Not only does an Irish surname reveal almost all about where a family hails from, it exposes much about the genetics as well.
The tourists flooded into the Gaeltacht village of Spiddal for the Irish bank holiday weekend that just passed, and I was still there happily after our family celebration.
Out and about through the crammed village for those days and nights was not alone a wonderful break after the hard winter but also a remarkable experience in relation to the reality that the old clans of yesterday, all through the island, are still concentrated to a huge extent in the home baronies.
It is an era of intense mobility in Ireland and elsewhere of course. It is a fact that Dublin’s growth and capital dynamic is sucking a lot of the community strength and vitality from rural Ireland as the youth follow the job opportunities just as their ancestors headed for Ellis Island in hard times.
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Yet, quite incredibly, it was proven to me again and again during the holiday break that not alone does a citizen’s surname reveal almost all about where the family hail from, it also exposes to the world much about the genetic as well as the geographic background of that man or woman.
For example, in separate encounters in bars and cafes with folk who were strangers to me at first, I met two men and one lady tourist who told me, in their twangy Ulster accents like my own, that they were Maguires or McGuires. They were not connected to each other in any direct family link -- indeed they were strangers to each other -- but Maguire is the heartland clan in my native Fermanagh and two of the families were still happily living there on centuries old family farms whilst the third family now resides in Dublin, having followed employment opportunities.
There was more to it than that even. All parties (again like myself!) were dark-haired (or had been in youth) and were wiry, short and quick of step. One of the men, from Belcoo on the border, quipped that it would take three Maguires to take up as much physical space as neighboring clans like Corrigans and Quigleys.
He claimed that most people from our county were made by God to be slight and quick-footed because they were living alongside the kind of deep bogs that would trap and maybe even swallow up bigger specimens. Intriguing stuff that.
Anyway, with my mind sent down that tracing and roots route during my weekend, and being a bit of what used to be called a blatherskite back home long ago, (a blatherskite talks to everybody), I was amazed to find that what applies to the Maguires in 2018 also very largely applies to many other clans and families as well.
Today, staying North for the moment, anyone bearing the surname O’Neill has roots in the county Tyrone, and if a person is an O’Donnell he or she has the fighting spirit of the old warrior chiefs of Tir Conaill in their veins no matter where their chimneys are now smoking.
In the Connemara region many of the families are named Hernon to this day. No matter where you encounter a Hernon in the world it is almost certain they have a Connemara connection.
Again talking about man and beast being bred for their topography, it has been my experience that the typical Hernon is ganglingly strong and quite tall and as tough and hard as the rocks around home. If you know a Hernon anywhere in the U.S. check out that physical description and you are very likely to be amazed.
Another common feature in the clan is eyes as sharply blue as the next wave rolling in from the Atlantic to attack the Aran Islands. I lived in Connemara too for several decades and learned more than that about the Hernon clan.
You could not make a better or more generous and supportive friend than a Hernon. And you could not make a more unforgiving enemy if you offended the. Thank God I never did.
Enough of the Hernon clan for now. The scope is national and even international on this one.
If you shake hands with a Considine, for example, his or her family hail from Clare and probably still have a live chimney there. Meet a Beirne and high odds are that this Beirne is out of Roscommon, probably North Roscommon, and probably a highly skilled artist or tradesman. Likewise the Byrne with the same phonetics but different spelling has strong links with the old Pale and the Curragh of Kildare.
A Geraghty or an O’Flaherty has a Galway background, most of the O’s like the O’Sullivans and the O’Donovans still headquarter on the high grounds of Cork and Kerry, but an O’Toole was Mayo material down the generations and the centuries.
For the craic of it my son and I perused the death notice page in the Irish Independent yesterday. He called out the surnames, and dammit I was at least 80 percent accurate in placing the county where the funerals will take place.
One can be a little bit thrown by the Dublin and Leinster families because of the impact of the city and, but for that, I would have had even a higher score! Probably where I erred most was in trying to place surnames which originally came into Ireland attached to Planters.
Whatever Irish surname is attached to your birth certificate this May, and whatever your location and family background, I suggest that if you do a little bit of detective work around the roots of your family tree you are likely to discover it is fascinating altogether and also a voyage of self-discovery in many ways.
A final word of social advice before you begin. If you happen to know any folk called MacConnell or McConnell be very much on your guard in affairs of commerce.
I’ll qualify that a bit though. The MacConnells are cracked and should not be trusted at all. However the McConnells, who may also have been part of the Plantation of Ulster, are likely to be non-Catholic, probably Presbyterian and totally Christian and trustworthy across the strange scales of life and living.
Enjoy all of the merry month of May wherever you are.
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