Dr. Edward Mac Lysaght



O’Hart’s Irish Pedigrees

Reverend Patrick Woulfe’s Sloinnte Gaedheal is Gall

Arms and Crests more English than Irish

Meaning of the word “sept"

Laboring Classes did not have Surnames

The Annals of the Four Masters

Special Report on Surnames in Ireland

What has been preserved

Continental archives


McLysaght Biography

Some Irish
Family Names



The subject of Irish families is one in which much interest is evinced, but the popular books usually consulted and regarded as authoritative, particularly in America, are in fact unreliable. The inaccurate and misleading information thus imparted with cumulative effect is, however, much more deplorable in the armorial sphere than in the genealogical.

It is an indisputable fact that the publication presenting colour plates of Irish arms which is probably most widely consulted (1) is no less than seventy per cent inaccurate, not only in mere detail, but often in points of primary importance and of an elementary kind. Apart from their many grotesque heraldic blunders the compilers of this work seem to have had a sort of rule of thumb ; if they could not find arms for one Irish sept they looked for the name of another somewhat resembling it in sound: thus, for example, they coolly assigned the arms of Boylan to Boland. This frequently resulted in the arms of some purely English family being inserted in their book of “Irish Arms “, the Saxon Huggins being equated with O’Higgins, and so on. When this arbitrary method failed them they fell back on the arms of some great Irish sept. To quote one instance of this : Gleeson, Downey, Noonan and MacFadden are all given the arms of O’Brien, though none of these septs had any connexion whatever with the O’Briens or with each other. Consequently many Americans of Irish descent are in good faith using erroneous and often English arms derived from the spurious source in question.

A certain cachet has been given to this because, in the more recent editions of O’Hart’s Irish Pedigrees, these same coloured plates have been inserted as if they were an integral part of O’Hart’s book. The serious genealogist uses O’Hart with caution, if at all, for he is a far from reliable authority except for the quite modern period. John O’Hart, however, undoubtedly did a vast amount of research, no matter how he used the information he acquired : I know that some of these errors of ascription can actually be traced to him, but it is surely an injustice to him that his well-known name should be used as a cover for the propagation of false and often ludicrous heraldic statements.

It is a common popular error to speak of coats of arms as “ crests “ (2) This is another heraldic faux pas of which this extraordinary production is guilty. It can now be dismissed from further consideration.

Irish Families

Turning to another aspect of our subject, it is a pleasure to be able to say that there exists a book which deserves high praise : the Reverend Patrick Woulfe’s Sloinnte Gaedheal is Gall (Irish Names and Surnames). It is unfortunately little used abroad. I take this early opportunity of acknowledging my indebtedness to Father Woulfe’s work. The errors in it are very few and it is open to adverse criticism in only two respects, neither of primary importance: first his guesswork in the matter of the derivation of Irish names—for this a knowledge of Middle Irish is essential, for Middle Irish differs from Modern Irish more widely than does modern English speech from that of Chaucer ; and secondly his tendency to turn the blind eye to the extent of English immigration. For example, while he tells his readers that Ford, Hearn, Matthews and Moore can be either of English or Gaelic origin, Boyle, Collins and even Ellison and Freeman are treated as if they were exclusively Gaelic. There are a great many instances of this inconsistency. Not­withstanding these minor defects his book is most valuable.

His primary objective was to provide in dictionary form the Gaelic and English equivalent of every extant Gaelic-Irish surname and of the commoner foreign names now found in Ireland, with some account of their origin and history. To accomplish the latter adequately for some 3,500 names within the compass of a single volume was obviously an impossibility. In parts II and IV of the present work this is done more fully for some 500 surnames. The names thus dealt with are those which are most numerous in Ireland to-day, or most famous, together with some rarer ones which are included in the illustrated armorial section.

The selection of the 243 armorial bearings illustrated in Part III needs some explanation. Why, for example, are such well-known and numerous names as MacCormack and Healy missing there, while Troy, Mulvihil and O’Davoren, comparatively rare names, are included? The answer to this is that not all ancient Irish families have traditional arms recorded in authoritative heraldic sources. The Genealogical Office in Dublin Castle, formerly known as the Office of Arms, is of course, the principal source for such information.

Grants and even Confirmations of Arms to individual members of a sept do not give to other persons of the same name, not included in the terms of the grant or confirmation, any right to use such arms. There are, however, a number of coats of arms on record, which by custom are regarded as appertaining to all members of a sept.

At this point it would be well to consider what we mean by the term “ sept "—the word “ clan" has been avoided because its use might imply the existence in Ireland of a clan system like that so highly developed in Scotland, which in fact we never had in this country.

The term “sept “ has never, as far as I know, been given an authoritative technical definition. It can perhaps best be explained by saying that it is a collective term describing a numerous group of persons who, or whose immediate and known ancestors, bore a common surname and inhabited the same locality.

