Thursday, December 22, 2011

The 'Muls' and 'Gils': Some Irish Surnames By Eugene O'Growney

The 'Muls' and 'Gils': Some Irish Surnames

By Eugene O'Growney

From The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Volume III, 1898

Part I.

IT is not generally known that at least one hundred thousand people of Irish birth or descent bear, in their every-day surnames, a record of the zeal for piety and learning which distinguished early Christian Ireland. According to the last census, there are in Ireland alone eight thousand three hundred persons called (in Irish, of course) 'descendant of the servant of the Church.' Then there are thousands of 'descendants of the servants of God,' of Christ, of Mary, of John, of Brigid, of Finian, of Brendan, of Aidan. I am confident that many will read these phrases without at all recognising in them their own family names. So far as I know, the subject is wholly untouched; but now that the Irish people are at last beginning to learn their own language, they will find that their surnames, and many other things which, so far, must have appeared meaningless, have really a striking and often beautiful signification.

In the present paper, I propose to discuss some surnames formed from the names of twenty-six patrons, chiefly Irish saints. The surnames, in their English garb, amount to about seventy. I have thought it necessary to say, first of all, something about Irish names in general.

Most Irish surnames, although grievously disfigured in passing into their present English forms, are easily recognisable as such. It is to be hoped that, by this time, everyone who bears an Irish name knows, at least, that Mac and O, the two familiar signs of Gaelic descent, are just ordinary nouns, meaning son and grandson, but now in our surnames standing for descendant. So that every Irish name beginning with Mac or O means 'descendant of' some ancestor whose name, in the genitive case, forms the remainder of the surname. All Irish surnames are derived from the names of ancestors, and, accordingly, all should have either Mac or O. I speak of names originally Irish, for there are some names of foreign origin, though now, and most deservedly, classed as Irish, such as Burke, Hyde, Walsh which have neither Mac nor O, but either retain the de (in the case of the Norman names), oftened softened to a, as de Búrca or a Búrca, de h-Ide, or assume an adjectival form, as Tomás Breathnach, Thomas Walsh.[1]

In Irish, all names of men have either Mac or O, and names of women have Ni, daughter. Custom has extended the use, in English, of Mac and O to women's names. Mac should be written at full length, not Mc. We do not write Johnsn. Many Irish surnames have lost Mac or O; for this there are various reasons, all discreditable.

The English forms of most of our Irish surnames originated during the last two centuries, many in this century. We must not forget that in 1800, Ireland was to but a slight extent an English-speaking country. Education had been prohibited even in the English tongue. We find the first forms of our surnames, as a rule, in those precious legal documents which declare that Dermot Mac So-and-So or O'So-and-So, being a 'meere Irishman,' is hereby declared to have forfeited the lands, &c. The English forms are but rough and ready phonetic equivalents of the Gaelic names; and as everyone could devise a phonetic system of his own, there were and are often, several forms for the same family name.

To the student of the meanings of Irish surnames the English forms of these names are not only of little or no use, but sometimes are positively misleading. Thus, in names that are now spelled Twomey, Twohill, Gilfeather, MacAvenue, we see what strange results come from an attempted equation of parts of these names with certain English words. To study Irish surnames to any effect, we must leave the English forms out of sight for the moment, and analyze as far as we can the original Gaelic names. Some of these names, coming to us in their present form from prehistoric times, may defy our analysis; but others--and these fortunately happen to be large classes--can be easily resolved into their constituent elements. In the present paper I propose to discuss two classes of surnames. These are the names which begin, or which should begin, in O'Mul- and MacGil- (Gaelic O'Maoil- and MacGiolla-), but which are found beginning in Mal-, Mel-, Mil-, Mol-, Mul-, and MacEl-, MacIl-, Gil-, Kil-, MacL-, Cl-, L-, and other forms.[2]

We take the Mul- names first. Any surnames beginning in O'Mul-,--let us say O'Mulblank,--means 'descendant of Mulblank.' Mulblank is an ancestor from whom the family derives its surname, and as surnames did not come into use generally before the tenth or eleventh century, the ancestral Mulblank must be looked for before that date. In most names of this class, as we shall see, the ancestor belongs to the age of the great Christian schools of Ireland; but some Mul- names originated in prehistoric times.

What, then, was the meaning of the name borne by the original Mulblank? In other words, what is the meaning of the Mul- prefix? In modern Irish the Mul is written maol, and this maol represents different older Irish words in different names. (a) In most of our present names the Mul stands for 'servant of,' or 'votary of.' And most of these names are of Christian origin, and of very great interest. Thus, many centuries ago, a person devoted to St. John, for example, would assume the name Maol-Eoin,'servant of John' Hence arose the modern surname O'Maoil-Eoin, descendant of the servant of John--O'Malone, Malone. (b) In other surnames the Mul stands for an old Gaelic word meaning 'hero, magnate.' (c) In others, Mul probably represents a word for 'head.'

The Gil- names have had a similar origin. Many centuries ago there lived persons who answered the name, Gilblank. In some of these names, Gil, Irish giolla, older form gilla, meant 'servant,' as Giolla-brighde, pron. gilla-breeda, servant of St. Brigid. And now we have the surname, Mac-Giolla-Bhrighde, descendant of the servant of St. Brigid--in English Gilbride, Kilbride. In others of the Gil- names the Gil- prefix must be translated by 'person, fellow,' as Mac-Giolla-bháin, descendant of the white (haired) person, now MacIlvaine.

The Mul- names originated much earlier than those in Gil. In fact, we find no record of Gil- names until after the Danish invasion; and some maintain that the word gilla is of Danish origin. On the other hand, we find Mul- names of pre-Christian, and even of prehistoric origin. As far as can be ascertained, the original form of the prefix was a word maglos, connected in meaning with the Latin magnus, and meaning 'magnate,' 'hero,' or something similar. There is a Gaulish inscription, of course of the prehistoric period, mentioning a certain magalomarus, or 'great hero.' When Irish came to be written in the Roman alphabet, the word had become mael, and we have record of great numbers of mael names of the pre-Christian period. Thus we have Mael-Midhe, hero of Meath; Mael-Caisil, hero of Cashel. Then we find the prefix assuming the secondary meaning of 'one devoted to a servant of,' as Mael-Bresail, servant of Bresal; Mael-cluiche, addicted to play, gambling; and Mael-bracha, devoted to malt! We see, therefore, that the mael prefix had the meaning of 'servant' even in pre-Christian times, and we may assume that it is the same word, originally maglos, which we find in names like Malone, and all names meaning servant of a saint.[3]

No doubt, people already accustomed to such names as 'servant of Bresal' found it very appropriate, when they fell under strong religious influences, to assume such names as 'servant of Patrick,' 'servant of (St.) Michael,' 'servant of Mary.' Accordingly, we find that such names were used very soon after the conversion of Ireland to the Christian faith. In an old life of St. Cellach of Killala, himself one of the early Irish saints, we find mention of persons called 'servant of St. Ibar' (one of the most ancient Christian missionaries in Ireland), and 'servant of Senach' (another early Irish saint). The bulk of these saint-names, however, do not occur so early; they are found chiefly in the annals of the seventh to the tenth century, the earliest entry in the Four Masters being that of 'servant of Brigid,' at the year 645. As we have seen, the Gil- names do not occur so early, the first such record made by the Four Masters being that of a 'servant of Kevin,' at the year 981.

Reserving the other names in Mul and Gil, we shall find it convenient to discuss, in the first place, the large, and, from the Catholic standpoint, most interesting class of surnames which contain the name of a patron saint.

Part II. »


[1] From such names, possibly, originated the practice of saying an Brúnach, an Búrcach, corresponding to the modern English titles of The Magillicuddy, The O Neill--forms unknown in classical Irish, although they are found in modern Scotch Gaelic. Possibly, however, the usage is of French origin.

[2] There are a few surnames in O'Gil. The Scotch surname, Ogilvy (Ogilvie), which is sometimes quoted as the only O name in Scotland, is probably not Gaelic at all. The accent of the name is on the first syllable, and the name is probably a Lowland, not a Highland, one.

[3] Some writers, however, think that the prefix, in the surnames formed from the name of a saint, is the adjective mael, bald, applied by the Irish to the first Christian missionaries on account of their remarkable tonsure. We find in a mediaeval poem the phrase Melcisedec mael. M., the priest, and St. Patrick himself is often called 'adze-head.'

Part II.

