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 héireann: 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.
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 Uigínn, 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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!”
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.
If you do any research on Irish records you soon become aware of the great mosaic of online transcripts of what purport to be the same records. The National Library microfilms of Cork and Ross Catholic registers, for example, are transcribed on IrishGenealogy.ie, ancestry.com and FindMyPast.ie. But IrishGenealogy didn’t transcribe the records of St Mary’s (North Cathedral) in Cork city, because they were doing their level best not to tread on the toes of any existing transcript-holders and the church itself has a transcript. Ancestry and FindMyPast need not be so bleeding-heart sensitive: the only online transcript of this huge collection of Cork city records is with them.
And then, of course, rootsireland.ie has full transcripts of some of the local registrars’ records, different to the central copies used for IrishGenealogy and FamilySearch. And the Northern Ireland GRO has complete searchable transcripts of the local registrars’ records for areas now in Northern Ireland (to 1917, 1942 and 1967). Which overlap both some of rootsireland’s and some of IrishGenealogy’s transcripts. Whew.
Now FindMyPast has added to the merriment with a massive set of transcripts of IrishGenealogy’s register images for births and marriages.
There are flaws – Claire Santry recently pointed them out – but I still think they are seriously to be welcomed. Apart from adding another transcription (with mistakes and omissions, to be sure, but different ones), they open up the birth records before 1900, transcribe the entire record, not just personal names, and make it possible to confine a search to a local registrar’s district, a much more precise area than the Superintendent Registrars Districts available on IrishGenealogy itself. A boon if your Muphys married Murphys.
Most importantly, the service is free to anyone who registers with them. This is one aspect of FindMyPast that isn’t nearly well enough known. Lots of their records are free, in particular the parish register transcripts and records digitised in collaboration with the National Archives of Ireland. As far as I can tell, nowhere on the site lists what’s free and what’s subscription-only.
I suspect the FMP researchers are trying to sneak free stuff out past the FMP lawyers and moneymen. So thank you, Brian and Fiona.
Over the years, Irish surnames have received a good deal of careful attention, from Fr Patrick Woulfe’s Sloinnte Gaedheal is Gall (1923) to Edward MacLysaght’s Surnames of Ireland (1969) and most recently Seán de Bhulbh’s Sloinnte na hÉireann: Irish Surnames (1997). Ulster names have been particularly well served. Robert Bell’s Book of Ulster Surnames (1997) and Brian Mitchell’s The Surnames of North West Ireland (2010) both dig deeper than an all-Ireland approach allows.
All of them work to a similar format: summarise received wisdom about surname etymology and meaning; give rough geographic distributions; list well-known bearers of the name. They are essentially dictionaries focused on elucidating the surnames themselves, which makes them mainly of interest to bearers of the surnames and to local historians.
I’ve produced plenty of similar potted histories myself, and found it very hard. So hard that at one point in the early 90s I ended up inventing a ‘well-known’ bearer of a surname, complete with fictional back-story. And then forgot which surname it was. So somewhere, I think on this site, is a non-existent famous person. I believe (though I can’t be sure) that I was channelling The Scarlet Pimpernel.
More seriously, the study of surnames, in particular surname distributions, can provide decent historical evidence, especially now that technology allows historic data to be mined and examined in novel ways. One example is mapping surname variety across Ireland in the mid-19th-century Griffith’s Valuation census substitute. Simply take the number of distinct surnames listed as householders in each county and divide by the area of the county. The result is an average number of different surnames per area.
Unsurprisingly, Dublin has the densest concentration of names, but the area with by far the next greatest variety is the ancient tuatha of Oriel, comprising Armagh, Louth and Monaghan. The western seaboard counties (with the exception of Sligo) have surname densities far below average, even though they were the most highly populated areas. The northeastern counties, with their mix of Scots-Irish and Gaelic-Irish, have surname variety well above average. The clear conclusion is that surname variety or density is a respectable proxy for cultural diversity. Or cultural purity.
Plenty of onomastics like this can be found at the Society for Name Studies in Britain and Ireland, snsbi.org.uk.
Between 1780 and 1845, the population of Ireland mushroomed from about three million to about eight and a half million. That much is well known and often cited as one of the reasons for the catastrophic devastation of the Great Famine of 1845-49. But such a vast increase must also have had a profound effect on family relationships.
Look at the numbers. The population tripled in size over less than three generations, a veritable explosion. And the growth wasn’t evenly spread, taking place disproportionately among the vast mass of Gaelic Catholic subsistence farmers in the West and the South. Someone born in those areas in the 1820s and 1830s was typically one of a very large family, ten or more, whose parents and grandparents would also typically have come from families the same size. So if your twenty aunts and uncles did their demographic duty, you could easily have two hundred first cousins, all almost probably living within walking distance.
And more distant cousins? Second cousins are all the descendants of a common set of great-grandparents. Taking the same average of ten per generation, you could easily have had more than four thousand of them, again almost all in the same geographic region.
