Gaelic Irish forenames

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Gaelic Irish forenames older than surnames

By Dr Paul MacCotter

An early Irish manuscript

Theoretically one’s surname preserves the name of a direct male ancestor who may have lived up to 1,200 years ago. Why theoretically?

What is known as a non-marital event as uncovered through y-chromosome dna studies: result, not all bearers of a given surname descend from a common ancestor. A theory used to explain this is that in Irish medieval clan society, servants and followers took on the surname of the overlord and thus lost their own surnames. Yet the bulk of y-dna studies do confirm one or two main groups per single surname: conclusion, many people do bear the correct ancestral surname. Therefore one’s surname is a valuable heirloom. When genealogy is complete, and inevitably fails due to absence of records, only two methods of continuing the family tree remain, surname research and y-dna research. Our forenames however tell us a lot more about our ancestral names than just this.

Forenames came before surnames

Before there were surnames there were forenames (= firstnames, Christian names), and these later became the basis for surnames. Forenames are very ancient, having roots three to four thousand years ago. Most forenames have their origins in pagan naming rituals, a form of pagan baptism.

There are three main categories of forenames:

  • Indo-European cognomens (nickname, descriptive name)
  • Indo-European dithematic compound names
  • Christian names from a Greco-Roman or Jewish background

Indo-European dithematic compound names:

The Indo-European language group descend from a single language spoken probably in the Ukraine around four thousand years ago. An intermediate stage of descent saw Indo-European break into a dozen or more language groups, such as Germanic, Indo-Iranian, Romance, Slavic, Celtic and so on, in turn breaking into several dozen modern and extinct languages, including English and Gaelic. Most European languages descend from one of these intermediate groups, such French, Italian and Spanish (Romance), English, German and Dutch (Germanic), Russian, Polish and Bulgarian (Slavic) and so on, to include the Indo-Iranian group with such languages as those of Iran and northern India.

All of these languages show evidence of a type of pagan baptism ritual where the newly born child is given two names, a good wish and a prophesy for the child. Typical examples are:

  • knowledge–awareness
  • enjoy–glory
  • battle–glory
  • victory–shining
  • prosperity–friend

There are hundreds of these known. What is remarkable is that evidence for this ‘double naming’ pattern can be found among the Hittites and other early peoples up to four thousand years ago, and it is the same pattern in all Indo-European groups. This indicates that many of our forenames (and hence surnames) have very ancient pre-Christian roots.

Because we in Ireland speak English today most of the dithematic forenames common to us are of Germanic origin, for example:

  • Albert, noble-bright
  • Frederick, peaceful-ruler
  • Gerald, spear-ruler (female version Geraldine)
  • William, vehement-protector (Wilhelmina)
  • Raymond, hand-protection
  • Edmund, wealth-protection
  • Edward, wealth-guard
  • Richard, brave-ruler

Most of our Irish surnames derive in turn from Gaelic dithematic names:

  • Feargus, man-vigour (Ferris, a Kerry surname)
  • Feargal, man-bright (O’Farrell, lords of Longford)
  • Aongus, one-choice (O’Hennessy, one in midlands and two in Co. Cork (Hennessy brandy), McGuinness lords of Iveagh, Co. Down, Innes, a Scottish surname)
  • Cathal, battle-ruler (lords of a territory near Templemore, Tipperary, pronounce ka-hill and not kay-hill as the English do)
  • Murchadh, sea warrior (modern Murphy, found in Cork, Wexford, Roscommon and Armagh)
  • Flaithbertach, bright-ruler (O’Flaherty kings of south Connacht and O’Laverty, a Derry sept)
  • Each-tigerna, horse-lord (O’Ahearn, East Cork and East Clare)
  • Con-mara, sea hound (McNamara lords of east Clare, Bunratty castle)

The use of dithematic compound names in the early medieval period in Ireland slowly faded into abeyance during the eleventh and twelfth centuries for reasons that are unclear, and a much smaller name pool containing pehaps one and a half dozen male names (Diarmait, Domhnall, Cathal, Cormac, etc.) became the norm.

Yet enough dithematic names remained in use to become fossilized into surnames during the period of surname formation, 900 to 1100 AD. That is why the majority of Gaelic Irish surnames descend from dithematic compound names.


Indo-European cognomens, same period as dithematic names:

  • Flann, ruddy complexion (O’Flynn kings of Muskerry, Cork, lords of a territory around Castlereagh in Roscommon. The O’Lynns were lords of Tuirtre in Antrim)
  • Fionn, fair haired (O’Finn surname, found in Cork, Connacht and Louth)
  • Dubhán, little dark haired person (Duane, Duvane, etc)
  • Cáomh, beautiful (O’Keeffe, lords of Fermoy, Cork)

Christian names from a Greco-Roman background (came with Christianity):

Mary/Máire, Matthew, Joseph, John (Seán), James (Jacob, Seamus), Anthony, Margaret, Nicholas, Paul, Anne, Daniel