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 Ború, 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 Mathúna, McMahon, son of Mahon. Four generations later, Constantine (Consaidín) O’Brien, bishop of Killaloe, was the source of the Mac Consaidín 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.

Davitt
Gillick
Jennings

 

 

 

 

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 goo.gl/YMdDBg

15 thoughts on “Norman surnames”

  1. John: do you have any ideas about the dal g cais who took Norman names. I follow the L226 group on FTDNA. Casey is doing a wonderful job of showing subtrees and surnames. On the DC63 page where my Curtis brother sits with no close mutational relatives, there are Cusacks on another nearby sub-branch. Also none of the well-known Gaelic clan names are represented on these nearby branches except for one O’Brien who lost his way. Any ideas? Were we turncoats? Or did we have a such a skill that allowed employment from the Normans and a gifting of their family name? I understand about NPEs and fostering. But why would the Gael have been so involved with the family? Would appreciate any ideas you and your readers have.

  2. John,
    Thank you for this interesting discussion as well as the link to Dr.McCotter’s very informative site, utterly fascinating, addressing many of the issues discussed at the Burke family holiday table.

    Upon being introduced to a friend’s new Irish American neighbor, my late brother Michael Burke was met with a disappointed, “Oh, a Norman”. After 800 years, he found it amusing.

    Thanks again for your wonderful blog.

    Moira Burke

  3. My husband’s maternal ancestors were Weirs from Antrim. We tried to find the origin of the name and were told it was Norman. Does that seem true?

  4. John, How does one distinguish Anglo-Norman surnames from Huguenot surnames in Ireland after 400+ years? Thank you.

  5. If i could find out if my grandad father from Kildare in 1869 who had the name Fox which i have now inherited it from the Normans . I have been told it,s origin is English is this true.Please enlighten me.

  6. Many thanks for such an interesting article & the link to that excellent article on the Norman surnames. The more I read of the convoluted & multi-layered history of the Ireland, the better I can understand my Irish roots with names like O’Hanlon, Pelissier & DNA hints of Eustace & Graydon plus the Norman overlords with their Welsh serfs. I hope when DeLacy finished building Irish castles and built Llanthony Abbey, he spent sometime on his knees contemplating the murder and mayhem he caused.
    Some Foxes were well known plantsmen & established beautiful gardens in Cornwall.

  7. “When they got to Ireland, they were not yet using true hereditary surnames.”

    No. The Normans had begun using surnames by the late 1040s while still in Normandy (I think de Montgomery was among the very first), and by the time they came to Ireland had fixed surnames which their descendants still use today. Several of them derive from English or Welsh placenames – de Burgh, de Bermingham, de Staunton, de Angle, de Sarsfield, de Weston. Anyone surnamed Burke, Birmingham, Stanton, Nangle, Sarsfield, Weston, can easily see the correspondence between the modern form and those assumed in England and Wales prior to 1169.
    Very few Anglo-Norman lineages created surnames from Irish placenames, or during their circumstances within Anglo Ireland. I can think of only two or three off the top of my head, all quite minor lineages.

    “The upshot is that almost all so-called Norman surnames were created and adopted only in Ireland.”

    Not at all. By the time the Anglo-Normans settled in Ireland, they already had surnames. What happened was many were given Gaelic forms of identification, some of which became surnames, some of which stuck. They all start with Mac, because surnames were no longer created with Ó by the late 1100s. Thus some branches of the Burkes were known as Clann Uilliam a Búrc, Clann Réamuinn a Búrc, Clann Sheoinin a Búrc, Clann Dabhac a Búrc, Clann Meilr a Búrc, Clann Hubert a Búrc, Clann Philbin a Búrc, Clann Giboun a Búrc, Clann Tibbott, to name just a few from Connacht.

    But clearly, these were just dynastic terms. The original surname de Burgh was retained. Some did go on to become full surnames – Mac Sheoinin (anglicised Jennings), Mac Dabhac (ang. Davock(e), not Davitt), Mac Philpin (ang. Philbin, Phillips), Mac Giboun (ang. Gibbons),but the likes of Uilliam, Réamuinn, Meilr, Hubert, Tibbott, either dropped their dynastic designations while retaining a Búrc (ang. Burke, Bourke), or became McWilliam(s), et al, in relatively few numbers.

    Yet these are not ‘Norman’ surnames – they are Gaelic-Irish surnames for Gaelicised Anglo-Norman lineages in Ireland; or as you put it, “Irish surnames.”

    As for Gaelic-Irish surnames, that’s a whole other article! Suffice to say the first people to bear them were born in the early 900s and are recorded as mature men during the 950s-70s. Ireland’s surname explosion was therefore two hundred years in progress by the time the Anglo-Normans came here. I am finishing a short book which deals with the issues. Thanks for the link to Paul’s website!

  8. Just a note to mention Adrian Martyn’s amazing book, the 14 Tribes of Galway. He goes into great detail about the origins of names. For some of us, that is a fascinaitng subject.

    1. That’s very kind of you, Tom, so thank you! I do hope John does not take the above or any other such comments by me in any way other than the spirit they were offered – friendly correction to someone I hold in very high regard.

      1. Thanks Adrian. I always appreciate correction – expect your comments to appear (attributed, I promise) in the next talk I give about Irish surname origins.

        1. Oh wow, thanks! I better start adding sources to these comments from now on! Might email some drafts your way soon as I too very much welcome correction.

  9. Adrian and John: i’d never understood the concept of Gaelic-Irish surnames till this article. Are you saying that there are other names, perhaps more Gaelic invention than direct Norman lineages. If so, could that explain why our own surname’s origin is consistently described: “appeared Ireland in Norman times” yet is not included in any of the brief or deep lists of Norman names (like your great references, above).

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