How the Os and the Macs came back

Received wisdom in Ireland has long been that the process of reclaiming and resuming the Gaelic patronymic prefixes “Mc” (mac, “son of”) and “Ă“” (“grandson of”) paralleled the resurgence of interest in Gaelic culture in the second-half of the 19th century. In the words of Edward MacLysaght, “when the spirit of the nation revived”.

The process was never straightforward. Inevitably, some people mistakenly claimed the wrong prefix. The most notorious example is the Gaelic family Mac Gormáin – all are now either O’Gorman or plain Gorman. MacLysaght’s explanation of what happened still can’t be bettered:

A generic chevalier

“Probably the man chiefly responsible for the substitution of O for Mac in the name was the celebrated gigantic Chevalier Thomas O’Gorman (1725-1808), exiled vineyard owner in France who, after being ruined by the French Revolution, became a constructor of Irish pedigrees.”

Mistakes apart, the story told by MacLysaght and others about surname prefix resumption remains that of steady progress eventually flowering into independence.

The figures from birth registrations tell a different story.

The proportion of total births recording Mc (or Mac, or M’) was 10.14 per cent in 1865. In 1913, it was 10.48 per cent. So there was a slow increase, but certainly nothing dramatic (see the chart here). It is tempting to surmise the great flood of “Mc” resumption only took off when it became clear in the early 1920s how useful a Gaelic-looking surname would be in the new Ireland.

Interestingly, the story is different for surnames starting “O'”.

In 1865, 1.67 per cent of total births used “O'”. By 1913, it was 3.2 per cent, almost doubling in five decades ( here). Perhaps the difference is that “O” surnames were found predominantly in Munster (and Donegal), traditionally nationalist regions, whereas “Mc” surnames were concentrated in north and east Ulster, with a solid unionist majority.

“Mc” households. Click for comparison to “O”.

The devil remains where he always was, in the detail.

Science, your mammy and your runny nose

For decades, public health scientists assured us that the common cold was caused by our spending half the year indoors sneezing on each other. There’s no evidence, they told us, that Ireland’s long-standing position as the world’s leading producer of winter phlegm had anything to do with the cold or the wet. “Old wives’ tales” they said, when we pointed out that for 10,000 years our mammies have been telling us that we’ll catch our death if we go out dressed like that.

And then  came a complete change of tack. Scientists at Yale actually looked at the evidence and found – surprise – that rhinoviruses, the culprits behind most colds and chest infections, thrive in cooler temperatures.  And the lower the temperature, the lower our innate immune response to viruses. And what’s more, our noses are usually three to four degrees colder than the rest of the body.

The scientists’ advice for avoiding runny noses? “Always stay in warm tropical weather or try to prevent the nasal cavity experiencing very cold air.” Translated into Irish terms, that says “Emigrate south or dress the way your mother told  you”.

The first lesson is that the phrase “There is no evidence” is just a euphemism for “We don’t know”, even when uttered by a scientist.

The second is that not all evidence is cast-iron scientific evidence. Most research advice will tell you to treat your family traditions with deep scepticism and most professional researchers will say “Yeah, right” (under their breath) when you tell them you’re descended from kings and princes. But even though centuries of tradition may not constitute forensic proof, it remains genuine evidence. Discount it at your peril.

But the most important lesson is that, although your Mammy might not be absolutely right absolutely all the time, the odds in her favour are pretty good.

My mammy