Authenticating Irish Characters: Irish Surnames in the Middle Ages

One of the first tasks any fiction author sets out to do is to name characters. Creating memorable names helps readers connect to your characters. But believable characters are a challenge all around, and no less so in Historical Fiction. In this genre we’re faced with the added weight of…

Historical Authenticity

If you’re going to write about a certain time and place then it’s a natural assumption that your characters must look and feel as though they originated from that local.

When I set out to write a novel set in 10th century Ireland, I never realized what a challenge this task presented.

You see, surnames as we know them today were not known in early Ireland. At least, not until mid-10th century. But we’ll get to that momentarily.

Nowadays we recognize people by a given name followed by a surname, like John Smith. But in the Middle Ages, an individual was more likely to be noted by profession, location, or specific family ties.

In Ireland, individual distinction could be made by any one of these, but a person was most often referred to by their given name followed by that of their father or grandfather. These “surnames” varied, pending on whether the bearer was male or female. Further distinction occurred for married women who opted to adopt their husband’s name. In very rare instances, the name of a mother or grandmother could be used instead of a father or grandfather.

So you might be thinking at this point, if a guy’s name is Connor and his father is Bron, then people would simply call him Connor Bron, right?

Nope! Try to keep up…

You see, in Ireland, family lines gave people their distinction. If an individual had no ties to a specific clan, that was often an indication of their status in society. And that status usually wasn’t good. We’re talking outcast, criminal or slave. So a man, generally was referred to as mac “son of” or Ua “grandson of”. Therefore, our friend Connor would be known as Connor mac Bron. If old Grandpa Niall were more important, then he’d be known as Connor Ua Niall.

Now, obviously, “son of” and “grandson of” won’t work for the ladies. Instead, female Irish surnames bore the distinction of…you guessed it…”daughter of” iníon and “granddaughter of” iníon mac or great grandaughter iníon Uí. So Fionna, daugher of Brian, would then be Fionna iníon Brian. If her family favored Grandpa Sean, then she’d be Fionna iníon mac Sean and if the entire clan looked up to her great grandfather, Rory, as their natural leader, then she’d be Fionna iníon Uí Rory.

Now lets say that Connor’s and Fionna’s fathers got together and arranged a marriage between their children. Connor and Fionna are married and Fionna decides to simplify things by taking on Connor’s name. She’s rather fond of Connor and likes the idea of being Fionna wife of Connor rather than Fionna great granddaughter of Rory. So Fionna takes the title Bean (pronounced “ban”), and henceforth is known as Fionna Bean Connor.

It’s rather obvious that the poor women got the difficult end of the stick when it came to surnames. Unfortunately, the waters are a bit muddier than that. I’ll try to spare you the more technical references and simplify it down as best as possible.

Get ready to wade into an Irish language lesson…

Where a male’s surname generally takes on the mac (son) or Ua/O’ (grandson) followed by the genitive case (big term meaning – followed by “of”) like mac Donaill or Ua Donaill, the female form undergoes still more variances.

Generally, a feminine surname is cut down further. Instead of “ iníon Uí“, (literally translated – daughter of the grandson of) you would use Ní, and instead of mac, you would use Nic, which is the shortened form of Iníon Mhic – (daughter of the son of). In both cases the name undergoes lenition.

Now what in the name of all that is holy, is lenition?

Well, simply put, lenition is a linguistics term telling you that a word is undergoing a sound change. Usually the kind that alters consonants to make them sound more sonorous (vowel-like). The word lenition itself means “softening” or “weakening”.

If the second part of a surname begins with a vowel, the form Ua/Ó attaches an h to it.

Ó Uiginn (O’Higgins) becomes Ó hUiginn.

Ó Aodha becomes Ó hAodha.

The other forms remain unchanged.

Mac Aodha, Nic Aodha, Mhic Aodha, and so forth.
Mag is often used instead of Mac before a vowel or (sometimes) a silent fh. The single female form of “Mag” is “Nig”.

There is one exception to this lenition process. If the second part of a surname begins with the letter C or G, the feminine surname will not be lenited. So if we have the daughter of a man named Ua Dónaill, her surname would be Ní Dhónaill. If she were the daughter of a Mac Gearailt, her surname would be Nic Gearailt.

Properly confused now?

Thought so. Let’s move on to something more fun…

As I mentioned above, sometimes individuals were known for locals or a profession – Roger the Shrubber comes to mind (sorry, I couldn’t resist a Monty Python reference), but even professions and locals can prove to be more than a little vague.

Niall was a popular name among the Irish, and spearmen were cow a dozen (Hey! They were an agrarian society – no coins – especially dimes). So there could be hundreds of men known as Niall the Spearman. Sure, we could try to narrow it down by their father’s name, but that was Con and every man’s dad and his dog went by the name Con. So then you still have half a dozen Niall mac Con’s running about claiming to be Spearman.

Trouble is, you need a nickname to distinguish all those Niall’s from one another.

And boy were the Irish good at bestowing nicknames!

Read some of the hero tales and your sure to come across some classics like:

Abradh-ruadh “of the red eye-brows”

Cas “the curly”

Ulfhada “long beard”

Bhán “fair-haired”

Ruadh “red hair”

Mór “big”

Brecc “freckled”

Cáech “one-eyed”

Donn “the dark”

Mael “the shorn” (AKA “the bald”)

Menn “the Stammerer”

Rosclethan “the Wild Eyed”

Oh I could go on! But you get the picture. These colorful distinctions litter many an ancient text and lend infamy to individuals who otherwise would have been forgotten by time.

Heck! Even one of Ireland’s most infamous kings, Brian Boru, was known more for his nickname than his given name.

Eventually, though, surnames as we know them today began to catch on. Some accredit Brian Boru with popularizing one of the firsts – O’Brian. That one, though, didn’t catch on until after Brian’s death in the 11th century.

No, there is actually a surname that predates O’Brian. So here’s a little known trivia I leave you in closing with…

In Keating’s History of Ireland, there is mention of a chief named Deaghaidh (pronounced “Day”), who in the year 934 was part of a daring rescue mission to save Ceallachan, the King of Munster. Deaghaidh mac Domhnall fought under Cennetig (Brian Boru’s father) and lead a band of Dal Cais warriors on this mission. Deaghaidh was the ancestor of the O’Deas. So his family was actually the first to take on his name for their clan’s distinction. Therefore, the O’Dea surname existed prior to the onset of the 11th century as one of the earliest surnames in Ireland.

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