John O’Donovan’s glorious letters

There aren’t many Irish sources that can give you a from-the-horse’s-mouth account of the country between 1830 and 1850. And there really really aren’t many such sources that are poorly known about, underused and free online. Two parts of the Ordnance Survey Ireland archive are just that.

The Ordnance Survey Name Books and the O’Donovan topographical letters are both by-products of the massive attempt between 1828 and 1848 to record and standardise Ireland as a prelude to taxing it. The Name Books are parish-by-parish alphabetical listings of the place-names that were to become the standardised English versions on the first Ordnance Survey six-inch maps in the 1830s. The entries include much technical detail linking them to the maps, but also some worm’s-eye-view descriptions of rents, landlords and tenants, adduced as evidence for the names.

John O’Donovan (1806-1861)

The O’Donovan letters are of broader interest. They consist of formal correspondence to or from the man in charge of the Ordnance Survey topographical department, the antiquarian John O’Donovan, and often provide superb summaries of local place-name lore, even down to the most minute detail: the entry for Darver in Co Louth includes a description and drawing of “a silver ring which Mr Duffy found near his house”. For anyone interested in local history in rural Ireland they are a boundless treasure trove. And they give the lie to the notion that the OS process of standardisation and anglicisation was brutal, Anglo-Saxon and stupid. See the full OSI archive listing at the Royal Irish Academy.

The page from O’Donovan’s letter about Tara in Meath

Both Name Books and O’Donovan Letters are available for free on, where the versions used are typescript copies of the originals made in the 1920s. Most users become aware of them as links on the OS maps that accompany Griffith’s search results, and it has to be said that there are serious drawbacks to this approach. But they are also browsable page by page, revealing all their gnarled glory, with folk-tales, principal families, ruined churches, annal entries, saint’s biographies and more. Many county library websites (e.g. Clare, Galway and others) also have copies of the Letter books online.

The voice of O’Donovan himself is also there, and strangely modern. At the conclusion of the second volume of Galway letters, he writes: “I have now done with the territories in the county of Galway and though it has cost me many an hour of severe application to lay down their boundaries I fear no one will have the patience to grope their way through my lucubrations.”

He shouldn’t have worried.

Viking surnames

There is no such thing as a Viking surname.

A helmet-type never ever worn by a Viking

True hereditary surnames were only introduced in Scandinavia in the late 18th century, more than 700 years after the heyday of Viking expansion. Hereditary surnames still don’t exist in that most Viking of countries, Iceland, where personal names continue to last only a single generation. In Iceland, my son Herbert would be Herbert Johnson and his son John would be John Herbertson.

So why does Sean de Bhulbh’s magisterial Sloinnte na hĂ©ireann: Irish Surnames list no fewer than 97 Irish names that have Norse or Viking roots? All the stranger when you consider that surnames only began to be widely adopted in Ireland from the 11th century, well after Viking power in Ireland was broken.

Highly cultured looters and pillagers

But there is no doubt about the origins of these names: McAuliff, son of Olaf; Groarke, Mag Ruairc, son of Hrothkekr; McBirney, son of Bjorn; Reynolds, Mac Raghnall, from the Norse first name Ragnall. Some might have originated with Gaels imitating their neighbours, but the simplest explanation is that Viking settlers adopted Gaelic naming practices, dropping their own single-generation names.

Other Norse-origin names provide evidence of the importance of those naming practices. Doyle is Ó Dubhghaill, from dubh, “dark”, and gall, “foreigner”, a descriptive formula first used to describe the invading Vikings, and in particular to distinguish darker-haired Danes from fair-haired Norwegians. O’Loughlin and Higgins both stem directly from words meaning literally “Viking”, Lochlann in Irish and UigĂ­nn, an Irish version of the Norse Vikinger. These names were public badges of otherness, the equivalent of arriving in England with a passport saying “Johnny Foreigner”. But families were perfectly prepared to adopt and endure them, a measure of just how intense was the need to have a hereditary and patronymic surname in medieval Ireland.

We adopted them early and we adopted them with gusto. Extended family networks were the very essence of Gaelic society: what better way of flagging your network than embodying it in your name?

Which is why there are no Viking surnames except for Irish Viking surnames

Norman surnames

The Norman arrival in Ireland in 1169 was just one end-point of their extraordinary expansion out of Flanders and northern France between the eleventh and the fourteenth centuries.

Superior military technology, deployed with ruthless brutality, allowed them to conquer and settle a vast swathe of the medieval world, from Byzantium in the east through parts of Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain, as far west as the Canary Islands.

Strongbow marries Aoife, thereby causing the Northern Troubles

When they got to Ireland, they were not yet using true hereditary surnames. The eldest-son-takes-all practice of feudal primogeniture meant younger sons had to go off and fend for themselves, one of the factors that drove their expansion. Perhaps that fracturing of Norman elite families weakened the need for hereditary names to signal wider family and tribal connections.

But the Gaelic Ireland they overran was in the middle of an explosion of hereditary surname-creation, with great networks of extended family names budding and sub-budding off central stems as families grew or waned in importance. The grandchildren of Brian BorĂș, High King of Ireland and victor at the Battle of Clontarf,  understandably wanted to flag up their connection, and adopted Ó Briain. But the sons of one of those grandchildren, Mathghamha Ua Briain, picked their own father as an origin point and became (in modern Irish) Mac MathĂșna, McMahon, son of Mahon. Four generations later, Constantine (ConsaidĂ­n) O’Brien, bishop of Killaloe, was the source of the Mac ConsaidĂ­n line, the Considines. A great multi-generational flowering of names was taking place.

