Irish Language

Irish surnames: What’s in a name if its actual meaning is lost?

The Bluffer looks at the changes to Irish surnames

A map of western Ulster showing English translations of Irish surnames
Nearly all the Ó’s and the Macs have gone as Gaelic surnames are lost through simplification, mistranslation and a host of other misdeeds

In a Gael Linn booklet first published in 1998 and entitled Aspects of Our Shared History, the late lamented Aodán Mac Póilin asked the question: Can a surname tell you where your ancestors came from?

(If you ask for information the verb is fiafraigh as in d’fhiafraigh mé di cá raibh sí - I asked her where she was.)

The answer to Aodán’s question was: sometimes.

Ainm of course is the Irish for a name but sloinneadh is a surname so if you want to sound like a native speaker, you could ask someone c’ainm atá ort? - what is your name? or cár shloinneadh duit? what is your surname?

Aodán’s contribution looked first at the five most common surnames in Northern Ireland i.e. Wilson, Johnson/Johnston, Campbell, Thomson/Thompson and Kelly.

“Two of these are definitely Gaelic,” he wrote. Campbell is an old Scottish Gaelic surname (cam-béal - crooked mouth; Kelly is an Irish Gaelic name Ó Ceallaigh.

The other three appear to be from England or the lowlands of Scotland.

It is, however, more complicated than that.

Campbell could come from the Scottish cam-béal or the Irish family Mac Cathmhaoil (which means descendant of the battle chieftain) have used Campbell as the English form of the name rather than the less common MacCawell or MacCamphill or MacCall so English-seeming names can also disguise a Gaelic origin.

Aodán says the Irish are thought to be ar na daoine is luaithe san Eoraip - among the earliest of peoples in Europe to use hereditary surnames, dating back to the early 11th century.

The usual process was to take the name of a significant ancestor, and prefix it with Ua or Ó - a grandson of ... or Mac meaning “son of...” but in fact meaning a descendent of.

The plural of Ua is Uí so the Uí Néill were Ulster O’Neills, the descendants of Niall, a High King of Ireland who was killed fighting the Vikings in 919.

O’Neills and O’Briens, along with the O’Clearys, can claim to have the oldest hereditary surnames in Europe.

Irish Gaelic surnames were actually forbidden by Reachtanna Chill Chainnigh - the Statutes of Kilkenny in English-controlled areas as early as 1367 and eventually in the end an leagan Béarla - the English form became the norm against which the original form was measured even though fuaimeanna na Gaeilge - the sounds of Irish cannot be reproduced in English spelling.

Other names were shortened by dropping the Ó or Mac.

A name like Downey could come from either Mac Giolla Domhnaigh (MacIldowney) or Ó Maoldomhnaigh.

Sometimes the English form of the name can be quite different from the Gaelic.

There is no particular reason why Ó Brollacháin is usually Bradley in Ireland and Brodie in Scotland.

The history of Irish surnames is very complex but Aodán has made it highly accessible and entertaining so if you want to find out what the MacFuctors changed their surname to, you can find out more about Irish surnames and much more at


d’fhiafraigh mé di cá raibh sí (jeefree may di caa row shee) - I asked her where she was

ainm (anyim) - a given name

sloinneadh (slinyoo) - a surname

c’ainm atá ort? (canyim ataa ort) - what is your name?

cár shloinneadh duit? (caar linyoo ditch) - what is your surname?

cam-béal (cam bayl) - crooked mouth

Ó Ceallaigh (o kyalee) - Kelly

Mac Cathmhaoil (mac cahwheel) - descendant of the battle chieftain

ar na daoine is luaithe san Eoraip (er na deenee is looweeha san yorap) - among the earliest of peoples in Europe

Ua (o) Ó (o) - a grandson (of) ...

Mac (maac) - a son (of)...

Uí Néill (ee nyayl) - the O’Neills

Reachtanna Chill Chainnigh (rakhtana kill khanyee) - the Statutes of Kilkenny

an leagan Béarla (un lugan bayrla) - the English form

fuaimeanna na Gaeilge (foo-immana) - the sounds of Irish

Ó Brollacháin (o brollakhaan) - Bradley/Brodie