'Irish Roots' archive



Irish Roots


August 3 2015

Localised 19th-century Irish surnames

The recent mapping on this site of all General Register Office births between 1864 and 1913 brought a massive influx of unfamiliar surnames and unfamiliar variant spellings, more than 11,000 in all, raising the tally of historic surnames on the site to almost 100,000.

The job of integrating these newbies into the existing surname variant lists is painful drudgery, and still ongoing, but the work is throwing some very interesting sidelights on the way Irish surnames have evolved.

First, it's clear that we now live in a very stable surname environment compared with even the recent past. The sheer variety of 19th-century originals and alternative spellings is mind-boggling. More than a million variants are recorded, a lost ecology of names so rich in variety it is almost impossible to reimagine. But the most striking insight is just how local many surnames were. Again and again, strange and wonderful names turn out to be tightly bound to individual parishes and counties - Qua and Whan to Armagh and Down, Mungovan to Clare, McWeeny to Leitrim, Noud to Kildare. This localism is much more pronounced in the poorest, most densely populated counties along the western seaboard, though Antrim and Down come close.

In the course of grinding through them, I've begun to list these localised surnames systematically (if only to keep myself awake) and the site now has listings for every county. See Limerick, for example.

My own county, Roscommon, is comprehensive enough, I think, and perhaps Mayo and Sligo as well. But the listings for everywhere else could be full of holes. Have a look at your own county and let me know how wrong I am.

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