It was in the golden age of the early Irish schools, when Ireland was a lodestar that attracted students, scholars, and pilgrims from Britain, France, and Germany--from Rome itself, and even from the distant East--that the names which we shall now examine had their origin. Around the great schools grew up towns filled with native and foreign students, in some cases amounting to thousands. Then even the surrounding peasantry, with that admiration for learning which is characteristic of even the humblest class in Ireland, gloried in the fame for learning and sanctity of the great doctors and teachers of the colleges. What wonder if, in the lecture-rooms of Clonard, and through the neighbouring country, should be found many who bore the name of 'servant of Finian;' if Derry, Kells, Durrow, Iona, and many other shrines should shelter 'servants of Columba;' or if the innumerable places connected with the names of Patrick and Brigid should be visited by pilgrims who would take, and bear ever afterward, the names of those national patrons? Probably the first to adopt this practice were the clerics attached to the church or college founded by the saint.[4]

The adoption of such names would have been facilitated by the custom of changing the names of religious on their entrance of the service of the altar. The national apostle, we know, was in early life called Succat, a name which, could we but explain it, would solve for us the vexed question of St. Patrick's birthplace. St. Columba, too, changed his ancestral name of Criomhthann, 'fox,' for Colum, 'dove.' There are many later examples. Many of the clerics, in all probability, already bore such names as Maelbresail, servant of Bresal, &c., and would find it very easy and very appropriate to substitute a patron saint for the Bresal or other prehistoric ancestor. The practice, if it began with religious, soon extended to all classes, and to both sexes. If we find the names of women recorded but seldom, we must remember that the early annals deal, as a rule, with transactions in which men are generally the actors.

In the tenth century there must have been a large number of persons bearing Mul- names; and a little later, when surnames began to be formed, there were evidently plenty of 'descendants of servants of Patrick' and of other patrons. Hence, though many such surnames became obsolete, and have not reached our days, we have still, in English garb, about one hundred and fifty such surnames.

Let us now see them in detail. From Dia, God, came the name Gilla-de, 'servant of God,' often recorded in mediaeval annals, and giving us in later times the surname Mac-Giolla-de, 'descendant of the servant of God,' in English dress Gildea, Gilday, Kilday (United States). O'Dea, O'Day (U.S.), is an old Gaelic name of pre-Christian origin, but the rage for anglicization has led some persons of the name to change it for Goodwin--Dia-God-Good.

Coimhde, Lord, gave the personal name Giolla-coimhde, 'servant of the Lord,' and thus arose the surname MacG. coimhde, 'descendant of the servant of the Lord.' O'Donovan gives the English form as MacGilcarry, which I have not met in use; but we have MacIlharry, hence an unwarranted form MacIlhenry (U.S.). It is possible that MacIlhargy and MacIlhagga are the same name, although the former would seem to come from St. Forga, as noted below. 'Descendant of the servant of Christ' has survived in the two forms; the Mul- form is Mylechrist, now used only in the Isle of Man, and the Gil- form is Gilchrist, Gilchreest, Kilchrist. In all these names the initial K represents the final consonant of the Mac- prefix. The name Iosa, Jesus, gave Maol-Iosa and Giolla-Iosa, both of frequent occurrence in the old annals. We read of one 'servant of Jesus,' who was Archbishop of Armagh, or, as the annalist puts it, 'successor of Patrick;' another was Maelisa O'Daly, poet-in-chief of Scotland and Ireland, who died in 1185. Walter Scott, who has so much of the mediaeval spirit, has quoted the name in the Lady of the Lake:--

'Hail, Malise, hail! his henchman came.
Give our safe-conduct to the Graeme.'

From the Gil- form comes 'descendant of Jesus' in the various forms MacAleese, Maclise, McLeish, Gilleece, Gillies.

The name of Mary was particularly honoured by the early Christian Irish, and we find record of numbers of people, of all ranks of life, who bore the name of 'servant of Mary.' In the Four Masters we note, among others, 'a daughter of Nial,' an 'abbot of Ardbraccan,' a 'tanist of Leix,' a 'priest of Clonard,' a 'successor of Patrick,' or Bishop of Armagh, who bore this name, in either of its forms Maelmhuire or Gillamhuire. The scribe of the Lebhar Brec, one of the greatest Irish manuscripts that has come down to us, was a 'servant of Mary,' whose father was Conn, 'friend of the poor.' One of the most striking characteristics of our native Christian literature, from its earliest period down to the present day, is its constant and tender reference to the name of Mary. In Scotland, where the Christian faith was carried by Irish missionaries, we find that even in the districts now for three centuries non-Catholic, the cry of suffering in the old tongue is still a Mhoire, Mhoire! O Mary, Mary! [5] Both in Scotland and Ireland Maolmhuire is in common use as a baptismal name, and in Ireland it has given the surname O'Maoilmhuire, 'descendant of the servant of Mary, in English Mullery, Mulry.' As a baptismal name, the English translation was first Meyler, and later Miles, a name which really has no more connection with the Gaelic form than has Ned with Nebuchadnezzar. From the Gil- form came the surnames MacElmurry, Kilmurray, Kilmary, Gilmary, Gilmore--all intended equivalents for Mac-Giolla-Mhuire.

To the lively faith of the Gael, the angels were very real, We have a striking poem of early date (if not, as tradition would have it, the composition of Columbcille himself) describing the angelic patrons of Arran. To St. Michael, in particular, there was a peculiar devotion, and to the present day his name is of frequent recurrence in those household hymns of great antiquity, which, in the Gaelic-speaking districts, have never been superseded by the forms of prayer we are accustomed to in modern times. On the Sceilg mhor, the great lonely Skelligs rock that rises precipitously out of the Atlantic to the west of the Kerry coast, is buried, according to the old legends, the warrior Ir, one of the great ancestors of the Irish. These, too, for many centuries, have been a favourite shrine of St. Michael, and on the adjoining mainland the surname Mulvihil (Mulville, Mulverhill, U.S.), or descendant of s. of Michael--O'Maoilmhichil is most abundant. MacGilmichael, with the same meaning, was formerly an Ulster name, which is possibly now represented by MacElmeel, although that name may be from the adjective maol, as noted further down.

'Servant of the saints' is now obsolete as a first name, but has left us the surname Mac-Giolla-na-naomh, d.s.--descendant of the servant--of the saints, in English spelling MacElnea, MacAneave. Eoin Bruinne, or 'John of the Bosom,' is a usual, and, as all will admit, a most appropriate name in Gaelic for St. John. As we might expect, we find that s. (servant) of John was a popular name: one of this title, Maeleoin, or Malone, was Bishop of Trim in 929. The surname O'Malone, 'd.s. of St. John,' is well known, and the Gilla-Eoin form survives in Maglone, MacAloone, MacLoone, Gilloon. In Scotland the word Eoin is pronounced Eain; Highland scholars now spell it Iain; the more English form, Ian, is familiar to readers of nowaday literature. The Highland 'd.s. of John' is, accordingly, Mac-Giolla-Eain--or, as they misspell it, Mac-Illeathan--and is anglicized MacLane, McLean.[6] Maelpedair, Maelpoil, two names we find in the old books, have left us only Mullpeters (U.S.); from the other forms we have Gilfedder, Gilfidder, Gilfeather, and Gilfoyle, Kilfoyle--d.s. of SS. Peter and Paul respectively.

The teacher of St. Patrick, St. Martin of Tours, has always been honoured in Ireland, and Martin as a baptismal name, is very common at the present day. The feast of St. Martin is still observed with curious ceremonies in some places. Maelmartin, s. of Martin, is recorded as having been used by various individuals in Clonard, Clonmacnoise, Kells, and Connor. It is now obsolete, but Gilmartin, Kilmartin are to the fore--d.s. of St. Martin. Churches, cells, and holy places without number recall St. Patrick, our great national apostle. Templepatrick, Donaghpatrick, Kilpatrick, Toberpatrick mark, in many places, the lines of his progress through Ireland. The annals of the middle ages are filled with the names of princes, priests, abbots, and bishops who bore the title of Maelpatraic, s. of Patrick, now obsolete, and Giolla-patraic, which has left us the surnames Kilpatrick, Gilpatrick, MacElfatrick, MacElfederick. These two last names occur only in north-east Ulster. The MacGillapatricks, most notable, were the princes of Ossory, and their descendants, as well as many other families of the name, have translated themselves to Fitzpatrick, although the prefix Fitz is wholly out of place here. The name of our saint is offered by some modern lights of philosophy to explain the legend of the banishment of the snakes from Ireland, and the subject deserves a passing reference. Scientific men are nothing if not iconoclasts, and, according to the latest theory, St. Patrick had nothing to do with banishing snakes. Snakes had disappeared from Ireland at least by the time of the Danish invasion, and the Danes, noticing the absence of the reptiles, and hearing much of the name of St. Patrick, interpreted this name as an Irish attempt at padrekr, from the Scandinavian paddarekr, toad-expeller. And so, according to this theory, the legend arose at first among the Danish-speaking invaders, and afterwards was adopted by the Irish.[7]

St, Brigid, 'the Mary of the Gael,' had many mediaeval clients named Maelbrighte and Gillabrighte. The famous scholar of Mayence, who is known in Latin as Marianus Scotus, was, in Gaelic, a 'servant of Brigid.' We have now Mulbride, MacGillbride, MacBride, Kilbride, and--horresco referens--Mucklebreed; all meaning d.s. of St. Brigid.[8]

