been excerpted from the Introduction to Irish Records: Sources for Family and Local History, by James G. Ryan, Ph.D.

Place Names
The majority of Irish place names, and particularly townland names, are derived from the Gaelic, or Irish, language. Some components of these names, such as Bally— (town), —more (big), or —beg (small), are particularly common. A good description of the origins of Irish place names is given in P.W. Joyce's Irish Names of Places (1893) and Irish Local Names Explained (1884, Reprint, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1979). Because these names are ancient, there are often variations in the way in which they are spelled, particularly in earlier documents. Note, for instance, the variations in spelling between the names of many parishes and those of the corresponding Catholic parishes (e.g., Killadysert versus Kildysert).

It is not uncommon for researchers to know the name of the place of origin of their ancestor, and to find it is not listed in any guide. This may be because the name was taken down or remembered from the pronunciation used by an ancestor who may have been illiterate, Irish-speaking, or both. Thus the spelling will reflect the phonetics used. Examples include Mallah for Mallow, Carsaveen for Cahirciveen, etc. Some imagination is necessary to relate these names to their currently accepted forms. A knowledge of local accents is also very valuable in these situations.

There are several good sources for finding a place name. In compiling censuses during the last century, for instance, indexes of townlands were compiled and have been published.

The Alphabetical Index to the Towns and Townlands of Ireland (Dublin: Alexander Thorn and Company, 1877) lists the townlands alphabetically and gives, for each, the parish, barony, county, and Poor Law Union to which it belongs. The parishes, baronies, and Poor Law Unions are also listed separately.

General Alphabetical Index to the Townlands and Towns, Parishes, and Baronies of Ireland . . . 1851 (Reprint, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1984) is based on the 1851 census and gives much the same information as the above index.

Having found where an ancestor lived, some further background information on the area may be gleaned from the following publications:

A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, by Samuel Lewis (London, 1837) lists all the parishes, baronies, towns, villages, and counties in Ireland with local administrative details, an account of agriculture and industry, major local houses ("seats") and their owners, and other local information.

William Shaw Mason's A Statistical Account, or Parochial Survey of Ireland, (Dublin, 1814-1819), and Parliamentary Gazetteer of Ireland (Fullerton and Company, 1846) also provide very useful local information. Local history journals are also a good source of information on the history and other aspects of particular counties (see the section on Research Sources and Services below). The Irish Place Names Commission in the Ordnance Survey Office, Phoenix Park, Dublin 8, can usually assist in finding the accepted variant for difficult place-names where the above sources fail.

Maps are available for various periods and areas. Photocopies of Griffith's Variation maps are available from the Valuation Office, 6 Ely Place, Dublin 2. These show the boundaries of the holdings of each of those listed in the survey itself. A full set of nineteenth-century maps of a wide range of scales are also available for consultation at the National Library of Ireland (NLI). The modern maps available are in metric sizes, a useful series being the 1:50,000 size, which is approximately equivalent to the old "half-inch" maps. These are available for all of Ireland from the Ordnance Survey Office, Phoenix Park, Dublin 8, or Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland, Colby House, Stranmillis Court, Belfast, BT9 8BJ, N. Ireland. The archives of the Ordnance Survey are in the National Archives and the index can be searched online through the home page. These mainly contain documents and correspondence generated in the process of map-making. However, information on some landowners is inevitably included.

Family Names
Irish family names are mainly derived from Gaelic and Norman names. English and Scottish names are also common, particularly in the northern countries, but also occur elsewhere in the country. Most Scottish names are also derived from Gaelic. Huguenot, Palatine, and Jewish names also occur. To complicate the situation, many English surnames of family names were adopted by Irish families during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when Irish names were discouraged. MacGowan, for instance, became Smith, and McDarra became Oakes because these names either were English for, or sounded like Irish language words with these meanings.

A common feature of Irish names is the "O" or "Mac" prefix. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when the Irish language died away in most of the country, there was a gradual dropping of the "O" and, to a lesser extent, "Mc" from names. During the latter half of the century, when awareness of Gaelic heritage grew, these prefixes were restored. When searching Irish names it is therefore wise to check both forms (e.g. Sullivan and O'Sullivan, Neill and O'Neill).

The spelling of Irish surnames also varies. Although this occurs to some extent in Ireland (Keogh, Kehoe; O'Mara, O'Meara; O'Loughlin, O'Lochlann, O'Loghlen), it occurs to a much greater extent among Irish emigrants overseas (Ryan, Ryun, Ryne, Rion, etc.; Geraghty, Garritty, Gerritty, etc.). Thus it is often necessary to establish the accepted local spelling of a name before searching. A modern Irish telephone directory is one useful way to find the currently accepted forms of names. In general terms, the spelling form used currently in Ireland is more likely to be the form of spelling used in eighteenth and nineteenth century records. This is not always the case, however.

A good source for determining variants of family names is Edward McLysaght's Surnames of Ireland (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1958), as well as his other books, Irish Families and More Irish Families. Other sources include Robert Bell's Book of Ulster Surnames, (Belfast, 1988); Robert E. Matheson's Special Report on Surnames in Ireland together with Varieties and Synonyms of Surnames and Christian Names (1901), reprinted by Genealogical Publishing Company of Baltimore (1968); and Rev. Patrick Woulfe's Irish Names and Surnames (1923), reprinted by the same company in 1993.

Dr. James Ryan has been involved in researching Irish family records for more than fifteen years. His interest began with research on his own family, and he gradually began to perform research for others. Dr. Ryan holds B.S. and Ph.D. degrees from University College, Dublin and is currently head of BioResearch Ireland, Ireland's biotechnology development program. In this capacity he has compiled and edited many guides, directories, and bibliographies on a wide variety of topics. Dr. Ryan is the genealogy columnist for Irish America magazine; he has also written Tracing Your Dublin Ancestors and edited Irish Church Records, both published by Flyleaf Press, Dublin.


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