There’s more than meets the eye when you embark on a study of Irish names. To fully understand the why, you have to immerse yourself into the history of Ireland and become familiar with some historical events.
Most people have heard of the Vikings, those fearsome Norse seafarers, who traded and raided their way across Europe from their Scandinavian homelands. Although the Vikings were only a tiny part of Irish history they did influence and spawn a number of Irish Surnames. MacAuliffe is as Irish as they come but its origins come from Vikings – MacAuliffe means (son of Olaf). The most well known Irish name of Norse origin has to be “Doyle”. Doyle is an anglicized version of the Irish Surname of Ó Dubhghaill, (“son of the dark (or evil) foreigner”). The Vikings were generally described in this manner and not a popular people in Ireland. Some academics argue that this surname refers to one particular Viking who was King of Idrone, in present day County Carlow, around 851 AD – a Viking by the name of DubhGilla (again meaning dark foreigner). There can be several origins to an Irish Surname and one has to look at the history and location of the time. It’s worth noting that the Vikings mainly settle in coastal areas of Ireland. In those areas you will find a larger percentages of people with Scandinavian traits such as eye and hair color.
It was in the 12th Century that the Norman Invasions in Ireland started and many changes were about to take place. Up to the 12th Century most Irish surnames were patronymic, being taking from the names of their ancestors. The Normans introduced surnames from place names, occupations and colors. The most notable names stated with Fitz, such as Fitzgerald, as well as names with the prefix “De” such as De Burgo more commonly known nowadays as “Burke”.
The next big event in Irish surnames came with the attempted murder of the Gaelic language and culture by the British imperialists. Here’s where it starts to get confusing for those tracing their Irish Roots with many new spellings for the same name. Some Irish surnames were forced to take an English Language version to appease the British oppressors. Let me give take the example of two brothers. Cuneen means rabbit in the old Gaelic Language. So one brother may keep this name in the old tradition. However say the second brother has to go work in Dublin and to appease the British would have to change his name to Mr. Rabbit. From here two families spring, the rabbit family and the Cuneen clan. They are both brothers but with different surnames.
Confused yet? Sure we’re only just getting started. Lets keep with the example above. Mr. Rabbit may decide to move back to his home and revert to a version of his Irish Name, calling himself Mr. Cunneen to his Irish friends but on official documents calling himself Mr. Rabbit. In the past there were fewer documents to fill out and even less signatures required. Say Mr. Rabbit was allowed to own some property and needed to sign a deed. How might he sign that deed? Will he add an extra “t” to Rabbit now becoming Mr. Rabbitt! Lets take this to another level, every family has a black sheep, and the blacksheep of the Rabbit family now writes his name Mr. Rabbitte, adding an extra “e” just for the fun of it.
The more documents that were needed to be signed, when settling in foreign lands such as American, Australia and Canada, the more spelling variations that started to occur.
I hope this article has shed some light into the confusing nature of Irish Surnames.