There are, of course, many places named Kilbride, or church of Brigid, and Tubberbride, or holy well of Brigid. A 'Bride's Well' existed in London until Reformation times. Whether the Irish or the Swedish saint was the patron, I do not know; probably the Irish saint, as the Swedish name is properly Birgitta, Anyhow, when the Reformation came there was no further use for the holy well, but somehow jails were in great demand, and so even the buildings surrounding 'St. Bride's Well' were 'converted,' and henceforth rendered service as a prison, and the name 'bridewell' became synonymous with 'prison.' To such base uses do even words descend![9]

'In the east and the west,' as the old phrase ran, or in Scotland and in Ireland, St. Columcille is venerated as the one in whom all the highest ideals of the Gaelic mind are found united. Tradition has it that his name in childhood was Criomthann, 'fox,' and that his late name, Colum, 'dove,' was assumed on his entrance into religious life. Out of Ireland he is better known by the Latin Columba, 'dove.' The name 'servant of Colum' has descended in the form Maolcoluim, Malcolm, used only by Scotch families, although a more suitable Irish and Catholic name it would be hard to find. From it come the rather rare surnames Mulholm, Maholm, and from the Gil- form comes MacElholm, descendant of Colum. At a baptismal name, Colum is still used in the Gaelic-speaking districts of both Ireland and Scotland (in the latter country in the form Calum), giving the surnames MacColum (Scotch MacCallum), Colum, descendant of a person named Colum. The rage for anglicization has led to the fearsome form 'Pidgeon,' used as a surname by some benighted individuals.

In his student days Columba had been a pupil of both the Finians, of Clonard, and Moville. Of him of Clonard says the Donegal Martyrology: 'Finian of Clonard, in wisdom a sage; tutor of the saints of Erin in his time. ... In life and ethics he resembled Paul the Apostle.' The same ancient record likens Finian of Moville to James the Apostle. There are several saints now named in English Finian, in Latin Finianis. The older form Finan, used by Bede, was much nearer to the original Gaelic Finnán,[10] a very common name in ancient Ireland.

'Servant of Finian' has left us the surname Mac-giolla-Fhionnáin; in English, MacAleenan, MacAlinnion, MacLennon, McClennan, Lennon, Glennon, Gleenan, Gilfinnen, Finnan, and the translated form Leonard; that is to say, some d.s. of Finian have assumed the foreign name Leonard, because it had a certain resemblance, in the first syllable, to Lennon. I once spent a very pleasant couple of weeks at the house of one Padraig Mac-Giolla-Fhionnáin in Southern Connemara. In English he was known as Paddy Leonard; and this particular servant of Finian would have made the fortune of a dozen folk-lore societies, as his memory was a regular treasure-house of Gaelic tradition.

Some of the Irish Gilfillans, I am inclined to think, are rather Gilfinnens, and take their name from Finian, and not from St. Fillan, who is more identified with Scotland, and is alluded to in Scott's well-known lines:--

Harp of the North! that moldering long hast hung
On the witch-elm that shades St. Fillan's spring.

His name is preserved also by Glenfillan, one of the most beautiful spots in the Highlands, where, at the head of Lough Shiel, lies the little island of St. Fillan, with its ancient bells of the saint, a short distance from Glenaladale, the home of the MacDonalds, from where come Archbishop Angus MacDonald and Bishop Hugh MacDonald, both good Gaelic scholars and lovers of the old tongue. 'Servant of Fillan,' is represented now by the names Gilfillan, Gilliland, MacClellan, MacLeland, Leland. As a baptismal name Finian is still used in Kerry, but in Cork the 'translated' form Florence has taken its place in English. Derrynane, the home of O'Connell, is the 'wood of Finian.' Doire Fhionnain--this is not Finian of Clonard or Moville, but Finian of Inisfallen.

One of the ancestors of Finian of Clonard was the famous pagan warrior Celtchar, who was destined to have among his descendants not only such a pillar of the Christian Church as Finian, but also a most bitter enemy of the new faith in Ronan, who had two girls tied to stakes on the beach, to be drowned by the incoming tide, for refusing to abjure Christianity. Ronan had a son to whom he gave the name of Maelcelchair, or servant, admirer of the great pagan ancestor already mentioned. Such, however, is the irony of fate, that this same Maelcelchair became the apostle of south-west Kerry, where his beautiful stone oratory, Kilmalhedar, still stands in perfect preservation, one of the chief glories of Irish archaeologists.

Bishop Erc, of Slane, in Meath, was one of the early nomadic missionaries who travelled from place to place preaching the Gospel. From his name comes the surname Mullarkey, d.s. of St. Erc.

Dunshaughlin takes its name from St. Seachnall--in Latin, Secundinus--whom tradition represents as nephew of St. Patrick. For many centuries, 'servant of Seachlann' (the metathesized form of Seachnall) was a popular baptismal name, and is represented in English history books by Melaghan, and often by the foreign name Malachy, with which it has no further connection than some phonetic resemblance of the first syllables. One of the name was the Malachy that--

wore the collar of gold
Which he won from the proud invader.

This is the Malachy who is buried in an island in the beautiful Lough Ennell, now, I regret to say, more usually called Belvedere, in Westmeath. The name is still in popular use as a given name in the forms Loughlin (more informally 'Lack,' 'Loughie ') and Malachy ('Mal'), the Utter form being usual in the south-west, where the other Biblical forms, Jeremiah and Timothy, are also mistakenly used. The surname O'Melaghan, d.s. of St. Secundinus, has become merged in that of MacLoughlin; and this probably accounts for the abundance of folk of this name in Ireland--17,500, according to the census of 1891. The forms Loughlin, Laflin, Claflin (U.S.), are also met with.

A great body of Gaelic literature centres around the two St. Kierans, of Saighir, now called Serkieran, and of Clonmacnoise, by the Shannon. From him of Clonmacnoise, probably come the names O'Maoilchiarain, MacGiollachiarain, Mulhern, Mulheerin, MacIlherron, d.s. of St. Kieran.

Kilalla takes its name from St. Alladh--hence the Latin form of the name of the diocese, Alladensis. From him the surnames Mulally, Lally, d.s. of St. Alladh, Another bishop of the same see was St. Cellach, from whom the place name Kilkelly, or church of Cellach, and also the surname Kilkelly, MacGiolla-Ceallaigh, d.s. of St. Cellach. This St. Cellach had a very chequered career. Born of a royal house, he was destined for the service of the altar, and became a student at Clonmacnoise. The student was called, by the death of his father in battle, to be the reigning prince, and afterwards was, in turn, a fugitive, again a cleric, Bishop of Kilalla, a hermit on an island of Lough Con, and finally victim to the jealousy of his enemies. Something of a poet, too, was this western hermit. Awaiting his death the morning of his murder, and seeing, as he thought, all those dark omens to which Gaelic tradition attached deep meaning, he sang a lay, of part of which this is a translation:--

Hail to the morning fair, that, as a flame, falls upon the earth! Hail to Him, too, who sends it--the many-virtued morning, ever new! O morning fair, so full of pride--sister of the brilliant sun--hail to thee, beauteous morning, that lightest my little book for me! Thou seest the just in every dwelling, thou shinest on every tribe and race, hail! O thou white-necked, beautiful one, here with us now--O golden-fair and wonderful!

My little book, with chequered page [Scripture] tells me my life has not been aright. Maelcroin [one of the assassins], 'tis he whom I do well to fear; he comes to smite me at the last. O scaldcrow, and O scaldcrow! gray-coated, sharp-beaked, wretched bird; thy desire is apparent to me; no friend art thou to Cellach. O raven! thou that makest croaking, if hungry thou be, O bird, depart not from this rath until thou hast a feast of my flesh. Fiercely the kite of Chuan-Eo's yew-tree will take part in the scramble; his horn-hued talons he will bear away tilled; he will not part from me in kindness. To the blow that kills me the fox in the darkened wood will answer at speed; in wild and trackless places he, too, shall devour a portion of my flesh and blood. The wolf in the rath on the eastern side of the hill will come to rank as chieftain of the meaner pack. On Wednesday night last 1 saw a dream, I saw a dream: the wild dogs dragged me east and west through the russet ferns. I saw a dream: into a green glen men took me. Four were they that brought me thither, but (so meseemed) ne'er brought me back again. I saw a dream: to a house my fellow-students led me; for me they poured out a draught; a draught they quaffed off for me. O tiny wren! most scant of tail, dolefully thou hast piped a prophetic lay; surely thou, too, art come to betray me, and to curtail my gift of life.

