Making the Most of Your Irish Surname

Laura Colleran

Making the Most of Your Irish Surname

Is it really true that all Murphys are from Cork and anyone with an Adams in the family must surely be from Ulster? What can you do if you know who you are looking for but don’t know where in Ireland they were born? Well, we’re going to show you the clues that can help you understand your Irish family name and focus your research time wisely.

They make a list

Most people are familiar with the Census of Ireland as it is available to view for free on the National Archives website. It’s a great, practical resource, as it allows you to examine both the 1901 and 1911 forms as well as available fragments from earlier years. What people don’t often know is that you can learn a lot about the distribution of a particular surname within counties and townlands using their “sort by” functionality.

While it’s not a definitive answer to the question of the place of origin of your ancestor, it can point you in the right direction and give you a place to start. One important thing to consider is that the information was transcribed as per the original, written forms. So, you might have to be clever and use some spelling variants to find out where those with that surname were living at that time.

For the Maguire family for example, who are usually associated with northern counties, you will have to search under “Maguire” as well as “McGuire” — and there is even one entry spelled “Maguires.” Try to reflect how the surname would have sounded when spoken aloud, particularly to the ear of someone recording your ancestor’s details. So, get your thinking caps on and consider what variants might come into play and map your Irish surname accordingly.

Post 1864

If you believe your ancestor was born in Ireland post-1864, there is a good chance you can locate them on Irishgenealogy.ie. Like the Census, it’s free and a good place to go in order to learn what children were born into the family. The absence of many early parish registers, particularly for the west of Ireland, means that many of us are dependent on the civil birth records registration, which begin in 1864. While you’re researching the civil birth registrations, you should remember that just because you don’t find your ancestor’s birth record doesn’t mean that his siblings are not there somewhere. If you can find a sibling, you can then confirm their parents — and if not a townland in Ireland, then a parish or county.

Named after his father, and his father before him

It’s a good idea to know your background information before logging on to any website. Perhaps there is a naming pattern for first names in your family, and this, along with the surname, might focus your attention on one family over another. The tradition of naming newborns after family members was a real system of child naming that existed in Ireland for hundreds of years — and in some families is evident today, though perhaps the pattern is not as strictly observed.

An example of a common naming pattern is:

  • Firstborn son took the name of the father’s father
  • Second-born son took the name of the mother’s father
  • Third-born son took the name of the father
  • Fourth-born son took the name of the father’s eldest brother
  • Firstborn daughter took the name of the mother’s mother
  • Second-born daughter took the name of the father’s mother
  • Third-born daughter took the name of the mother
  • Fourth-born daughter took the name of the mother’s eldest sister

Following this system doesn’t provide definitive proof that a certain ancestor was given a particular name, but it’s a sign-post that should not be ignored. A tip for investigating this idea of naming patterns is to check if the third son is named after his father. This might then allow you to explore some theories about connections between other family members, for example such as a mother’s sister’s name. If a third son has the same name as the father, then you can investigate whether a fourth daughter’s name indicates that of the mother’s eldest sister.

A butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker

If an ancestor carried out a certain occupation, maybe they inherited it from a previous generation. It’s worth considering a look at the commercial directories to see if they are listed. Using the Census as a sign-post to focus your geographical search as mentioned above, you could log onto Slater’s Commercial Directory for 1846 for free here for any mention of a Lynch ancestor, for example. You might be very lucky and learn that a Hugh Lynch worked as a tailor in Market Square, Bailieborough, Co. Cavan — a man worth investigating if this occupation is something that stands out in your Lynch family research. For a faster search, you can use one of the subscription websites instead.

Was your family name associated with a certain profession? Tailors at work in Waterford in 1907.

Let’s talk about it

Online forums like the IrelandXO.com Message Board and the XO Chronicles can provide a way to overcome a brick wall as far as place of origin is concerned. Maybe someone else, someone you will probably never even meet, will provide that link online and advance your ancestor search. The Message Board is free to search and now contains over 40,000 messages from people connected to parishes all over Ireland. Volunteers from IrelandXO are always available to answer your queries.

Always remember

  • Each website you use to research your Irish ancestors will have its own method of organizing and retrieving the information. Some will strictly search under the surname spelling you provide, while others will cater for variants — and some will cater for variants if you specifically choose that functionality in a search. Check to see if there is a wild card option, usually using an * (asterix).
  • Surname spelling changes over time. You might never find out why your family name has changed from McGee to Magee. Many ordinary Irish people living in the 19th century couldn’t read or write, so phonetics can be your friend!
  • Because it’s likely your ancestors couldn’t read or write, their information was probably recorded by a third party. An additional letter after a name or missing from a name can throw off your search, so remember those spelling variants.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of a good FAQ page. Most websites will dedicate a page explaining how their search functionality works. Make sure you read it! Sometimes you can spend years using the same website not knowing that there are hidden things to discover about a family if you only change your research methods.
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