Child mortality and (pretty much unavoidable) cousin intermarriage might reduce some of those numbers, but the point still stands. Immediately before the Famine, some areas of Ireland were populated by extraordinarily dense cousin networks.
Gaelic society had always been tribal, but this was tribalism on steroids. Everyone was literally closely related to everyone around them. No wonder Ancestry’s DNA service is so good at identifying genetic groupings in particular areas of Ireland – the period 1780-1830, the outer limit of its standard autosomal DNA test, is exactly the period when we very obligingly got together and married our cousins like rabbits.
Cousin-density like this also left its mark on a more recent Ireland. Membership of the two main political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, often appears to be inheritable, with great masses of relatives voting for (or knifing) each other .
And that great population bulge may be another reason why it’s so hard to get your ancestral line back beyond 1800. Four thousand Jams O’Donnell second cousins?
The 1852 Act that (retrospectively) provided the legal underpinning for Richard Griffith’s great survey also envisaged annual revisions. It was a live tax record, after all, and needed to reflect changes in occupier, size of holding, name of lessor – anything that might affect the valuation and the tax payable. Some of Griffith’s local army of valuators must have remained in situ, supplying notice of changes to the central Office in Ely Place, Dublin.
The system in Dublin used a handwritten copy of the valuations, with amendments written over the original entry. Coloured pencils were employed to distinguish the year of the changes. (Unfortunately the microfilm copies made by the LDS Family History Library are in black and white.)
After a decade or so, the books would become increasingly difficult to read, so a fresh copy had to be made. The whole process then continued until that book in turn was cancelled and recopied.
Despite the original plans, full annual revisions were never a realistic prospect. The system eventually settled down to a natural rhythm, with a single revision (or “cancelled”) book covering fifteen or twenty years. For areas in the Republic, the revision process went on right up to the 1980s, when the local property tax was abolished, producing anything up to twelve separate books for a single area. In Northern Ireland the system changed in the 1930s and the most recent revisions are almost all for the 1920s.
The usefulness of the records is obvious: they provide a continual time-lapse record of every piece of property listed by Griffith, unbroken over the following century-and-a-half. Circumstantial evidence of death, emigration, money problems, family disputes – the revision books can contain them all.
Most importantly, the massive shift in land ownership to small tenant farmers that took place around the start of the twentieth century, and the fierce land hunger that drove it, means that there is almost certainly a family relationship between those who own the land now and those recorded in the revision books then. In other words, the books can provide excellent evidence of living relatives.
The books are available for areas in the Republic at the Valuation Office in the Irish Life Centre, Lower Abbey Street, Dublin. The VO is currently scanning the full collection with a view to making it available online. For the moment, the scans are only available onsite in the public office. Areas covered are Cos Cork, Donegal, Dublin, Galway, Kerry, Limerick, Mayo, Meath, Monaghan, Offaly, Roscommon. Sligo and Tipperary.
The Revision Books for Northern Ireland are in PRONI. An excellent PRONI sub-site allows online research by placename on the full set, with links to high-quality scans of the originals. Even for people without Ulster ancestor, the sub-site gives a great sense of just how useful these wonderful records can be.
Irish research doesn’t have many under-explored collections, so you’d expect joy unconfined to surround the records of the Valuation Office. However, most researchers’ eyes glaze over when you mention them. And for good reason. The Office is one of the oldest continuously functioning arms of public administration in Ireland, set up in 1826 and still operating today. That’s almost two centuries, long enough to produce entire Himalayas of paper, which include some of the gnarliest records imaginable.
The Office’s basic role was (and is) simple enough: to create property valuations on which local property taxes could be based. Its main achievement was Griffith’s Primary Valuation of 1847-1864. But the creation of Griffith’s was far from simple.
The initial Townland Valuation Act (1826) allowed for a complete assessment of the annual value of every parcel of land and building in Ireland, with the aim of producing a total for each townland that could be used as the basis of a yearly tax. But in 1826 nobody even knew what townlands were where, so the project became dependant on, and intertwined with, the Boundary Commission and the Ordnance Survey.
The earliest OS maps were produced for Londonderry in 1831 and it was then and there that surveying began. Richard Griffith, the Valuation Commissioner, quickly saw that the plan to value everything was far too ambitious for the resources available. While continuing to value all land, a threshold of £3 annual value was adopted for buildings to be assessed, excluding the large majority of householders but still covering a significant number of dwellings and commercial premises, especially in towns. The valuation continued on this basis for the next seven years, covering eight of the northern counties. By 1838, however, it was clear that even with a £3 threshold the surveying would never be completed. In that year the threshold was raised to £5, covering only the most substantial buildings.
The year 1838 was also that of the introduction of the Irish Poor Law, a rudimentary system of relief for the most destitute, and its funding was based on a separate property survey. It quickly became obvious that it made no sense to have two separate systems of local taxation, based on differing valuations of the same property. In 1844, with townland valuations complete for 27 of the 32 counties, Griffith was authorised to change the basis of assessment by dropping the £5 threshold and covering all property in the remaining counties, all of them in Munster.