O Maelcroin, and O Maelcroin! pelf it is that thou hast taken to betray me; lor this world's sake hast thou accepted it, accepted it for sake of hell. All precious things whatsoever I had, on Maelcroin I would have bestowed them, that he should not do me this treason. But Mary's great Son above thus addresses speech to me: 'Thou must have earth, thou shalt have heaven. Welcome awaits thee, O Cellach!"[11]

As Kilkelly comes from Cellach, so Kilkenny, both the names of the city best known outside Ireland as the residence of the famous legendary cats, and the surname of the same form, comes from the name of St. Canice. Kilkenny, accordingly, means d.s. of St. Canice. There were at least four early missionaries of the name, one of whom is venerated at St. Andrew's in Scotland. The Gaelic form of the name Canice is Coinneach, and gives the surnames Kenny in Ireland and MacKenzie in Scotland.

Mulholland, Maholland are d.s. of St. Callan, from whom comes also Tyrholland,or the House of Callan, in the diocese of Clogher.

Senanus is known to general readers better than the majority of our early saints, on account of Moore's poem of the Holy Isle, as the saint had

Sworn that sainted sod
Should ne'er by woman's foot be trod.

Kiltannanlea, or Church of Grey Senan, still preserves his name, and also the surname Gilsenan, Giltenan, d.s. of Senan. Not improbably, however, some of the older name, MacUinnsionain, have been absorbed by the more familiar name, Gilsenan. Some of the names have 'translated' themselves to 'Shannon.'

Gilvarry, a western surname, comes from St. Berach. abbot, of Cluaincoirpthe, in Connaught. Mulrennin, in Gaelic O'Maoilbhrenainn, means d.s. of St. Brendan, the navigator whose name marks the map of Ireland and Scotland from Mount Brandon to St, Kilda, and whose Voyages are a curious medley of Pagan tradition blended with actual experience of explorations of the Atlantic.

This brings us to a second class of saint-names in Mul and Gil, which deserve to be treated separately.

« Part I. | Part III. »


[4] On the theory that the Mul- prefix stands for maol, a tonsured cleric, this would, of course, be the case always.

[5] In Irish-Gaelic a Mhuire, Mhuire (a wirra wirra). So also, a Mhuire is truagh (a wirra iss throoa), O Mary, pity.

[6] On account of some similarity of bound between Luan, the word for Monday, and the last syllable of 'd.s. of John,' this name is in parts of Donegal translated Munday! To my own knowledge, a young man named MacKeane (MacTain) was advised, by one who should have known better, to transform himself to Piggott--MacKeane=muicin=pigotte! He refused, and kept to the grand old Gaelic name, nor did he regret it a few years later.

[7] See Folk-lore, December, 1894.

[8] Readers may, perhaps, question the actual use of some of our less common surnames, but I give only names I have heard myself or taken from the daily papers (especially reports of local meetings), or others whose use is guaranteed by the Secretary of the General Registry Office in Dublin, Mr. Mathieson, to whose reports and personal letters I am much indebted

[9] Although Birgitta and Brigid are now different names, the former may possibly have been of Irish origin. At the time of the Danish invasion some Scandinavian names were adopted in Ireland, such as Auliff, Ivar, Otter, Sitrice, which have given us modern MacAuliffe, MacIvor, MacKeever, Ivers, MacCotter, Cotter, MacKittrick, and some Irish names, such us Oscar, Niall, Fergus, were adopted by the Scandinavians, who use them to the present day.

[10] It is a diminutive of the adjective finn, now fionn, fair-haired; but a recent and not unplausible theory takes the word, in these saint-names, to mean fair, pure, holy. The names of Finnan of Clonard, Finnan, also Barr-fhinn, of Moville, and Finn Barre of Cork, are all Latinized Finnianus (also Vennianus and Vennio, Venionera). There is also a modern form Finghin, translated by 'Florence,' although there is no apparent connection.

[11] See Silva Gadelica, i. 56; ii 59. This is the best book procurable to give a general idea of the character of Irish literature.

Part III.

ONE of the most striking characteristics of the Irish race has always been a great veneration and affection for those consecrated to the service of religion. As far as we can gather from the native literature, the Druids seem to have held a strong position in the popular favour, even though they spoke of the world beyond with no very certain voice. Celtic Paganism had lost all definiteness of teaching at the time St. Patrick came to Ireland, and the strong contrast between the vague, cheerless generalities of Druidic tradition, and the definite and consoling assurances of the Christian faith was, no doubt, one of the reasons of the wonderfully rapid conversion of Ireland. We are not to be surprised, therefore, that the early Christian teachers who with St. Patrick, or after him, taught the new faith, should hold a warm place in the hearts of the nation. We speak now of but one indication of this, connected with oar present subject. It was very usual in early Christian Ireland, in speaking of the early missionaries, to add to the names of many of them the endearing diminutive terminations -án or -óc (modern óg).[12] Thus, St. Columcille is often found with the name Colmóc; hence Staholmock, or 'house of little Colm.' The Isle of Rona, north of the Hebrides, takes its name from St. Rona, who is also called Ronán and Ronóc (modern Ronóg). The -án form was easily Latinised, and so we usually find these names ending in Latin in -anus, and in English (after the Latin) ending in -an, as Ronan, Colman, Aidan. There was also the still more curious practice of prefixing to the names the endearing particle wo, my; thus 'the church of (St.) Rona' is the translation of the name of a ruin at the east end of Loch Lomond; the name itself is Kil-ma-ron-og, 'Church of my little Rona.' It is the same Rona (venerated at Iona and elsewhere on February 7th) that Walter Scott alludes to when he speaks of

A vot'ress in Maronnan's cell

--mo-ron-án, my little Rona.

Some of our Irish saints have had their names much disguised, like that of Rona in the line just quoted; such as St. Molua, really moLua, or my Lua, possibly one of those from whom Cill-dá-Lua or Killaloe (Church of the two Luas) takes its well-known name, just as Timoleague stands for Tigh-mo-Laga, house of 'my Laga,' usually called St. Molaga. The patron saint of Kinsale, in English called Multose, is in Gaelic [13] mo-Elte-og, my little Elte, a pupil of St. Barre of Cork. Portmarnock, Kilmarnock, Inchmarnock, contain another well-disguised name, for those places are the 'landing-place,' 'cell,' and 'island,' respectively, of m' Ern-óc, my little Erna, the same St. Erna who was with Columba in Clonmacnoise. He is, perhaps, better known by the other diminutive form of his name, Ernan. Hence comes the surnames MacAlearney, MacLerney, MacLarney, Millarney (= o' Maoil-Erna, if not merely a rapid pronunciation of MacLarney), MacAlernon, MacLernon, MacClernand, MacLorinan; all meaning d.s. of St. Ernan, whose feast day is August 18th.

We may take it that a name of this class was the origin of the Latin Columbanus, the Irish Colman being a very common name at all times, and used to the present day.[14] Several of these names are given in a quatrain quoted in the old Martyrology of Donegal:--

Mo-Lua ba hanamchara do Dabid
Dar muir modh-mall,
Is dom Aedhog, is dom Chaemog,
Is do Chomgall

'My-Lua was soul-friend (= spiritual director) to David over the slow-rolling sea (i.e., in Wales), and to my-little-Aedh, and to my-little-Caem (Kevin), and to Congal.'

This quatrain refers to the time when there was constant and friendly communication between the schools and churches of Ireland and the Welsh and English coasts, when Welsh students came to study in the Irish colleges, and brought back with them to Wales many Irish traditions that can still be recognised in Welsh literature. This was the time when Alfred, a student in Ireland, laid the foundations of that love for learning which afterwards caused him to solicit the aid of his former Irish professors in founding the first University of Oxford. The quatrain also contains the name of one of our saints, a name disguised more effectually than any other, that of St. Aedh, if we may venture to call him so. Aedh is really his name. It is one of the commonest Irish names, and is now represented in English by Hugh, a name with which it has no connection whatever. The saint, however, is never known by his mere name Aedh, but is called either Aedhán, little Aedh, or m'Aedh-óg (pronounced mayogue), literally 'my little Aedh.' The former form is in English Aidan, the latter Mogue. The saint is generally known by the name Aidan, and is the patron of the diocese of Ferns, in which Aidan and Mogue are both used as baptismal names. In a sense, Aidan and Mogue are the same name; they mean practically the same thing, although differing so very much in appearance. The records of the Registrar-General in Dublin bear witness to the fact that many people called Mogue, in familiar and ordinary life, insist on writing themselves down as Moses. But do not both words begin with Mo-? and is not that sufficient reason for getting rid of an old Irish name, in times when Anglicization is fashionable--although this particular case is rather one of Judaization?

