Deciphering Your Irish Surname

All across the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are the descendants of Irish immigrants.  Many of these people know little more than their Irish surname.  The details of who came from where in Ireland have been lost over a few generations.  At best, you might know that you have a great-grandparent from a particular county.  If you know that great-grandparent’s name, you have a clue.  But where to start?  Here are three key things about your Irish surname that will help you learn about your family’s roots.  As you learn more, you can begin to reconstruct the past.  You can create a story based on the facts and your own instincts.  After all, storytelling and a willingness to fill in the blanks with imagination are among our most popular Irish gifts.

  1. Irish and Anglo versions – When you start to research your surname, it is important to know that you are likely to find at least two variations on the spellings. The familiar Irish surnames that we recognize are mostly the English version of an Irish name.  Kelley, for example, is the English version of Ceallaigh.  O’Brien sounds very Irish.  In fact, it’s one of the most common names in Ireland.  But O’Brien is the English spelling.  In Irish, it is O Briain.  And the Irish have been very flexible with English and Irish versions of names since English arrived here.  Even today, with the need for consistency on legal documents, identification and computer databases, the Irish are still prone to using either version.  It is not unheard of for two siblings to use different versions, one having all of their documentation as Connolly while another uses O Conghalaigh.  Don’t be too surprised if you find documentation that seems to relate to the same ancestor but the surname is spelled differently on different documents
  2. Family Crest – Most Irish surnames have a family crest. The crest includes symbols that tell us about the family’s early origins.  Every element on a crest has a meaning.  Heraldry is really its own language.  Even the colors used have meaning.  Red suggests fierceness in battle.  Blue is loyalty.  Animals feature prominently on many family crests, and each creature has a meaning.  A lion represents leadership; a fish indicates royalty or great wisdom.  Some very ancient names feature deer, a symbol of harmony and negotiation.  Family crests feature a huge range of symbols, some with multiple meanings.  A ship, for example, can symbolize hope or can indicate a seafaring family.
  3. Location – Some family names are strongly associated with particular places in Ireland. Quite often, Irish immigrants were recorded as being from the port where their ship departed Ireland.  But they might or might not have lived there.  A little research can show where your Irish surname is most common.  The name Darcy, for example, has roots in County Westmeath.  O’Hanlon is strongly associated with County Armagh.  If your name is O’Keeffe, odds are high that your roots are in County Cork.  Irish people relate very strongly to their county.  Our fierce loyalty to county is one those Irish gifts that make watching GAA matches so much fun.

Tracing your family’s Irish roots can be difficult but also great fun and very rewarding.  If you find it difficult to get details about the Irish ancestor who left Ireland, don’t feel too bad.  Not everyone wanted to be upfront about who they were and where they were from, which makes sense when you consider Ireland’s long battle for freedom.  While the Great Hunger drove many from Ireland, many others were fleeing Great Britain.

No matter how much or how little you know about your family’s history, Irish gifts with family crests are very special.  They make beautiful personal wedding presents.  And you can choose from a wide range of items including mugs, coasters and gorgeous wall plaques.