The Tenement Valuation Act (1852) retrospectively allowed Griffith to extend the system throughout Ireland – a procedure he had in fact already begun. Over two decades of valuation he had assembled a veritable army of skilled employees, each with a precise role in his vast valuing mechanism. It allowed him to publish county-by-county surveys of the entire island between 1847 and 1864, generally with the southern counties earlier and the northern counties later.
In the course of this long-drawn-out saga, huge quantities of manuscript records were produced. Firstly, the pre-1838 valuation of the northern counties, based on the £3 building threshold, created local valuers’ “house books” and “field books”, the former including the names of occupiers, the latter in theory at least concerned purely with soil productivity. They remain particularly useful for urban or semi-urban areas in northern counties before 1838.
After the change in the basis of assessment in 1844, the main categories of valuers’ notebooks continued to be known as ‘house books’ and ‘field books’, but the distinction became more than a little blurred, with information on occupiers appearing in both. To add to the merriment, other classes of notebook were also created:
Tenure books, showing landlord and lease information;
Rent books, showing rents paid, as an aid to valuation;
Quarto books, covering towns,
Perambulation books, recording valuers’ visits, and
There are far fewer of these than of the ‘house’ and ‘field’ books.
The survival of pre-publication Valuation Office records is patchy, with some parishes having four or more books while others have none at all. The only way to find out what’s there is to examine the records themselves. There are two major collections, one in PRONI, the other in NAI. The PRONI records cover only the six countues of Northern Ireland and are only available onsite in Belfast. It’s not clear from the information they provide that any of the post-1844 books are publicly available. In 2003, the LDS microfilmed the entire collection then held by NAI and this is the collection now online at genealogy.nationalarchives.ie.
Another set of records, held by the Valuation Office itself until 2003 and subsequently moved to NAI, is still being catalogued and conserved and so is not as yet publicly available. The word is that it includes thousands upon thousands of valuers’ hand-made maps, with the tantalizing prospect of detailed field and townland maps that will hold a magnifying glass to rural Ireland of the 1830s and 1840s.
NAI has done a wonderful job of making the earlier microfilmed records intelligible and accessible. Written by former director Frances Magee, the introductory text for each of the manuscript types is a master-class in the valuation process and the codes used by the valuers. She has a book on the Valuation Office collection in the works, due out some time in the next twelve months. Roll on the day.
One caveat about the database transcripts. Something funny seems to be happening on the NAI site. Compare the search results for a Martin Heavy on FindMyPast with the results on the NAI site. There should be no difference – they’re the same underlying datasets. For the moment, the FindMyPast search is the one I trust. It’s free and also permits browsing by parish, something not available on the NAI site.
These records might seem marginal and messy compared with the published Valuation, but keep in mind that Griffith’s, far from being the record of a settled population, is a snapshot of the aftermath of a catastrophe, the Great Famine. In many areas enormous changes took place between the original survey and final publication. In the area around Skibbereen, for example. the pre-publication records are be the only surviving evidence of entire villages that were wiped out.
Last week, RTÉ TV news ran a piece of techno-utopianism that really got my attention. A group based in Trinity College are going to create a digital 3-D model of the old Public Record Office that was destroyed in 1922.
Fair enough. The centenary of that ignominious act is approaching and it certainly needs remembering.
Then the report went on to say that the group was also going to digitally reconstruct the records that had been destroyed, thus retrieving seven lost centuries of history and genealogy. Say again? They’re going to magic back into existence the ten million or so returns from the lost censuses of 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851? How? By closing their eyes and clicking their heels together three times?
The group’s website tells a more nuanced story. Yes, there will indeed be a shiny, walk-through digital model, but the approach to reconstructing records is modest enough. It centres on using Herbert Wood’s A Guide to the Records Deposited in the Public Record Office of Ireland (Dublin, 1919) to identify substitutes for what was destroyed, much as the National Archives of Ireland has been doing since 1922 with, for example, its testamentary record substitutes. The difference is that copies of, or links to, the substitute material will be organised within the virtual model, thus recreating (kind of) the experience of using the old PRO.
It’s a good idea. Any opportunity to digitise and publicise surviving fragments and substitutes is very welcome. And it should also shine a light into a few areas that don’t get enough attention – the seven volumes of thirteenth to sixteenth-century excerpts from plea rolls, patent rolls and pipe rolls in the National Library Genealogical Office collection (GO 189-95), for one.
But I think that the end result is likely to be more dystopian than utopian. At last we’ll get to see, perfectly-rendered, the size and shape of the black hole at the heart of Irish history and genealogy.
The project site has a news page that links to all the attention they got last week. It wasn’t just RTE, nearly every other news outlet got the story wrong and reported the imminent return out of digital thin air of all the lost records. The team need to be a bit more careful about how they attract attention to what they’re doing. Some of those news reports look distinctly fake.