11 August 2008


The rules for Irish surnames (well, traditions; 'rules' is probably a bit harsh) note that the common prefixes Ó and Mac/Mc in Irish denote 'grandson of' and 'son of' --

Seán Ó Conaill --> Séan, grandson of Conall,
Máirtin Mac Mathúna --> Martin, son of Mahon, etc.

As the Gaelic language waned in Ireland, many families dropped the Ó or Mac and 'de-irishified' their names. Many immigrants to the US dropped the uniquely Irish idenitifer and Anglicized their names as a way to avoid discrimination. But recently, the resurgance of the Gaelic language has prompted many people to resurrect the old naming conventions. A resurgence of Ó and Mac/Mc -- and Irish spellings -- have returned. Of course, today we usually keep the same family name from one generation to anoother.

This is a surprisingly recent idea for most cultures. The idea of 'surnames' being carried from generation to generation is a relatively new one in most countries. For most of history, people were known by their first name and perhaps a descriptor. If you happened to live in a large enough village, you might have John the Cooper and John the Brewman. You might have Big John and Small John, or John the Lame. As people came into contact with more people, and ventured further afield from their own towns, the place-name addition because common: John of York, John of Furthing Pike, that sort of thing.

It wasn't until the Normans started keeping track of things in the 12th century or so that real surnames showed up in western civilization: the need to track property ownership and heredity prompted people to keep track of family relationships on a bit larger scale.

Look at the Scandinavian countries: the whole -son set of family names that we have now (Johnson, Peterson -- just look in a phone book anywhere in the midwest!) are the result of generations of sons being named after their fathers. John, the son of Gunnar was called John Gunnarson; his son would be Eric Johnson, and his son Peter Ericson and so on. It wasn't until in the 19th century (and probably the result of mass emigration) that a family 'kept' the same name from one generation to another. The tradition of keeping the farm name as a family name was very common, linking the family to the land. It wasn't until the 20th century that the family name 'stuck', as it were.

English-speaking countries adopted surnames from a variety of sources. As they became more common in the 13th and 14th centuries, names were adopted from someone's occupation, a personal characteristic, a local placename or landmark, estate names, and patronymics/matronymics

And all of this rambling actually leads to a question. Eventually.

Irish tradition has different forms of a surname for men and women -- and women's "last names" change depending on their status.

Married women don't traditionally share the prefixes Ó or Mac -- instead they have Uí and Mhíc, usually linked in the form Máire bean Uí Chonaill --> wife of O'Connell or Máire Bean Mhic Conall --> wife of MacConnell. Unmarried women have Ní and Nic as the form of their surname.

So the question I have is really this -- do modern Irish married couples really have separate forms of their last name? Is Máirtin Ó Chonaill married to Máire Uí Chonaill? Or is that only used as a form of formal address and not casually?

1 comment:

TheSpartacat said...

Yup, they will always have different surname prefixes. A lady will never be an Ó or a Mac, (as these are masculine) and a man would never be a Ní or Nic (feminine only, derived from inion) !