St. Aidan, or Mogue, was much honoured in early Ireland and Scotland. In the latter country he is found venerated at Kilmaddock, in Perthshire, and his name in the form Maddock (Scott refers to him as St. Maddox) is familiar to students of Scottish archaeology. As we might expect 'servant of Mogue' was a popular name; we read of one who was 'Abbot of Armagh' in 1136. This was the friend of St. Bernard, whose Gaelic name Mael-mhaodhog, or servant of Mogue, is Latinised Malachy (O'Morgair). The surname directly descended from this name is rarely met with now-a-days in its proper form, Mullavogue or Mullawogue, most bearers of the name having taken the name Molloy, as less jarring on English ears. This also accounts for the fact that in Donegal, at least around Killybegs and Glencolumcille (so far as I can learn from Mr. J. C. Ward and Mr. Patrick O'Byrne) the English name Mulloy is used by families called in Gaelic O'Ludhog, the usual English of which is Logue. Evidently this Gaelic name is but part of the full O'Maolmhaodhog, d.s. of Aidan, just as Lally is but a shortened form of Mulally. O'Ludhog represents fairly well the Ulster sound of the Gaelic name, after the mao of the prefix has been dropped. In Westmeath the Leinster pronunciation of the same ending is well represented by the local surname Leeogue, which, like Logue, also means d.s. of Aidan.[15] So that the primatial see of Armagh, adorned centuries ago by a 'servant of Aidan,' is once more filled by an eminent inheritor of the same title. The Gil- form with the same meaning is MacGiolla Mhaodhog, now MacElvogue. Boolevogue also seems to have taken its name from the saint.

One of the great Irish school-founders was St. Carthage, who first conducted the great school of Rahan, and afterwards, when obliged to abandon Rahan, founded Lismore. This saint has two names; in Gaelic he is usually called Mochuda and his English name, borrowed from the Latin form Carthagus,[16] is founded on his other Gaelic name, Carthach. Mochuda (= mo-Chuda = my Cuda) may have been his personal name, and Carthach, or Carthy, the name of his clan. Hence the surname MacGillicuddy, d.s. of St. Mochuda. Other forms are MacElcuddy, MacElhuddy (Huddy?), and, apparently, MacElligott.

Another name with the diminutive terminations -án and -óg is that of St. Fintan; at least it seems to me that the surnames MacAlinden, McClinton, McClintock, are Mac-Fialla-Fhionntain, Fhionntog,[17] d.s. of Fintan. Fintan is one of the few ancient names still in use as a baptismal name.

St. Fintan is one of the many saints who, like Columba, Fillan, Erna, Mogue, were venerated in both Scotland and Ireland. There were many bonds of union between Ireland and the highlands; the people were of the same race, they spoke the same language; had the same traditional literature; for ages they professed the same faith, and venerated the same patrons, Patrick, Brigid, and Columba, being the chief in both countries. And, although, for many centuries there has been no active intercourse between the Gaels of Scotland and those of Ireland, and although the two countries have been influenced in very different ways, still we find many traces of old times in the language and customs of Scotland. The Scotch-Gaelic forms of the surnames are the same as ours, except that they write MacIlle phonetically, instead of MacGiolla. In some localities of Ireland a ciolla would be the phonetic form, as a ciolla-mhaire, Gilmor. This Gaelic name is used in the Highlands and is often translated Morrison. The Scotch have few Mul names, MacMillan, Mellis (for Maelisa, according to Mr. Flannery), and Maolmoire, servant of Mary, which we shorten too much, to Maoilre. One name is curiously misspelled by our Highland cousins: MacIlleathan, properly Mac Ille Eain, our Mac Giolla Eoin, d.s. of St. John

There is at least one Highland saint who has left his memory in two surnames, St. Cattan of Kilchattan--there are three places of the name, in Argyle, Bute, and Colonsay--as recalled by the surnames Mulhatton and MacElhatton, d.s. of St. Cattan. The saint was probably one of the Clann Chattan of Caithness, of whom Scott writes in the Fair Maid of Perth. The adjectival form Cattanach is used as a surname in Scotland.

Here we may give a few names omitted from the first part of this paper. St. Senach has left us MacElhenney, McAlinney, Gilheany, McIlhaney, McEllany, MacElkenny, another form of Kilkenny, already given. Maelmochta, client of St. Mochta, of Louth, is now represented by Moughty, a rare name (Westmeath); Kilcullen, like the place-name similarly spelled, indicate a St. Cullen, there is one of the name in O'Gorman--MacIlhargy seems to be d.s. of St. Forga, of Killargy or Killargue; and the Antrim MacIlhagga is either the same name or a form of MacIlharry already mentioned. Mulvennon, at first sight, would seem to be d.s. of St. Benen or Benignus, one of St. Patrick's converts, and afterwards his constant companion; but I am told that in Galway the form Mulvrennan is heard: in that case the meaning is d.s. of St. Brendan. As we have seen, Mulrennin is another form, and still another is Mulreany. This last form is misleading, although it is now, perhaps, the form in most general use in English, the Gaelic form used by the same persons being O'Maoilréanail (for -réanain).[18]

We cannot always translate the Mul prefix by the same English word. When it is followed by a saint's name, 'servant of ' or 'client of' is a good translation; but there are some names in which 'one who loves,' 'one zealous for or anxious for' will better represent the meaning. Such a name was Maeldomhnaigh, 'one who loves the church,'[19] giving our modern surnames Muldowney, Mullowney, Moloney, and similarly MacEldowney, Gildowney, Downey, all meaning 'descendant of one who loves the church.' Compare Colum Cille, 'Colum who loves the church, cell,' and the obsolete Maeldithraibh, 'one who loves the hermitage.' There were many beautiful names of this class in ancient Erin, such as Maelaithgin, 'one anxious for regeneration,' Maelbeannachta, 'one anxious for blessings,' Maelbeatha, 'one anxious for (eternal) life.' This last name is given as the proper title of Shakespeare's Macbeth, whose more familiar name is equivalent to 'son of life,' a usual phrase for a converted person, believer. There was also mac bais, 'son of death,' a reprobate. Macbeth is still in use as a surname, with the alternative for us, McBeith, McAbee, MacVeigh, McAvay. Maeldeoraidh, 'servant of the stranger, pilgrim,' is the original of Muldarry, Mulderry; we have also MacIlderry. Gillespie is servant of the bishop. Used as a Christian name, it is translated Archibald, in Scotland. Maeltola, 'one devoted to the will (of God),' was a common name, and perhaps some who now bear the name Tully may be descended from an ancestor of this title.

Here end the surnames connected with religion, with the exception of those about which there is more or less doubt, and which we discuss further on.

« Part II. | Start of Essay | Part IV. »


[12] There is a curious and somewhat analogous usage in English in such expletive phrases as 'by'r lakin' =: by our Lady-kin (Shakespeare), 'ods bodkins'--by God's body-kins, and some others which I have not seen in print, though they exist in our Anglo Irish dialect, such as 'upon me soukins ' (aliter) 'sukkins' = my soul-kins, and similarly 'fekkins'--faith-kins. These last examples are from Meath, the -kin, -kins, is the diminutive termination as in mannikin.

[13] So I am informed by Father Lyons, P.P., Kilmichael.

[14] It is curious to note how at present people called in Gaelic Colum are named Colman in English. The name Colman in this place calls to mind the theory--which has the merit of novelty at least--that the name Columbanus, derived from an Irish Colman, gave rise to a South-European family name Colombo or Columbus, one of which family discovered a new world, known later as Columbia. Perhaps it is needless to add that the author of the theory hails from the country in question.

[15] What then accounts for the other Gaelic form of Logue, O'Loig? I believe it is a recent formation taken from the English form itself. A real Gaelic name would not end in -oig, even in the genitive, as the -óg termination, in such names as Maedhog, was invariable in all cases.

[16] Not Carthage, although I have heard et intercedente beato Carthagine sung at a solemn function.

[17] Professor MacKinnon writes the name Mac Ille Fhionntaig. In Irish-Gaelic we do not change the óc, óg, termination.

[18] Compare Dingle from Gaelic Daingean, and Bandanil for Baldwin in Finghin O'Mahony's 15th century translation of Manndeville.

[19] Domhnach, church, from Latin dominica (domus), also means a shrine. Also means Sunday, dominica (dies). Maoldonaich is yet used in Scotland as a Christian name, and for some reason unknown to me is translated Ludovic.

Part IV.

We turn now to another class of names in Mul and Gil. In this class there are two groups; Molloy and Mulconry will serve as types, with forms in Gil to correspond. In the Molloy group the prefix is followed by an adjective or its equivalent; in the Mulconry group the second element is a proper name.

Molloy (Mulloy, Milloy, Meloy--all these forms are met with, the last two, at least, in the United States) is a type of the oldest surnames in Mul. Most of the names of this class have disappeared within English-speaking times. Here the Mul prefix has its original meaning of hero, chieftain; thus mael-muaidh, noble chieftain, gave the surname O'Maoil-mhuaidh, O'Molloy, d.s. of the noble chieftain. Compare the name of the river Moy, 'the noble' river.

