Surnames in Wales, Ireland, Cornwall Genealogy, Isle of Man (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Welsh Surnames

Contrary to popular (English) opinion the majority of Welsh people are not named Jones, the Registrar General reported less than 14 percent in 1853. However just 10 common surnames did make up over 55 percent (in order of popularity): Jones, Williams, Davies, Thomas, Evans, Roberts, Hughes, Lewis, Morgan and Griffiths. The same source indicates that less than 100 surnames encompassed probably 90 percent of the population of Wales at that time. Even though Wales contributed only 6.5 percent of the combined population of England and Wales, the above 10 names all feature in their top 50, along with the typically Welsh Edwards, Harris, James, Price and Phillips.

Why Are There So Few Welsh Surnames?

Wales, as well as several European countries, were largely rural with low population density well into the 19th century. Its people were identified by a given name and their affiliation to a family, usually their father’s, known as the patronymic system. By comparison, England had developed towns and bureaucracy which necessitated the adoption of hereditary fixed surnames between the 12th and 15th centuries. Over half these names were locational, some had occupational and nicknames, and others retained the patronymic forms. In Wales, much importance in law was attached to the pedigree aspects of the traditional patronymic naming system which provided another reason for its tenacity.

When a standard surname was found to be necessary, sometimes as late as the 19th century, the Welsh usually chose either the one now in use (from their father) or sometimes their grandfather’s name. These given names were those fashionable during the generation before surnames were taken, and did not come close to representing the much more varied mediaeval Welsh name set. Thus we find many Welsh patronymics derived from given names introduced by the Normans, (such as Edward, Henry, Roger, Robert), and fewer truly Welsh ones like Llywelyn, Madog and Rhys. Only a few adopted surnames from places, nicknames or occupations occur in Wales.

Townsmen and those living close to the English border adopted surnames earlier in time than rural folk, thus they are derived from an older set of fashionable given names. A much smaller proportion of women gave rise to surnames, most being those derived from English given names popular in Wales at the time, but genuine Welsh metronymics include Gwenlan and Gainor/Gainer. A useful feature of countries using patronymics is that wives retained their own patronymic name after marriage, even in English speaking areas of Wales. After all, their husbands did not have true surnames to give them! Importantly for the researcher, it is far easier to identify the couple Evan ap Morgan and Gwenllian verch Hywel than to search for Evan and Gwenllian Morgan. The practice was still seen informally in some areas into the 20th century.

This fascinating subject is discussed at length by John Rowlands and Sheila Rowlands (The Surnames of Wales for Family Historians and Others. Federation of Family History Societies.), who provide an excellent bibliography. They list 56 surnames found in their survey which derive from Old Testament given names of a progenitor, either be the use of ap/ab or with the possessive ‘s’:

Aaron, Abednego, Abel, Abraham, Absolom, Amos, Benjamin, Caleb, Daniel, Elias, Elisha, Emmanuel, Enoch, Enos, Ephraim, Esaias, Esau, Ezekiel, Gabriel, Habakkuk, Hoseah, Isaac, Ishmael, Israel, Jacob, Japheth, Jehu, Jehosophat, Jeremiah, Jesse, Job, Joel, Jonah, Jonathan, Joseph, Joshua, Josiah, Levi, Lot, Meshach, Methusalem, Micah, Mordecai, Moses, Nathan, Nathaniel, Rachel, Salathiel, Samuel, Samson, Shadrach, Sim(e)on, Solomon, Tobias, Zacharias, and Zaccheus

In Wales the second most numerous group of surnames are nicknames descriptive of personal characteristics to distinguish the many John Evans in the parish. Such a name meaning thin (mayn or fain), proud (balch) or red-haired (goch) may be added after the patronymic as John Evans Goch, or instead of it as John Goch, and some evolved into surnames, in this case Gough. True surnames from occupation and place names are rare in Wales, although one finds the wealthier folk taking the names of their estates such as Mostyn, Nanney and Pennant as early as 1539, and the likes of Barry, Cardiff and Prendergast in England and Ireland as Welshmen moved there. John Rowlands and Sheila Rowlands found the following 23 surnames derived from adjectives, a relatively unusual practice in Wales:

Anwyl, Baugh, Bengough, Brace, Crunn, Cull, Dee, Games, Gethin, Glace, Gough, Gwilt, Hier, Landeg, Lloyd, Mabe, Mayn, Melling, Sayce, Teague, Tew, Vaughan and Voyle

A poem quoted by Trevor Fishwick (Wales and the Welsh, 1972) sums up the exasperation of a 19th century English judge trying to sort out the Welsh people in his court.

Then strove the judge with might and main
The sounding consonants to write
But when the day was almost gone
He found his work not nearly done.
His ears assailed most woefully
With names like Rhys ap Griffith Ddu.
Aneirin, Iorwerth Ieuan Goch
And Llywarach Hen o Abersoch,
Taliesin ap Llewelyn Fawr
And Llun ap Arthur bach y Cawr.
Until at length, in sheer despair,
He doffed his wig and tore his hair.
And said he would no longer stand
The surnames of our native land.
“Take ten,” he said, “and call them Rice;
Take other ten and call them Price.
Take fifty others call them Pughs,
A hundred more I’ll dub them Hughes.
Now Roberts name some hundred score
And Williams name a legion more.
And call”, he moaned in languid tones,
“Call all the others (blank, blank) Jones.”

