What’s in a name? Tracing your ancestors back to the Vikings

<strong>ANCESTRAL LONGBOATS:</strong> Na Lochannaigh - the Vikings - have had a bad press this millennium but many of them settled down in Ireland and married the local maidens, passing on some of the surnames we recognise today
ANCESTRAL LONGBOATS: Na Lochannaigh - the Vikings - have had a bad press this millennium but many of them settled down in Ireland and married the local maidens, passing on some of the surnames we recognise today

HOW’S IT goin’, McAuleys and McCoubreys and O’Shaughnesseys and everyone else, you’re all welcome to the Bluffer’s Guide to Irish.

The Bluffer, chonaic sé físeán beag iontach - he saw a brilliant wee video last week all about sloinnte - surnames.

Now, unless you’re Cher you will definitely have a surname and the singular of sloinnte is sloinneadh - a surname (sometimes shortened to sloinne)

So when you ask someone cad é an t–ainm atá  ort? What’s your name? you are really just asking them what their first name is.

So you could exchange an t-ainm for an sloinneadh and you are asking what someone’s second name is. 

Another way of asking is cá’r shloinneadh duit? - what’s your surname?

But back to the wee video which was done by the singer Tadhg Mac Dhonnagáin who is now a children’s book publisher.

Tadhg was talking about the influence of the Vikings on Irish surnames – and this is before they were Anglicised.

You probably know that mac is the Irish for son and ó (sometimes spelt ua) is the word for a grandson.

Tadhg describes how, when the Vikings settled down in Ireland and started marrying the local colleens and having children, if the hunky Norse guy was called Olaf, then the son would be called mac Olaf which over time became Mac Amhlaoibh and then Anglicised as McAuley.

Magnus was the name of many’s a lochlannach - a Viking and we took this into Irish as Mac Mánais - McManus.

Tadhg also described how, if you drop the v in Viking, you get iking which came into Irish as uigeann and thereafter as Ó hUiginn - the Irish for Higgins and its variations.

Now the thing that confuses a lot of people - cuireann sé frid a chéile iad is the fact that women’s names are different to men’s.

If you are a man called McCarthy - you’d be, say, SeánMac Cárthaigh but if you are a woman, your name would depend on your marital status so if you were Seán’s wife you’d be, for example, Síle Mhic Cárthaigh - Mrs Sheila McCarthy.

If you were Seán and Síle’s daughter, you’d be Máire Nic Cárthaigh - Ms Mary McCarthy.

But there’s another complication. 

If your name begins with an Ó as in Ó Súilleabháin - Sullivan, for example, a man would be Seán Ó Súilleabháin, his wife would be Síle Uí Shúilleabháin - Mrs Sheila O’Sullivan and their daughter would be Máire Ní Shúilleabháin - Ms Mary Sullivan.

Ní is short for iníon - a daughter.

There are other complications too, but we’ll return to those some other time.

There is a great online resource at which has a database of surnames which you can search through.

And, as luck would have it, there will be a Zoom talk on Irish surnames with Dr Stiofán Ó Direáin on Wednesday 10 February at 7pm. 

Dr Ó Direáin will explore how Irish names are formed, followed by descriptions of some Norse, Norman, English, Welsh, Scottish, Manx, Huguenot and Palatinate names found in Ireland. You can book at 


chonaic sé físeán beag iontach (haneek may feeshaan big eentakh) - he saw a brilliant wee video 

sloinnte(slintcha) - surnames

sloinneadh (slinyoo) - a surname

cad é an t–ainm atá  ort?(cadge ay un t-anyim ataa ort) - What’s your name? 

cá’r shloinneadh duit?(caar linyoo ditch) - what’s your surname?

mac(maac) - a son

ó or ua(o) - a grandson

Mac Amhlaoibh (maac aowliv) - McAuley

lochlannach (lokhlanakh) - a Viking 

Mac Mánais(maac maanish) - McManus 

Ó hUiginn(o higeen) - Higgins

cuireann sé fríd a chéile iad (kerin shay freedge a cayle aid) - it confuses them

Mac Cárthaigh (maac caarhee) - McCarthy

Síle Mhic Cárthaigh(sheela vic carhee) - Mrs Sheila McCarthy.

Máire Nic Cárthaigh(myra nic carhee) - Ms Mary McCarthy.

Ó Súilleabháin(o sooilawaan) - (O’) Sullivan

Síle Uí Shúilleabháin(sheela ee hooilawaan) - Mrs Sheila O’Sullivan 

Máire Ní Shúilleabháin (myra nee hooilawaan) - Ms Mary Sullivan

iníon(neen) - a daughter