Mael-fábhaill was an old Gaelic name, meaning apparently 'one fond of travel,' from fabhall, journey. It seems that the name used to be duplicized Mulfavill, and the form Mulavill is yet used about Gort. But in most of Galway and Mayo, where the name is quite common, the last two syllables are so manipulated as to produce the French-looking name Lavelle. Probably some persons educated in France, and ignorant of the true origin of the name, gave the lead in the use of this form. There is on record an instance where a priest, in the course of a few years, caused the disappearance upon a whole district of an old Gaelic name by always substituting a more modern name for the old ones when proposed at the baptism of children. Let us see now if something can be done to re-introduce the old names, Colum, Ita, Finian, and the like, in the districts specially connected with their names.

Mullanphey, Melanophy is a name more generally known in the United States, owing to the great Mullanphey Hospital of Saint Louis, than at home in Ireland, We find the name occurring in Tyrconnell, early in the seventh century, Mael-anfaidh, chief of the tempest, or tempestuous person. Compare the surname Mulgeehy, also from Donegal, chief of storm, stormy person. It seems that some families have abandoned the name for that of Magee--thus the old name gradually disappears,[20] and there are cases where it has been translated by Wynne, Mael-gaoithe: gaoth=wind=win' in Anglo-Irish = Wynne. In these names we see how the Mul prefix gradually loses its original meaning of 'chief, hero,' for the less uncommon one of 'person,' 'man of,' the same meaning that we find attaching to the Gil prefix in MacElhoney, McIlhune, MacIlhone, MacElhone, MacAloney all for--Macgiolla-O'-chonnaidh, the man of the wood, fuel. Of similar import are Killemet, Killemeade, the man of the wood, timber (adhmad), and MacElhoyle, MacElhill, the man of the wood, forest (coill). All these names are duly translated by 'Woods.' MacAlivery (and probably the Islay name MacLiver, which Professor MacKinnon tells me of), represents descendant of the man of winter (geimhreadh), and is accordingly translated Winters. It may thus be compared with the old Gaelic name Maelmithimh, person dedicated to June, on account of some connection with that month.

The name Mulmoghery, 'one fond of early rising,' has entirely disappeared, being replaced by the translation Early. We find many recorded examples of this name in the annals, such as a 'bursar of Clonmacnoise,' in the tenth century, and a 'lecturer at Clonard,' in the eleventh. Mac-giolla-meidhre has given us the equivalent name Merryman. Another name which has practically disappeared is O'Maoltuille (O'M. alias Fludd,[21] in the Elizabethan records quoted below), now used only near Ballinrobe in the form MacAtilla, but usually translated Flood. The Galway Gaelic form has tuinne, genitive of tonn, wave, instead of tuille, and perhaps this is the origin of the surname Tunney. It is probable, indeed it is positively stated by some families, that some of the present Tullys are in reality Multullys. It is not unlikely, also, that O'Maoltuille in many, or possibly in all cases, represents the old common name Maeltola, or Maeltoile, 'one zealous for the will (of God),' people having substituted the better-known word tuille, flood, tide, for the genitive of toil, will. Another instance of substitution is offered by the history of the old Gaelic name Maelmor, great hero, often translated Malmore. Religious influences caused this name to give way to Maelmuire, servant of Mary, translated Mulmorie in Elizabethan records, and in later times represented by Meyler. Later Norman influences introduced the present translation Miles.

Our next names are those in which the Mul or Gil prefix is followed by a proper name, such as Mul-conry, Mul-ryan. If a man attached himself to the service of another, he would naturally be called 'follower of that other, and this is expressed by the prefix; Mulconry Mulryan, therefore, meant 'follower of Curio' (genitive Conroi) 'follower of Ryan.' So that from some mediaeval personal names we have, not only surnames in O and Mac, but others in O'Mul and Machl. Mulrine is another spelling of Mulryan; and some families, now known as O'Ryan, Ryan, are really Mulryans, and are so called in Irish.

Mulready, Murready, Mulreed come from the same original Riada as the names Macready (= MacRiada), Ready. Mulrooney, Marooney, Moroney are descendant of the follower of some Ruanaoh, or Rooney, whose own name meant 'hero.' Mulcahy is des. of foll. of Cathach, whose name means 'the warlike.' From some one of the name the island of Iniscathaigh or Inniscattery is called. 'Follower of Miadhach (the honourable one)' is the translation of Mulvey. Mulcreavy seems to be Maol-mhic-Riabhaigh, follower of MacCreavy, M'Greavy, a name equivalent to 'descendant or the gray man.' Mulcreavy is sometimes translated by Rice, possibly because the two names, Rice and Riabhach, begin with the same syllable! Kilcawley, Gilkawley, is apparently Giolla-mhic-Amhlaibh, follower of MacAuliffe, Kilgannon, follower of Geanan or Gannon, a familiar name. Mulcrowney, a rare name, stands for Maol-congamhna, contracted to Maol-c'n'amhna. Mac-Congamhna, is the present Mayo Gaelic form of the old tribe-name of the Cinél Cinngamhna. The name is now 'translated' by Caulfield; this translation resulting from a curious and characteristic popular equation: Caulfield = Calf-head = Cinngamhna! Thus English names find a footing. So, Lestrange is regarded by the few people who speak Irish in County Meath, as a translation of Coffey (as if from coimhthidheach, a stranger). Mulcrowney is also connected with the name of the present writer, and has for him, at least, a special interest.[22]

Mulroy, Kilroy, MacElroy are types of another class of names, in which the prefix is followed by an adjective, usually one denoting the colour of the hair. In such names we may take Mul to represent the Gaelic maol, skull, a noun from maol, bald.[23]

It would matter little what the origin of the Mul prefix is in these names, as Mulroy would be either 'descendant of red-skull,' or 'descendant of the red (haired) individual;' the idea conveyed is much the same. There is no difficulty about the Gil prefix; here, as before, it means 'person,' or, as our philological friends are fond of translating it, 'wight, 'carle.'

The surnames can be most easily classified after the adjectives from which they are derived. Thus Dubh, black, gives Maliffe, MacElduff, Kilduff--descendant of black-haired person. B&aacte;n, white-haired, gives MacIlwaine, Gilbane, Gillivan. Mulvane I have met once with the very unIrish praenomen Phineas--the bearer was evidently a descendant of an early immigrant among the Puritans of New England. Ruadh, red-haired, gives Mulroy, Milroy, Mulroe, MacElroy, Kilroy, Gilroy, MacElroe, all meaning descendants of a red-haired person.

There is also the Mulroy Bay in Donegal, taking its name from St. Maelrabha, from whom is called also Loch Maree in the north of Scotland. I have noticed a surname Maree in Mayo, and it also may be from Maelrubha, who was greatly honoured in early Christian times. He is mentioned by the Four Masters, under date of 671, as 'Abbot of Bangor in Ulster, and of Abercrossan in Alba.'

From buidhe, yellow, come MacElwee, Kilboy, MacEvoy. Odhar, dun-coloured, gives us MacAleer, MacLear, MacAlery. Crón, brown, liath, grey, and lachtna, greyish or drab, give Mulchrone (Mayo), Killilea, and Mulloughney, unless this last is d.s. of St. Fachtna, patron of Ross, as it may well be, for all the guidance the sound gives.

Riabhach means literally striped, brindled, but is used for 'iron-grey.' It gives Mulreavy, Milreavy, Mulleavy, Leavy, MacGillreavy, and probably MacAleavey, descendants, of the grey-haired man. Maol, bald, gives MacElmoyle, MacElmeel, MacMeel. Kildunn (Mayo) is from donn, brown-haired. Mulgrew, Magrew, and probably Kilgarriff, certainly come from garbh, coarse, as MacElveen, descendant of the smooth or sly person, is from mín, smooth. Kilgar, Gilgar, a Donegal name, is from gearr, short.

The great majority of our Whites, Blacks, Grays, &c., belong to this class, the English names being translated from the Irish. In 1465, by an Act of Edward IV. of England, it was decreed 'that every Irishman ... in the County of Dublin, Meath, Uriell, and Kildare . . . . . . shall take to him an English surname of one town ... or colour, white, blacke, browne . . .!' And even at the present day, according to the records of the Registrar-General, there are instances of families having two surnames, one the English, and the other the Irish word for the same colour. Thus, according to the records of the Registrar's office, there are families that go by the two names of Gormley and Bloomer (gorm = blue); others that have the two names, M'Glashan and Green (glas = green); others again are called both Colreavy and Gray (riabhach, gray). The word maol, bald, gives the noun maolán, a bald head. From this come MacMullan, MacMillan, also O'Mullen, Moylan. The Mulligans, Milligans, are descendants of a person whose name, maolagán, means simply little bald man. O'Maolagáin is represented in parts of Donegal at least by 'Molyneux.'

McGillan, Gillan, Gilligan, Gilgan, MacElligon (U.S.), are all from the diminutives of giolla, and mean descendant of the little fellow.