As they did wherever they settled, the Normans eventually integrated. They out-Irished the Irish when it came to fissiparous surname adoption. Just a single family, the de Burgos of Connacht, spun off dozens of familiar modern names: Davey, Davitt, Doak, Galwey, Gibbons, McNicholas (Mc)Philbin, Gillick, Jennings, McRedmond.  All stemmed from the forenames of prominent de Burgos, and all followed precisely the Gaelic Irish O and Mac tradition.






The upshot is that almost all so-called Norman surnames were created and adopted only in Ireland. “Hiberno-Norman” is little grudging. They are Irish surnames.

The best popular account of Norman surnames in Ireland that I know of is by my colleague in Accredited Genealogists Ireland, Dr Paul McCotter MAGI, available online at the Web Archive.

Ancient DNA: Who We Are and How We Got Here

David Reich’s new book Who We Are and How We Got Here (OUP March 2018) is a revelation. Reich is a professor in the department of genetics at the Harvard Medical School, and runs a specialised lab that focuses on ancient DNA as a tool to study ancient populations and human evolution. His book is a readable popular science account of the extraordinary advances in the understanding of human prehistory that have taken place in just the last half-decade, and the full-scale revolution that is about to take place.

The techniques he describes are remarkable, involving what Elizabeth Kolbert has described as “reassembling a Manhattan telephone book from pages that have been put through a shredder, mixed with yesterday’s trash and left to rot in a landfill”. This is a long way from a simple cheek swab. Try disentangling 40,000 years of bacterial and fungal rot from a finger bone.

But Reich and his peers have mastered those techniques. The number of labs producing whole-genome ancient human DNA results is already growing rapidly and is set to grow exponentially over the next decade. The best analogy is one Reich makes himself, with radiocarbon dating. The ability it provided to accurately date any piece of organic material had a profound and continuing impact on archaeology, to the point where there are now more than 100 specialised radiocarbon dating labs in the world. As the number and location of ancient DNA results expands in a similar way, the prehistory of human population groups will come into focus ever more clearly.

Already, some of the findings he presents are startling. Western Europeans and Native North Americans share significant stretches of DNA, showing a relationship predating Columbus by thousands of years. Reich demonstrates unambiguously how both descend from the same ancestral population, dubbed “Ancient North Eurasians”, some of whom migrated across the Bering land bridge around 15,000 years ago, while others moved westward to contribute to European ancestry.

Even earlier, he uncovers clear evidence of our mixing with other variants of human, Neanderthal, Denisovan and undoubtedly many others, after we emerged from Africa around 70,000 years ago. All present-day non-Africans carry some of their genes. Evidently, we interbred with and exterminated them on our way to planetary dominance.

A bottle-neck Y-chromosome event sounds like a euphemism for a bar-fight. Reich describes these as recurring mass reproductions, where a single male and his offspring have vastly more descendants than their contemporaries. Examples in historic times would include the large numbers descended from an individual in fifth century Ireland, speculated to be Niall of the Nine Hostages, or the vast numbers across the thirteenth-century Mongol Empire bearing genes derived from another individual, speculated to have been Genghis Khan. These “Star-clusters” as they are known, happen again and again in prehistory. Though the mighty warlords’ memories have vanished, bits of their Y-chromosomes live on.

One aspect of Reich’s work rightly worries him. “Race” has been a sore topic in science for decades, and for good reason. Scientists have been enthusiastic enablers of some of the worst atrocities carried out in the name of racial purity. A denial of the significance of race or anything resembling is now obligatory in the social sciences.

The good news is that Reich buries the notion of racial purity six feet under and dances on its grave. Every ancient genome shows intense and repeated mixing of populations. “Whites”, for example. descend from a mixture of four ancient populations that lived 10,000 years ago, each as different from one another as Europeans and East Asians today. We are all mutts, to the  Nth  degree.

The bad news is that as DNA testing becomes ubiquitous it will simply no longer be possible to ignore average genetic differences between distinct populations. Jews have won over 200 Nobel Prizes, more than 20% of the total, despite making up less than 2% of the world’s population. Athletes of West African ancestry hold 95% of the top times in sprinting. Roll a barrel of beer into a roomful of Irishmen and 98% are guaranteed to start singing.

This is nothing like racism, any more than saying that men and women are different is sexism. People are different, groups of people are different and the important question is what we choose to do about that difference. Celebrate (and sing about) it, maybe?

Where’s me granny?

I recently filmed a segment  for an upcoming episode of “Who Do You Think You are?”  – don’t ask, can’t tell – and found the old itch acting up. Years back, I did two series of “The Genealogy Roadshow” on RTÉ and that same old urge is still there to jump up and down and shout, “Look at me, Ma! Look at me!”

“Look at me, Ma!” Out-take from The Genealogy Roadshow

Thinking back, watching the finished shows was very different indeed to making them. Stories that had been just problems to be solved or lines to be remembered during filming became intensely touching when the camera showed the depth of the feelings produced in the participants. I’m thinking of the astonishment and joy of the American family meeting a completely new branch of their family in Ireland, of the woman seeing a photograph of her grandfather for the first time and recognizing her own face in his, of the family finally imagining in dramatic detail how their grand-uncle fought and died in the First World War.

The real lesson of the series was one already known to anyone who has done any genealogical research, a lesson not treated with enough respect by shows that depend on celebrities to hold the viewers’ interest. There is an endless variety and a recurring fascination in the family stories that stretch back behind absolutely everyone, however humble. To retrieve and reconstruct these stories can evoke the dense skein of everyday history as if it were our own experience and let us feel its detail in ways that no other form of research can match.

On a personal note, though, I remember being a little disappointed. Years ago, children in Dublin used to annoy cyclists by shouting out helpfully as we pedalled past, “Hey Mister! Yer back wheel’s going round!” I had been hoping to hear some of them in the street shouting after me, “Hey Mister! Where’s me granny?” No such luck.