McBride - Bumpus Genealogy
Origins of Irish Family Names
Early times : In ancient Ireland the population was much smaller than today and
the mass movement of people was uncommon. It was usual therefore for a person to be
known only by one name: Niall, Eoin, Art, etc. Once there was no one else in the locality with
the same name then this was not a problem.
The Gaelic Clann system was well established & this gave people a common identity
with their people of the tribe and with the commonly shared area. This single name system
began to break down during the eleventh century as the population was growing and there
was a need for a further means of identification. The solution was to adopt a prefix such as
Mac (Mc is an abreviation) or Ó. Mac means 'son of' whilst Ó means 'grandson of'. Mac
surnames are generally of a much later date than Ó. The majority of Gaelic Irish surnames
were created during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
It should be noted that Scottish Gaels were actually descendants of Gaelic emigrants
to Scotland. The word 'Scotus' is Latin for 'Irishman'. Scottish settlers who moved to Ireland
(and especially Ulster) may already have been of Gaelic Irish descent.
Septs : The Clans eventually broke up into a number of distinct septs or groups. These
groups were headed by an original member of the clan and dominated a particular part of
the countryside. It was not uncommon for septs from same clan to be found in completely
different parts of the country (O'Connor for example) so it is important when researching
your roots to try to find out the original part of the country that your ancestors came from
as this may be a completely different area from that where the 'major' sept was domicile.
The sept system was an integral part of Gaelic society - survived and was propagated
by the Norman invaders. The system did not survive the English invasion and colonisation
of the 17th century however, and it became a disadvantage to have a Gaelic sounding name.
Anglicization : The Penal laws were enforced by the colonists attempted to completely
subjugate the Gaelic way of life. It is about this time, that many Gaelic names changed to
their Anglo equivalent or translation. This can cause confusion as many of the names were
misinterpreted or mis-spelled. The name McEaneny for example has a number of variants
including McAneny and Bird (the Irish word for bird is éan). Mac an Thomáis was converted
to Holmes, Mac Giolla Íosa to MacAleese, etc. The conversion of names beginning with Mac
and Mc was even more difficult because the removal of the M sound from the name often
completely changed the sound of the name.
The revival of Gaelic consciousness in the later eighteen hundreds saw many Irish
families reassume the Mac, Mc, Ó or other Irish form of their names although this was
reduced in a number of cases depending on the sound of the name (Kelly is still much more
prevalent than O'Kelly, Murphy more prevalent than O'Murphy, etc.)
Surnames today : There are many different origins for Irish names today
but the vast majority can be broken down into either of three categories: Gaelic
Irish, Cambro-Norman, and finally Anglo-Irish.
It is a help when tracing your family
history to know something about the origin of
and evolution of Irish names and particularly
how names have changed over the centuries.