The prefix MacGiolla, as used in the various classes of names which we have reviewed, is often used by itself as a surname, just as Mack is used as the surname of some families, the name of the ancestor having fallen off. MacGiolla thus used is represented in English by McGill, Magill, Gill, and Mackle.

« Part III. | Start of Essay | Part V. »


[20] Immigrants of the last century to New England bore the old forms of these names, and then, living among a Puritan population, landed on the Irish surname to some descendant with an old Testament-given name; thus I find an article by one "Micaja McGehee," in the 1891 volume of the Century Magazine.

[21] Silva Gadelica, ii. 574.

[22] Relatives of mine, of the last generation, used, in writing only, the name Gaffney, as if their usual name was but a form of O'Gomhna or MacGamhna. This tradition leaves the r unexplained. On the other hand, an old Irish-speaking neighbour of ours insisted that the name was 'the Irish of Caulfield,' a statement I could not understand until recently. The original is Mac-Congamhna, shortened to MacC'n'amhna, Magramhna. Compare the colloquial Gaelic O'Connach for MacDonough.

[23] It is the theory of some that this word maol is the original form of the Mul prefix, not only in this class of names, but wherever the prefix is followed by the name of a person or thing connected with religion, the word passing from its natural sense of 'bald' to mean 'tonsured,' and then coming to mean 'a cleric,' 'priest,' 'one consecrated to,' 'one devoted to.' Others regard the Mul prefix, except in the class of names we are about to consider, as mael, in its various senses from 'hero' to 'slave.' Hence we find Maelthain O'Carrol. the anmchara, soul-friend or director of Brian Boru, rendering his name in Latin by Calvus perennus, while a distinguished French Celtologue translates it 'esclave de l'Eternel.' It seems to me that the first translation is too literal to be intelligible; taking the name as one given for religious motives the meaning seems to be 'constant client or votary,' or, better still, 'a priest for ever.'

Part V.

Up to this point we have been discussing surnames, the explanation of which may be regarded as fairly certain; but we cannot be surprised to find that there are other names about the meaning of which there is more or less doubt. The study of the native annals, and of the literature generally, will probably bring to light the original forms of these names; for the modern English spelling is often not only not a help in that direction, but is positively misleading. Then, again, we are not always able to translate the original name, even when we have it before us, as the study of ancient Irish has not yet ascertained the meaning of all old words. I shall, at least, endeavour to classify the names which I cannot explain. To summarize all that has been said up to this, the surnames fall into the following classes:--

1. Those in which the prefix is followed by the name of a person or thing connected with religion--typical names are Malone, Mallowney, Maglone, and MacEldowney.

2. Those in which Mul has its various stages of meaning, from 'hero, chief,' as in Molloy, down to 'person'--with Gil also meaning 'person,' as in MacElhill.

3. Those like Mulconry, Mulryan, Kilgannon, in which the second element is a personal name, and the prefixes mean 'follower of.'

4. Those like Mulroy, Kilroy, MacElroy, where the prefixes are followed by an adjective describing personal appearance.

5. Diminutives like Mulligan, Gilligan.

Mulloughney (Class 1 or 4) is a Tipperary name. The Registrar's report gives it as a synonym of Moloney; but this is surely wrong, as the gh represents, I take it, a guttural sound. It is probably mael-lachtna, grey-headed person, or mael-Fhachtna, servant of St. Fhachtna, of Ross. Loughney seems to be a shortened form--compare Lally for Mullally. Possibly Loughrey may be but another form of the same name.

Kilcar occurs as a surname in West Mayo; it is probably d.s. of St. Gilla Carthach, from whom Kilcar, in Donegal, takes its name.

Kilrane may be descendant of the follower of Ryan (compare the spelling Mulrean, Mulrane, fox: Mulryan), or it may contain the name of a minor saint, such as the patron of Cill-Riain or Cill-Rioghain, Kilrane, in Donegal, or Cill-Raighne, near Kinnegad.

Mulhall is probably O'Maoilfhabhaill, 'descendant of the traveller,' a name already mentioned. 'Descendant of the follower of Cahill' is a less likely interpretation, as the form Mulcahill would, I think, have been preserved had this been the meaning.

Mulleady, Meleady, Meledy, are forms of frequent occurrence. Can we see in this a name of the first class. O'Maoil-Ida, d.s. of St. Ita (of Limerick--compare Killeedy), Cill-Ide, Church of Ita? I am afraid this interpretation is not well authorized, and that we must see in these names the modern representatives of the annalists.

Mael-éitigh, exactly equivalent to Cinnéitigh, Kennedy. The translation, 'Ugly-head,' is not very flattering; but it will be consoling to reflect that those who originally deserved these names are dead many centuries.

Mael-caere occurs in the Four Masters, and is now represented by Mulcaire and Wilhere (= ui mhaoil-chaere). The meaning is, apparently, servant of Caere (Class 3). Perhaps this Caere is the original of the present name Carr, Kerr. The name seems to have come to us from Scotland, where the famous Cárr, Cárrach, are used, leading to the English Carr. Some branches of the family, however, claim the Gaelic name Ceárr, left-handed, and have a tradition, that endeavours to justify the name. This form would give Kerr in English, and is the form used in Donegal, where the Carrs are called Mac-giolla-cheáirr, d.s. of the left-handed person. There is also an English MacElhair coming from this Gaelic form. The Gaelic form used about Galway is Mac-giolla-Chearra. Is the Mayo name Morcarey connected?

MacElmeel most probably belongs to Class 4, and means 'descendant of the bald person.' There is not much probability that it contains the name of St. Michael; the name formerly written MacGillmichael seems to have died out. MacMeel has lost the l sound of the giolla prefix--just as MacEvoy has lost it. I think we should also class here MacAdorey, MacEleavey, which seem to be Mac-giolla-dorcha, d.s. of the dark (featured) man, and Mac-giolla-riabhaigh, d.s. of the grey man. Here MacAtamney would at once suggest (as a mere conjecture, however) the analysis Mac-giolla-tSamhna, descendant of a person connected in some way with the old pre-Christian feast of Samhain,[24] the memory of which is handed down in the curious popular observances connected with Hallow-eve. The occurrence of a form MacAtimney is most favourable to this conjecture. In the United States the form MacTammany is more common.

MacElrone seems to have religious connections. The ending appears to be the same as in the name of the famous Abbot Maelruain of Tallaght; but how he obtained his name of servant of Ruan, or who (if a person at all) Ruan was, are questions I cannot answer. Another name that seems to go back to the ages of the Irish saints is the Tipperary name Mollumby, which at first sight recalls the well-known inscription at Clonmacnoise: 'A prayer for Suibhne mac Maele-umai.' But how few ever heard of this venerable Gaelic saint and scholar, the thirty-fourth Abbot of Clonmacnoise, who is set down by the Irish, English, and Welsh annalists of the time as doctor Scotorum peritissimus--the most learned teacher of the Gael. In 891 he, with other learned Irish teachers, was called to England to advise with King Alfred, who was then busy developing the studies of the University of Oxford, founded, in 886, in imitation of the great Irish schools, where Alfred, like many another English student, had found hospitality and education. Probably the Abbot of Clonmacnoise had been one of Alfred's own teachers in his student days.

The name Mael-uma, if we may venture to attempt a translation, may mean 'worker in brass,' and would be an appropriate name in those days for the craftsmen who wrought such marvels of metal-work as we can see in museums. But, if this is the meaning of the name, the modern form would be O'Maoil-umha, and could not be the original of Mollumby; so perhaps we should place this surname in Class 1, and explain it as Maoil-Lomma, d.s. of St. Lomma or Lommán. A saint of the name is remembered at Portloman, on the southern shore of Lough Owel, in Westmeath; and the first Bishop of Trim bore the same name. The form Malumy, which I find in a list of Antrim names, is, therefore, nearer to the original Gaelic, if it is the same name, as it most probably is if the accent is on the middle syllable.

