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Irish Gaelic Surnames

You’ve probably heard this little rhyme at one time or another:

By Mac and Ó you’ll always know true Irishmen they say. But if they lack the Ó and Mac, no Irishmen are they.

A cute rhyme, as far as it goes, but the reality is that Irish surnames are much, much more complicated than that — particularly surnames in Irish Gaelic.

In this post we’ll take a look at surnames in Irish…particularly at how “mac” and “ó” surnames came to be, and why many very Irish surnames either lack them now or never had them to begin with.

Gaelic Surnames: Source of “Mac” and “Ó”

Many of the Irish surnames with which you are familiar — Murphy, Sweeny, Ryan, etc. — come from the culture of the Gaels: The Celts  that populated Ireland (and ultimately Scotland and the Isle of Man).

Gaelic surnames are “patronymics,” that is, they indicate patrilineal descent. Originally they weren’t surnames at all, but just a way of distinguishing similarly named individuals:

“Do you know Tom?”

“Tom James’ son?”

“No…Tom John’s son.”

In English, this practice ultimately gave us such surnames as “Jameson” and “Johnson.” Much the same thing happened among the Gaels.

The Irish word for “son” — mac — would be placed in front of the person’s father’s given name, nickname, or occupation, which would be in the “genitive” or “possessive” case:

Eoghan Mac Suibhne – Eoghan Son of Suibhne.

A similar system existed for females, using nic — a form of the Irish word for “daughter”:

Gráinne Nic Mhurchú – Gráinne Daughter of Murchú.

What about the “Ó’s”?

 

The “Ó” surnames came along much later, as a result of people wanting to identify themselves as descendants of a famous ancestor. “Ó” means “grandson/male descendant”:

Colm Ó Riain – Colm Descendant of Rian.

As with mac, a similar system existed for females, using another form of the Irish word for “daughter”: ní.

Eibhlín Ní Riain – Eibhlín Daughter of Rian.

So where did “mac” and “ó” go?

 

Well, in Irish, they haven’t gone anywhere.  When people who have surnames of Gaelic origin write or say them in the Irish language, they use Mac, Ó, Nic, oras appropriate.

In English, it’s another story. As Gaelic names were Anglicized, sometimes they lost their prefixes:

Ó Suibhne became “Sweeny.”

Mac Murchú became “Murphy.”

Ó Riain became “Ryan.”

Some retained their prefixes, but in an altered form. For example, Mac became “Mc” or “Ma” and Ó became “O’.”

(By the way, there’s no truth to the old line about “Mc” indicating an Irish name and “Mac” indicating a Scottish name. In fact, both cultures use both prefixes).

To make things even more confusing, names weren’t Anglicized consistently…in fact, they were all over the map!

You might, for example, have one family called “Riley,” one called “Reilly” and another called “O’Reilly” or “O’Riley (all of which were originally Ó Raghallaigh).

Non-Gaelic Irish Surnames

Not all Irish surnames are of Gaelic origin, however. Over the centuries, Ireland has attracted people from various cultures, all of which have left their mark on the landscape of Irish surnames.

In fact, some of the best-known Irish surnames, such as Fitzgerald, Joyce, Walsh, Power, and Burke, come to us from the Normans.

The Normans may have come to Ireland as would-be conquerers, but they eventually became “more Irish than the Irish,” intermarrying with the Gaelic tribes and even adopting their language.

They adopted Gaelic forms of their surnames as well. Some who had names with the “fitz” prefix went with the mac form (“fitz” derives from “fils,” meaning “son” in French):

Mac Gearailt = Son of Gerald = Fitzgerald

Most, however, simply adopted a more Gaelic spelling and pronunciation for their Norman surnames:

Seoigh  (Anglicized as “Joyce”)

de Burca (Anglicized as “Burke”)

de Paor (Anglicized as “Power”)

Some had their surnames translated literally. For example, “Walsh” (a form of the word “Welsh”) became Breatnach: Irish for a Welsh person.

These names never sported a “Mac” or “Ó,” but are undeniably Irish!

The English and the Anglo-Irish

 

There’s little doubt that the English left their mark as well. In fact, the man that many consider the quintessential Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, had a surname that was of English origin.

“Yeats” is still quite a common surname in Ireland, as are other names of English origin, particularly occupational names, such as “Cooper,” “Baker,” and “Smith.”

Some of these names don’t have natural Irish language forms in and of themselves, at least not in the traditional Gaelic patronymic sense, though they can be “Gaelicized.”

Occupational names, or English names ending in “son” (such as “Williamson”) can easily be adapted to the “mac” form (you’ll see “Williamson” rendered as “Mac Liam,” for example).

In other cases, often the names are simply written in Irish phonetically, though sometimes the Norman “de” prefix will be added.

Generally speaking, any name that is associated with Ireland long enough will eventually acquire its own form in the Irish language, though it may or may not acquire a Gaelic prefix along the way.

So don’t despair “if you lack the Ó or Mac”!

Perhaps your name lost its prefix when it was Anglicized, or perhaps it never had one to begin with, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less Irish!

Did you find this article helpful?

Did you know all this about Irish surnames before? Let us know your thoughts below!

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57 thoughts on “Irish Gaelic Surnames”

  1. Hi, love this article it is super helpful. Am I right in thinking that Mrs. Carlisle could be translated to “bean Cathair Luail”? And a son would be “Ó Cathair Luail” and a daughter “Ní Cathair Luail”? Thanks ☺️

  2. Thanks for developing this forum, as Irish man abroad it’s always good to show off how Irish we are with such in-depth knowledge…I myself am a Whitty or De foiate os gailge… Definitely of Norman decent but the one I’m looking for …Margh!!! See I can’t even spell it!! Can you enlighten me to it’s true Spelling and origin as the love of my life sits in Kilkenny with my heart in her lap…I did care about you Laura i was just too selfish drinking all the time..got a different plan now and it doesn’t involve the top shelf lifestyle..I’m doing something worthwhile, and the only thing missing is your smile go hoalan

  3. Hi, I’m married but haven’t taken my husband’s name. Does this mean I just retain my original (maiden) name with the ‘Ni’ – does this signify that I’m single or simply mean ‘daughter of’? Thanks!!

  4. Hi Siobhán,
    Thanks for sharing this. Don’t must out those called Kinsella and Kavanagh who never had the O to begin with. I believe it’s because the ‘ach’ is an Old Irish descriptor meaning ‘of’. I think some folks ended up adding an O or a Mac because they thought it was anglacized to begin with!
    Thought I’d mention it in case anyone is looking at it and misses that some Irish names never had it.

    1. Mc was added with either no line, one line, two lines or two or one dot underneath the c, being son of & your place in line.. some dropped Mc in McKavanagh but it’s still was originally spelt with the Mc until British rule along with Kinsella being O’Cinnsealach in Irish. Mac added before was in relation to