Irish surname and placename standardisation

No matter how familiar a record source appears to be, it can always surprise.

Sir Richard Griffith in 1854

It took me three decades of staring at Griffith’s Valuation, the main mid-19th century Irish census substitute (see askaboutireland.ie/griffith-valuation), to realise that its place name spellings are all identical to those in the standard reference, the 1851 Townlands Index. As anyone who has dealt with the infuriating volatility of Irish townland spellings will know,  this can’t be a coincidence. The only conclusion is that both the Index and Griffith’s share the Ordnance Survey as a common standard source.

The practical implication for a researcher is that once the 1851 Townlands Index spelling is identified, that’s how the place name should appear in Griffith’s. That’s what made it possible to create a direct click-through from place name to Griffith’s on this site – see the places listed for Kilkeevin, for example.

So what about the other great spelling-variant problem, Irish surnames? Is there any evidence that Griffith’s standardised surnames as well as place names? Yes and no. For literate individuals, the rule seems to have been that the version recorded should match that supplied by the individual himself. After all, Griffith’s is a tax survey.  A misspelt surname is an most obvious loophole: you have to be sure you have the right goose before you can start plucking.

Keep on straight past Kelly and take the first right just before Egan

For the illiterate or Irish speakers, the same motivation seems to have produced a limited local form of standardisation. While the front-line valuers might record a name as “Curlie”, “Curly” or “Corly”, the higher-ups responsible for the published version would correct to a single standard. So all who could not write their own name in English became “Curley”.

It has to be said that this is not a very useful research tool – the advice must continue to be simply “cast the net as wide as possible”. But for larger-scale population and surname studies, that localised standardisation has one useful side effect. It exaggerates the visible concentrations of anglicised surnames, providing useful prima facie evidence of clan or sept origins.

Have a look at all those Curleys, for example.

11 thoughts on “Irish surname and placename standardisation”

  1. Very useful and timely post, John.

    (1) Can I ask your advice about place names: what do you do to identify places the name of which are neither in the Townland Index nor Griffith? I spent weeks trying to find a place that appeared in baptism record as Cootswood/s – or once, just Woods. It turned out to be the townland of Adoon, but the name had been “standardised” out by the Ordnance Survey, or whoever. Have you any advice about sources for these types of local names?

    (2) Surnames. My g-grandfather appeared successively as Degnan (1841), Duignan (LEC Rental), Dignam (Griffith), Deignan (births of some of his children), and Duignan (baptisms of some of his children). My grandfather and his siblings used the spelling Duignan and that spelling is used by all of us in the current generation – though the pronunciation (deg-nan, diet-nan, depending on where we live) ! I suspect that the local NT had a lot to do with standardising surname spellings in the late 19th/early 20th centuries.

      1. Good idea Fiona especially if can also include those with a Duigan or Digan family name like those on my Mum’s side. There must have been some event or influence which introduced the “middle n” at some stage into the earlier versions of the name and presumably some genealogists or historians know why!

        Mike Shone, New Zealand

    1. Hi Fiona, Have you tried Placenames Database of Ireland? I’m guessing you have, but it can take some imagination and experimentation to find some things, especially if the name you’re looking for is only seen in their historical documentation for a place. It would be handy if they would enter the historical names into a searchable field.

  2. Thanks for that that may explain a few things for me!
    Interesting that you should select the Surname Curley John! I’ve been hunting my Curley ancestors among many others for some time now.. murder to pin point where they came from.. My Curley’s married into Carroll’s.. that never narrowed it down much for me either as they’re just as numerous across Ireland.. Oh the joys.. ha-ha

  3. Hello,

    I do not understad how there are 4 different townlands called Clooncunny within a very short distance from each.

    Clooncunny 394 Roscommon Roscommon Elphin Strokestown Connaught
    Clooncunny 166 Sligo Leyny Achonry Tobercurry Connaught
    Clooncunny 153 Sligo Coolavin Killaraght Boyle Connaught
    Clooncunny 324 Sligo Corran Kilshalvy Boyle Connaught

    Regards, Dianne

  4. I often wonder about my surname “Kenney” it is more often spelled “Kenny”. It appears that my family arrived in America sometime in the late 1700’s from Ireland and settled in eastern Pennsylvania.

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