If you’re researching your Irish ancestry, try to ‘gen-up’ on Irish customs and traditions, so you can find your person of interest in the documents.
Ireland was a separate country, with its own language and culture
Irish was the spoken language of the ordinary Irish people, until the 19th Century. Even so, there is no language barrier to research. By the early 1700s, English was the language of local and central government, and of the courts.
All of Ireland’s official records are in the English language. However, researchers will find relics of Irish cultural practices which, unless you understand what is intended, can sometimes ‘mis-direct’ your best efforts:
In the 18th century, many Irish tried to better assimilate into English culture by dropping the ‘O’ and ‘Mac’ prefix in their surnames. It was always a personal choice, and it doesn’t indicate a change of faith.
From about 1890, many people influenced by the Celtic revival chose to re-insert the surname prefix. Others like Doyle, Kennedy, Murphy and Nolan (all of whom previously used the O prefix) didn’t. When researching, always follow the ‘root’ or core of a family name. Just because your family spell their name with a consistent spelling now, doesn’t mean it was always spelt this way in the past, especially before 1900.
Patronyms, matronyms and agnomens
Irish families used patronyms, to identify up to two or three generations of their family. For example, Riocard Mac Murtagh Mac Domhnaill Donovan.
Landed families were the first to drop this custom. By about the 1740s, we see it phased out of legal documents in the Registry of Deeds. More ordinary families, lower down the social scale continued to use this handy method to distinguish between people of the same name. The custom survives in Ireland, especially in county Donegal, to the present day. A man may still be identified by his father’s and grandfather’s forenames, as well as his family name.
Where two men shared the same name, and their father’s also had the same name, matronyms were used to distinguish between them.
Agnomens were also used, often derived from a person’s physical appearance.
- Duv or duff (dark) or donn (brown) when someone was dark or swarthy.
- Boy (from buí, yellow) or finn (fair) for someone who was fair skinned, or blond.
- Roe (from ruadh, red) for someone with a ruddy complexion or red-hair.
- Bawn (white), for an older white-haired person.
- Lom (bare) for someone who was bald.
- Mor (big), and Beg (little).
- Breac (speckled) for someone with freckles.
Some nicknames derived from the person’s occupation or trade
In Griffith’s Valuation, the land-tax records, we find Michael Lavelle (boat), and Edward Mangan (tailor) both living on Achill Island. Tory Island and Cape Clear, both had their own king, or head-man, who would negotiate on behalf of the community with the land-lord or the authorities.
Social use of language
Irish people used different languages in different social situations: Irish for the everyday, English for formal/ legal use, and occasionally, Latin for church records. Researchers will often find a range of what at first appear to be different names used for one person in the records – e.g.: Darby / Jeremiah/ Demetrius.
Here’s a useful online list of girls’ names in Irish, English and Latin https://bit.ly/3wiloFm
And a similar list of boys’ names in Irish, English and Latin https://bit.ly/3nVxh0k
Ireland has been occupied for over twenty thousand years, with layers of settlement by different peoples and cultures. Places often have more than one name: some names were derived from the Irish language, and have been ‘anglicised’ – the spelling changed to accommodate English phonics.
From the 1500s, new English settlers often named their estates and towns, after themselves – Parsonstown (Birr, co. Offaly); Coote-Hill, county Cavan; Edgeworthstown co. Westmeath; Castlebellingham county Louth.
In 1837, the Ordnance Survey tried to standardise Irish place-names for official use. Despite the State’s best efforts, local Irish people often continued to use older place names for hundreds of years.
www.logainm is an excellent site to find Irish place names
To listen to the Journeys into Genealogy conversation with Fiona about Irish research please click here.
Fiona Fitzsimons is a co-founder of Eneclann, and the Irish Family History Centre in EPIC@CHQ the Irish diaspora museum. Since 1996 she has led the Eneclann research team. Under her guidance, their research output is a benchmark in family history in Ireland and internationally. She is a trusted figure and has given personal presentation on their family history to the Obama family (2013) and the Biden family (2016) during visits to Ireland. Fiona writes for History Ireland Magazine, and Irish Lives Remembered. Since 2017, she teaches Irish Family & Social History in Trinity College Dublin.