Saturday, 16 April 2016

Origin of our surnames

The documented ancestral trail in Ireland often goes cold around the end of the eighteenth century, but, on many of my lines, I don’t even get back that far. Surely, I could squeeze out another generation, or two, if I knew where to look. The trick is finding out where to look.

So, for starters, I thought I’d check out what the Irish surname expert, Edward MacLysaght, had to say about the surnames of my eight great-grandparents. Maybe, his insights can provide a few pointers on where to pick up my lost lineages.
Byrne, Mahon, O’Neill, Donovan, Wynne, Carroll, Byrne (again) and Devine
(O) BYRNE, Ó Broin in Irish, from bran, meaning raven. This was a leading sept in east Leinster. It is now one of the most common names in Ireland, especially in Co. Wicklow.

Recent successes traced Dad’s line back to my third great-grandfather, Andrew Byrne, who married Anne Clinch in Suncroft, Co. Kildare, in November 1833, and far more speculatively to Andrew’s baptism, as the son of Edward and Elenor Byrne, in that parish, in 1805. I’ve more work to do on this line, though I doubt it will lead all the way back to Co. Wicklow and the Kings of Leinster.

My mother’s documented Byrne lineage has been traced only as far as Francis Byrne, who married Jane Daly, in St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, in October 1846. Francis worked as a stoker, probably in the engine rooms of a steam-ship. Was he born in Co. Wicklow?

(Mac) MAHON, Mac Mathghamhna in Irish, from mathghamhan, meaning bear. This surname cropped up in numerous places in Ireland at various times. One sept, related to the Irish king Brian Ború, originated in Co. Clare and another in what is now Co. Monaghan. The name remains common in these counties. Two other unrelated septs of the name Mohan, or Ó Mócháin in Irish, also adopted Mahon as their surname, and are common in Galway and Sligo. 

The earliest record of my Mahon family was found in Swords, Co. Dublin, in September 1819, with the marriage of my third great-grandparents, Patt Mahon and Jane Cavanagh. They lived nearby at Yellow Walls, Malahide in Co. Dublin, but left no clue as to where they originated.

My family tree on Ancestry

O’NEILL, Ó Néill in Irish. This is another surname with more than one origin. The prominent sept descended from the legendary Niall of the Nine Hostages, originating in Co. Tyrone. The surname is now common all over Ireland, especially in counties Tyrone, Antrim, Down, Carlow and Waterford. 

My great-grandfather, Charles O’Neill, remains my most persistent genealogy brick wall. The earliest record found was his marriage to Mary Agnes Donovan in April 1874. Here, his parents were named as John and Margaret O’Neil, with an address in Lower Dominick Street, in Dublin city.

I don’t think the surname origins will help with this one.

(O) DONOVAN, Ó Donnabháin in Irish. Originating in Co. Limerick, the sept became prominent in south-west Cork. A branch also settled in Co. Kilkenny, but today remains most common in Cork.

Our Donovan family has been traced back to the marriage of Thomas Donovan and Catherine Flood, in Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral, in November 1821. This couple also sponsored the baptism of Joanna Flood in that parish in 1816 and Elizabeth Donovan in 1817. Ok, so we now know where they originated, but I wonder how many generations lived in Dublin city. 

WYNNE, as a Gaelic surname, is a synonym of numerous names containing the sound ‘gee’, from gaoithe, meaning of wind.

First found living in Dublin city in 1848, John Wynne said he was born in the city about 1820. I investigated the origins of the name previously, here, and concluded, although it might have originated anywhere in Ireland, DNA clues suggest east-Leinster.

(O) CARROLL, Ó Ceirbhaill in Irish. Again, this was the name of several Irish septs originating throughout Ireland. The most prominent were of Ely O’Carroll in Munster (Offaly and Tipperary) and the O'Carrolls of Oriel (Dundalk), as well as two lessor septs in Kerry and Leitrim. 

I’ve recently traced my Carroll family roots as far as Coolmoyne, near Fethard, in Co. Tipperary, in the 1840s, suggesting we descend from the Kings of Munster or, more likely, their servants. 

(O) DEVINE, Ó Daimhin in Irish, from damh meaning stag. The Devines were a branch of the MacGuires, who rose to power in Co. Fermanagh in the fifteenth century. The name is now found mainly in Co. Tyrone. 

My great-great-grandfather John Devine married Maryanne Keogh, on 18 September 1859, in St Laurence O’Toole’s parish in Dublin city. His parents are fully named in the copy marriage register. Sadly, it’s illegible. L L Their address reads Longford, I think. 

Excerpt from St Laurence O’Toole’s parish register

If anyone wishes to see if they can make out their names (I’d be so happy), the record is on the NLI website, second marriage down, on page 8 (link to register). Christian names are given in Latin. Maryanne’s parents, known from other sources, are Darby Keogh and Joanna Crosby.

Sources: Edward MacLysaght, The Surnames of Ireland, 6th ed. (Dublin, 2012); ‘Catholic Parish Registers’, St Laurence O'Toole's, Dublin city, microfilm 06611/03, p. 8, l. 67, National Library Ireland.

© Black Raven Genealogy


  1. The origins of surnames are so interesting. My maiden name is unusual and its origin a total mystery (it was shortened about 1840.)

    1. I find it interesting too, Michelle. Our genealogy class did a module on Gaelic and Anglo-Norman sources to investigate the development of surnames. Fascinating!

    2. I enjoy learning about the etymology of words, names and places. I quite recently found out that the word 'feder', as meaning father, is the same in Old Norse - perhaps an Irish linguistic connection via the Vikings? I live in an area of Sheffield called Beighton, which is a Normanised form of the Anglo-Saxon, 'Becktun', meaning a small hamlet beside a stream/beck.