Mulvany, Melveney, O'Melveney (Los Angelos, California), Mulvenna, MacElvenna, MacIlvany, Gilvany--all these forms evidently mean descendant of the follower or servant of some person named Bena, Mena, or Menach, Benach; but who this person is, whether a saint or a Gaelic ancestor, is a problem. If we look upon the names as coming from an ancestral name we shall probably be right in regarding that ancestor as Maenach, from whom the O'Dooleys take their tribal name of Clann Mhaenaich. The names given above would then belong to Class 3, and would mean descendant of the follower of Maenach. From a person of the same name comes the name O'Maonaigh, which is O'Mooney in the North of Ireland, and is, perhaps, the original of Meany in the South. On the other hand, can we find in these names the name of one of the Irish saints? I have seen, but where I cannot recollect, and no one that I have consulted can ascertain, the name of a Menóc, one of the 'host of the saints of Erin.' This name presupposes a simpler form, Men or Mena, and I have noticed a mention of a place called Kilvany, which might contain the name. I prefer the first interpretation; the latter, if correct, would have the advantage of explaining the names Manogue, Minogul, Minnoch, and Mannix, all meaning d.s. of St. Mena or Menoc. I hope that someone who has an opportunity of consulting suitable authorities will be able to locate the reference to St. Menóc.[25]

Mulqueen, Mulkeen, Kilcoyne, are names which are like those in the previous paragraph. If they contain the name of a saint, it is probably St. Kevin, as both Mael-Caeimhghin and Gilla-Caeimhghin occur in the Index to the Four Masters, but they rather seem to mean descendant of the follower of Conn--a name from which came also Quinn, M'Queen, Kilgun, MacElgunn, seems to be 'follower of Gunn.' They could hardly mean 'the man with the gun.' The name MacElrath (MacIlwrath, Mucklewraith), not uncommon in Ulster, is probably Mac-giolle-raith, d.s. of Rath, an ancestor from whose name are derived Magrath (= MacRaith), Magraw, MacRae, and perhaps also O'Raine. One might be tempted to class it with Moloney and such names, as 'd. s. of grace,' but this is not a likely meaning. Perhaps one of the Maloney class is found in Magillivray, which may be 'one zealous for judgment day'--Mac-giolla-brâtha represents well the pronunciation. Carmichael is another Scotch name that, at first sight, would seem to belong here; but I think that with Kirkpatrick it is to be regarded as originally a place-name, which afterwards was adopted, like York, Birmingham, and others, as a family name. Caer- now seems to be the Welsh word for 'seat,' just as Kirk- is the familiar Lowland-Scotch for 'church.' Anyhow, they are both Lowland and non-Gaelic names, the Highland forms being MacMichael (in Gaelic Mac-giolla-mhichil) and Kilpatrick. Another Scotch name is Maclurg--one would like to class it with MacIl-Largy, but it is not very probable that a local Irish patron, as far as I know, like Forga, would be remembered in Scotland. Maclehose is another Scotch name that would seem to belong to the Gil-class, but I am unable to throw any light on it. It is, perhaps, like Meiklejohn, a Lowland name with no connection with Gaelic. Maclure (M'Clure, MacLure) is probably Mac-giollá-uidhir, d. s. of the brown-haired person, the same as our MacAleer.

I had finished these notes when there came into my hands a large volume of 600 pages containing an immense list of Irish surnames as they were written in Elizabethian times. It is the Twenty-Second Report of the Deputy-Keeper of the Public Records in Ireland (Dublin, 1890, price two shillings) and is full of interesting points, although it is merely an index to other publications. Very few of our surnames then existed in their present forms, as given in this 'index of Fiants;' they are much nearer to the original Gaelic forms as McEna for McKenna, and often preserve the Gaelic system of spelling. Many of the names then in full force have now disappeared, or have been much changed. Mulmorie, servant of Mary, occurs commonly.

'O'Maeltulye' was still in use--perhaps, indeed, it is our present name Tully. This index throws some light on the difficult names, Mulooly, Gilooly (Gilhooly, Gilhool, &c.). The old Gaelic Maelguala--which I cannot translate --seems to be the original of Mulooly, and the form Gilla-guala would explain the various forms McGilgowlye, Gillegooly, Gilleguly, occurring in the Fiants. But these would not explain the form Gilhool, which is still in use, and which is evidently the descendant of the names McGillehole, McGillechomhaill (here the Fiants preserve partially the Gaelic spelling), occurring in the Elizabethan index, and traceable to the Gaelic original meaning 'servant of St. Congal' recorded in the Annals. The Four Masters give a spelling Mac-giolla-shúiligh, descendant of the sharp-eyed person; but I fancy the worthy annalist invented this on the spur of the moment. There were, probably, two sets of names, one from the obscure guala (probably a personal name) quoted above, and the other from the name of St. Congal of Bangor. And it would be strange, indeed, if his name should not be put in remembrance with those of the other Irish saints. Few were more honoured in early times, says the Book of Leinster: 'Congal, of Bangor, in Ulster, Abbot, of the race of Trial. A man full of God's grace and love was he; one that trained and edified many other saints, in whose hearts and minds he enkindled and inflamed the unquenchable fire of God's love, as in Erin's ancient books is evident. In life and manners he resembled James the Apostle.' Such a one could not fail to have clients in early Ireland, and accordingly we find both Mael-comhghail and Gilla-comhghaill on record, servants of Congal.

From these come at least some of our present Muloolys (many of whom have adopted the more usual name Molloy) and Gilhoolys. Owing to the strange habit of throwing away family names that are any way rare, and adopting names somewhat similar and more common, it is now impossible to say what is the original Irish form of many names. Thus, we have seen in this paper, that the name Molloy has been adopted by two other families who had no right whatever to it. In the same way, which the name Malone may be usually taken to stand for d.s. of St. John (O'Maoil-Eoin), there can be little doubt that it sometimes stands for the obsolete O'Maoilbhuadhain and other names.

A few more names and we shall have done. Muldoon, a name of which we have very early record, is, of course, d.s. of Dun; but whether Dun was a person, or as it seems perhaps more probable, a place, we have no reason to decide. Here we may recall that one of the earliest of the Imrama, or voyage narratives, is that of Maeldun, which Tennyson has rendered in verse. If Muldoon means 'one fond of the dun or fort,' it is of the same class as Mael-achaidh, 'one fond of the field,' a name on record in the annals, but now obsolete. We have, however, Kilahy and Killackey, which may be the Gil forms with the same meaning. Are Leahy, Lahy, in any way connected with this? Kilgallon, is a name on which I cannot throw any light; also Mullany, although I think O'Donovan has a reference to it somewhere in his voluminous notes. Kilcline might be analyzed as d.s. of the stooped (claon) person, but the old Elizabethan forms McGillacleyne, McGillacloyne, McGillacleyny, rather point to d.s. of knavish (cluaineach) person. But compare the Elizabethan Malacline, for Melaghlin, seemingly Mulhane is but a form of Mullen; compare Culhane and Collins both from O'Coileáin. Names ending in--ane (pronounced aan) abound in Cork and Kerry; the sound given to the Gaelic ending áin, in these names, is quite exceptional in modern Gaelic. The Gaelic equivalent of Lysaght seems to be Macgiolla-iasachta, d.s. of the 'borrowed' person! Why so called, I surely cannot tell. Cuskelly (Elizabethan McGilla cosglie) and McCluskey also appear to belong to this class; and, apparently, also McGlew, McLagan, McClatchy. The names Kilgore, Kilburn, MacIldowie, are obscure to me.

In addition to Gaelic names in Mul and Gil, there are names of foreign origin beginning in the same way; such as Mulgrave (which was the original of some of our McGrews or Mulgrews), Gilbert, Gilbreath, a form of Galbraith, Gillick seems to be an abbreviation of MacUlick, a name that occurs frequently in the Elizabethan records. The name Gilleran (Killeran) occurs in the annals, and is yet in use; the annal form is O'Gillarain ('O'G. abbot of Trinity Church at Tuam,' died 1256), and if the final syllable is short, as it seems to be, the name is not of the class we have been considering. It is probable that we have the Mul prefix also in O'Máille (O'Malley).

I find, on review of this paper, that we can count more than two hundred fairly different modern forms of our Mul and Gil surnames.

I bring to an end this very imperfect treatment of an interesting subject. Most of the surnames are familiar to us all; some that are rather rare I have collected from current newspapers and similar records. The index to the Annals of the Four Masters contain the original Gaelic forms of many of the names. I owe to the kindness of Mr. Patrick O'Burne, of the New York Gaelic Society, a copy of the part of this index containing all names of the classes here discussed. I have also to thank Dr. Meyer of Liverpool, and Professor Mackinnon, of Edinburgh, for their courtesy in answering many queries of mine in reference to old Gaelic and Highland names. It is pleasant to find men of learning so ready to place their knowledge at the disposal of inquirers. Mr. Matheson, of the Registrar-General's Office, in Dublin, has published two very interesting lists of synonyms and alternative forms of surnames in Ireland. Such work, however, can be done but imperfectly by anyone, however zealous, who has not a knowledge of Irish, as many things will be quite clear to a Gaelic scholar that would be a mystery to another.

I venture to express the hope that those who have access to Irish books and manuscripts, and particularly to the works, printed and manuscript, of O'Donovan, and the Genealogies of MacFirbis, will supply whatever is needed in the way of correction and improvement to this paper, written at a distance of many thousand miles from Ireland, and with no access to authorities of any kind.


End of essay

« Part IV. | Start of Essay


[24] Compare the English surnames Christmas, Pentecost, Easter, Hallowes, Spring, Summers, Winter, March, &c.

[25] About Scarriff, according to the Registrar's report on surnames and their synonyms, Minnogue and Mannix are regarded as the same name, the latter name being formed from the root minóg, manóg, by the addition of s, as Cairns, Burns, are formed from Kieran, Byrne.

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