Ireland: Surnames & Titles

“Ireland: Surnames and Titles” refers to the surnames and titles with historical associations featured on this website.

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Special Pages: Bourke, Butler, FitzGerald, O’Connor, O’Donnell, O’Neill, O’Sullivan,

Gaelic Surnames

The majority of Irish people bear surnames of Gaelic origin. In English, such surnames are usually prefixed by “Mac” or “O'”, but the presence or absence of such a prefix does not necessarily signify very much, as over the centuries many families have Anglicised their surnames by removing it, while some immigrant families have Gaelicised their surnames by adding a “Mac” or an “O'”.

Other Surnames

A few surnames are thought to have pre-Gaelic roots, and Ireland’s gene pool has been vastly enriched  over two thousand years by immigrants from near and far. Many of the surnames bearing some significance in Irish history originated in Scandinavia, England, Wales, Scotland,  France, Germany, the Netherlands, Flanders, Italy or Spain. Families that arrived during the last 10 – 100 years have also had an important impact.

Gaelic Titles:

The Chief of the Name is a term long used in both Ireland and Scotland to refer to the head of a Clan. An important difference is that in Scotland Clan Chiefs can be either male or female, whereas in Ireland they are exclusively male.

Unlike most feudal distinctions of nobility, this Gaelic title does not involve direct control of land (held in common under Brehon Law was by all members of a tuath / sept); nor is it inherited automatically by the eldest son of the previous holder (primogeniture), but rather is passed on under the complex rules of tanistry, and signifies acknowledgement of the rights and responsibilities of the person deserving of most respect in the extended family (and traditionally of his appointed deputy or tanaiste). Disputes are referred to the Standing Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains

In Ireland, a holder of this Gaelic title is usually styled with the surname preceded by “The” or followed by “Mór” or both, and there are several intriguing variations.

Ambitious Chiefs of the Name accepted English-style titles (and land rights!), and a number of Norman lords took to using the Gaelic style. However, by the end of the C17th most of the Chiefs of the Name were living in exile or reduced to poverty, and in some cases their title disappeared completely.

Until recently, the Chief Herald of Ireland acknowledged as a “Chief of the Name” the person recognised as the most senior known male descendant of the last inaugurated or de facto Chief of that name in power in Gaelic Ireland at or before the end of the C16th, and some (but not all) such individuals had their titles officially registered. The practice was discontinued in 2003 due to scandal surrounding a fraudulent MacCarthy Mór.

Other Titles:

Most holders of titles in Irish history were granted either Peerages of the Lordship of Ireland and of the Kingdom of Ireland (created 1171 – 1899) or of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (created 1801 – 1921). Some citizens of Northern Ireland hold Peerages of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (created since 1921).

Other Peerages and Titles, including those of foreign origin, are included where relevant.