'Irish Roots' archive



Irish Roots


December 29 2014

Surname maps: Ireland remains unique

Those tea-towel maps that show the locations of Irish surnames have always seemed more than a bit absurd. Imagine giving directions based on them: "Take the first right after McDermott and go on past Burke till you get as far as O'Dowd. The post office is there on the right, just beside Keegan."

The supposed basis for such maps lies in the medieval territories of the great Gaelic and Hiberno-Norman families. Those territories were anything but static, and barely geographical in the first place, built as they were out of shifting kinship and tribal allegiances. And the vast majority of Irish families have always been non-great anyway. So you should stick to the Sat-Nav.

But Irish surname maps do remain strangely compulsive - there's a reason the tea-towels are still on sale. Once you get down past the mind-boggling numbers of Sullivans and Kellys and McCarthys, lots of names are connected very tightly to particular locations. Most Irish people have an ear for this. Sugrue and McElligott sound like Kerry, Gibbons and Lavelle like Mayo, Harkin like Donegal.

And at times, this can be a decent research aid. Using the Griffith's-based surname maps on this site, I have recently been mapping the locations in the early 1850s of households bearing surnames that I was familiar with growing up in north Roscommon, but which I now know are relatively rare: Dockery, Morrisroe, Finan, Lavin. They are concentrated with extraordinary precision in the flat boggy plain south of Lough Gara and east of the small chain of loughs along the Mayo/Roscommon border. A fresh map of one for these surnames is appearing on the site every week.

Nests of deeply local names such as these must exist all over the country. You can explore them for free on the site. Just beware of the pattern-seeker's pitfall: stare at the wallpaper long enough and you'll eventually see the history of the world.

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