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Irish history has contributed to many variations in Irish names. Understanding these variations will help you as you trace your Irish ancestors.
Irish surnames of Gaelic origin were commonly used until England laid claim to Ireland in the fifteenth century. Legislation under English rule led to the anglicization of many Irish names and to the adoption of many English names. Many different forms of Irish surnames resulted. For example, the Irish surname Houlihan or O'Houlihan may have taken on the anglicized form Holland.
Surname variations also resulted from an Irish form of patronymics that used the prefixes "Mac, meaning son of, and "O," meaning grandson of. Many descendants of Anglo-Norman invaders, who became assimilated into the Irish culture, also used patronymics but substituted Fitz' (as in Fitzgerald) for the prefix "Mac." English law, for a period of time, forbade the use of O' and Mac' in Irish surnames. Fitz was allowed. Not all members of Irish families chose to conform to English laws, hence several forms of a surname often emerged within a single family.
By the end of the nineteenth century, use of prefixes resumed. However, prefixes were added or dropped at will, again producing different surnames within the same family. Irish who emigrated during the nineteenth century often dropped the prefixes in their new countries of residence.
Irish given names are also Gaelic in origin and were affected by the same English influences. As with surnames, many given names were anglicized, producing many given name variations. Darby, Dermot, and Jeremiah, for example, are all variations of the same name.
Other challenges with Irish given names are
- that some given names are used for both males and females — Florence, Sydney, and Evelyn for example — and
- that some given names have nicknames that little resemble the original name. Delia, Phidelia, Bidelia, Biddie, and Bride, for example, are all used as nicknames for the name Bridget.
Two books that can help you with Irish given names are:
- Coghlan, Ronan. Irish First Names. Belfast, Ireland: Appletree Press, 1985. (Family History Library book 941.5 D4cri.)
- Ó Corráin, Donnchadh, and Fidelma Maguire. Irish Names. 2nd ed. 1990. Reprint. Dublin, Ireland: The Lilliput Press, 1992. (Family History Library book 941.5 D4og 1990.)
Other sources on Irish names available at the Family History Library are listed in the Place Search of the catalog under IRELAND - NAMES, PERSONAL.
A traditional naming pattern was often used by Irish parents until the later 19th century:
- First son usually named for the father's father
- Second son usually named for the mother's father
- Third son usually named for the father
- Fourth son usually named for the father's eldest brother
- Fifth son usually named for the mother's eldest brother
- First daughter usually named for the mother's mother
- Second daughter usually named for the father's mother
- Third daughter usually named for the mother
- Fourth daughter usually named for the mother's eldest sister
- Fifth daughter usually named for the father's eldest sister.
Christian Names in Ireland
Guide on Irish Christian Names and their English equivalents. Article Christian Names in Ireland found for years 1670-1850 in The Irish Ancestor by Brian de Breffny Vol.1 No. 1, 1969 pages 34-40 Family History Library SLC Call number 941.5 B2i, also www.worldcat.org/title/the-irish-ancestor
Most given names have at least one associated nickname. When names are recorded in civil registration of birth, marriage, and death or in church records, a nickname may have been used instead of the more formal given name (Kate for Catherine or Con for Cornelius, for example). Many nicknames are easy to spot, but others are not. The nicknames used for Bridget include Bedelia, Bedina, Beesy, Bess, Bessie, Biddy, Breda/Breeda, Briddy, Bride, Brideen, Bridie, Cordelia, Dillie/Dilly, Dina, and Phidelia.
Nicknames can lead the researcher astray if used incorrectly. While many people assume that Anty is a nickname for Anthony (a male), it is, in fact, most often a nickname for Anastasia (a female). Lou is both a nickname for male children named Aloysius, Lewis/Louis, and Ulysses as well as female children names Louise or Lucinda.
One further complication is the use of the same name for both males and females. Giles is one example, with Giley and Jiley (as well as several other derivatives) being nicknames for both sexes. Another example is the given name Florence. In this case, nicknames sometimes make it easier to distinguish between the male (Flo, Florrie/Florry and Flurry) and the female (Flo, Flora, and Flossie).
Two books which list nicknames are:
- Coghlan, Ronan. Irish Christian Names: An A-Z of First Names. (Family History Library book 941.5 D4c.)
- Dunkling, Leslie Alan. Scottish Christian Names: An A-Z of First Names. (Family History Library book 941 D4du.)
Some Sources That Can Help You with Irish Surnames
- MacLysaght, Edward. The Surnames of Ireland. 6th ed. Dublin, Ireland: Irish Academic Press, 1985. (Family History Library book Ref 941.5 D4mc 1985.)
- Matheson, Sir Robert E. Special Report on Surnames in Ireland [Together with] Varieties and Synonyms of Surnames and Christian Names in Ireland. 1901. Reprint. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1968. (Family History Library book Ref 941.5 Dsma.)