Irish Surnames

Early surnames, used as early as the 4th century, were patronymics, usually from the Gaelic but occasionally Norse names are found. They developed out of an ancient system of clan and sept names over a thousand years old so, uniquely to Ireland, the original bearer of the name producing the patronymic was many generations removed even by the 12th century. [A sept was a group of people living in the same locality and bearing the same surname, but not necessarily being descended from a common ancestor.]

The prefixes Mac and Ó were commonly dropped in the early 17th century during tight English rule, but were often reintroduced from the late 19th century. However, some typical Irish names are seldom seen today with the O’ or Mac, for example Brady, Clancy, Donnolly, Hogan, Kennedy, Murphy and Quinn. The stock of Mac names was replenished by Scottish settlers, especially in Ulster.

Other types of surnames were assumed amongst most Irish a little later than the English, (generally reckoned at 1250-1450). An act of 1463-4 compelled every Irish man that dwelt ‘within the pale’ (area around Dublin which was the extent of English rule), to take an English surname which should be a name of a town, colour, occupation or office. These were not always treated as hereditary, however, and further statutes were needed to regularize them. The Anglo-Normans brought a new stock of surnames such as Burke, Cruise, Dillon, Nagle, and Roche that are now considered as essentially Irish. The lowland Scots are the major source of such Ulster names as Johnson, Armstrong, Irvine and Nixon.

In parallel with other countries exposed to severe English influence many Irish found it wise to anglicize their names by direct translation, for example Gowan and O’Gowan became Smith, and many were mistranslations. Other names were abbreviated and distorted, perhaps to render them more pronounceable by the English, for example Ó’Dubhthaigh became O’Duffy then Duffy. Consequently most Gaelic surnames have many English variants. In the 20th century, as a statement of national and political identity, there has been a reversal with many Irish people adopting Gaelicized name forms even of Norman and English names, even though they may not speak Irish themselves. Rare surnames have also been ‘absorbed’ by well-known ones, for example Sullahan by Sullivan, and Blowick by Blake.

In contrast to English practice, Irish surnames are never derived from place names. The reverse is often true however, for example there are a couple of hundred places with the prefix Balli- or Bally- (‘township of’) then a man’s given name, such as Ballyrobert and Ballywilliam with many more having Gaelic given names. Irish surname distribution maps and surveys show that most Irish surnames are still concentrated in the areas where they arose. A widely accessible one is in the Encyclopaedia of Ireland (Meally).

The two basic sources for Irish surnames are Edward MacLysaght’s 1985 work The Surnames of Ireland. Irish Academic Press. GSU film 0990298 item 5 who goes deeply into origins and areas, and includes a dictionary and bibliography, and Robert E. Matheson’s 1909 Special Report on Surnames in Ireland (General Register Office), whose mammoth work lists all names with five or more entries in the civil registration birth indexes by province and adds comments on counties and variants. Robert Bell (The Book of Ulster Surnames, 1988) gives a commentary on the most common names in Ulster, Hanks and Hodges (A Dictionary of Surnames, 1988) have a useful summary, but Michael Merrigan’s two articles (How Irish One-Name Studies Differ from Those in England. Journal of One-Name Studies Vol 17 #4, pages 10-13 and Irish Studies Must Draw Line between Gaelic and Non-Gaelic Surnames. Journal of One-Name Studies Vol 17 #5, pages 12-14) present an extensive and thoughtful treatment of Irish surnames and are highly recommended.

Cornish Surnames

""By Ros-, Car-, Lan-, Tre-, Pol-, Pen-
Ye may know most Cornish men.

So goes the old rhyme, and alerts us to the Cornish language derivation of such names as Rosewall and Roskelly, Carew and Carey, Lander and Lanyon, Trelawney and Trehearne, Pollard and Polkinhorne, Pengelley and Penhale. The first syllable indicates a place of residence:

Car or Ker = fort or camp
Tre = homestead
Pol = pool
Pen = head or end
Ros = heath or promontory
Bos = dwelling

These are then combined with a personal name, an adjective or other distinctive feature. Location names are the most prolific Cornish surnames, but others include the familiar patronymic, occupational and nickname categories.

Manx Surnames

The language spoken on the Isle of Man is close to Scots Gaelic, thus the forms of its surnames are similar to those in northern Scotland with some additional Norse words. However, there is an important difference in that in their present Anglicized forms the suffix Mac- has been reduced to an initial letter C-, K- or Q-. Over 30 percent of Manx surnames now begin with these letters, some examples being:

Caine from MacCathain
Corkhill from MacThorketill
Kay from MacAedha
Kermode from MacDermot
Quine from MacCuinn
Quillliam from MacWilliam

Comparing the five British home groups of surnames examined above one sees that English names are predominantly place names, secondly patronymic, and with a good representation of occupational and nicknames. The Welsh are the most fervently patronymic, other types being rare.

The Irish have the longest history of patronymics, most of the current surnames being so derived, but also having a fair number of occupational names. There is a clear division between the Gaelic-speaking Scots patronymics and some occupational names, versus the English-speaking group of Scottish surnames derived from place names, occupations and patronymics. Cornwall, despite its Gaelic roots, generally follows the English pattern because there was a greater English influence in the county at the time surnames came into being. The Isle of Man has its own distinct pattern based on the Scottish but with a Norse flavour.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

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