       Some danger exists of persons not of the true ancestry of a sept being inextricably identified with it. There is no doubt that up to the middle of the seventeenth century many of the labouring class had no hereditary surnames. As this interesting point is discussed in Chapter II it is referred to here only to indicate a possible objection to a wide interpretation of sept arms, namely that “ serfs “ (as they have been called in this connexion) may, when the practice of using transitory surnames died out, have assumed as their permanent surnames those of their masters, rather in the same way as the negroes of the plantations in the West Indies sometimes assumed planter surnames. While this contention is not without substance, the consensus of opinion is that such assumption was not at all widespread.

      The elasticity inherent in the concept of sept arms is repugnant to British heraldic practice. In England armorial bearings are held to emanate from the Sovereign and are hereditary, though devoid of sanctions to protect what may be regarded as a family heirloom and personal property; in Scotland the right to bear arms is strictly regulated by law ; on the Continent, again, heraldic usage differs considerably from British.

      Ulster King of Arms (as the head of the Irish Office of Arms in Dublin was called) who derived his authority, like Garter and Lyon, from the King of Great Britain and Ireland, continued to exercise his functions in Ireland until March 31, 1943, when his office was transferred to the Government of Ireland and has since been known as the Genealogical Office, its head being entitled Chief Herald of Ireland. This transfer took place more than twenty years after the establishment of the Irish Free State.

On taking over we were at first inclined to adopt the British attitude in heraldic matters ; but after a few years the particular conditions existing in Ireland, political and historical, induced a modification of outlook, especially in regard to sept arms. In England and Scotland all arms to be found in the records of the heraldic authorities, if not extinct, can be claimed by certain specific individuals. Sept arms, as recorded in the Office of Arms in Dublin Castle, as I have said, have come somewhat loosely to be regarded as appertaining to all members of the sept.

The peculiar circumstances of Ireland, it may be added, were recognized two centuries before the transfer to an Irish authority took place, since Confirmation of Arms, based on use, were issued in Ireland, but not in Great Britain where settled conditions existed.

It must be emphasized that the acceptance of the principle of sept arms in no way implies that arms appertain to a surname as such. It does not mean, for example, that every man called Kelly or O’Kelly may legitimately use the well-known arms of O’Kelly of Ui Maine. There were several distinct septs of O’Kelly ; and O’Kellvs of the Meath or Kilkenny septs have no better title to the said arms than a Murphy or an O’Brien. No one, however, can reasonably object to an O’Kelly taking a proprietary interest in those arms, provided that he is unquestionably of a family originating in the O’Kelly country in Connacht.

Briefly, then, the position is that the arms illustrated in Part III of this book may be displayed without impropriety by any person of the sept indicated if he really does belong to that sept. Nevertheless anyone wishing to bear arms in the true heraldic sense, e.g. to have them inscribed on silver or seal or in stone carving, would be well advised to apply for a Confirmation of such arms from the Chief Herald at Dublin Castle, which can be obtained at a moderate fee on production of evidence of descent. Corroborative evidence of “ user “ is also required in all cases where the proof afforded by descent is inadequate. Searches to obtain such evidence are undertaken by the Genealogical Office.

All the arms in this book have been taken from the archives of the Irish Office of Arms (Genealogical Office) and the depiction has been done by the heraldic artist employed by that authority. They may, therefore, be regarded as authentic and accurate. The genealogical data to be found in the body of the work has been derived from a variety of sources. Here again the records of the Genealogical Office, which date back to its establishment in 1552, are the main primary source. There is also much genealogical and nomenclatural material in the (as yet) uncatalogued collection of family archives in the National Library with which, as Keeper of Manuscripts in that institution, I have most fortunately had exceptional opportunities of familiarizing myself.

The printed works which I have used are for the most part listed in the biblio­graphy at the end of this book. The most helpful of these are undoubtedly “The Four Masters” and the other Annals (Loch Ce, Innisfallen, etc.), “The Topographical Poems” and the many publications of the Irish Archaeological Society, and particularly John O’Donovan’s notes thereon; among works issued by the Irish Manuscripts Commission, many of which have been frequently consulted, the so-called Census of 1659 was especially valuable ; the diocesan and county histories were helpful in varying degrees ; while papers printed in the archaeological and historical journals, particularly the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries, Ireland, have proved a mine of information. These, I fear, are too numerous to specify separately. I have consulted numerous family histories, some of which indeed are scholarly works, but as many of these were written by enthusiastic and uncritical amateurs the statements they contain can as a rule be accepted only where independent evidence is forthcoming in short they are useful chiefly as pointers to more authentic sources.

Finally, a word should be said about a Government publication of an unusual kind. It is entitled Special Report on Surnames in Ireland, but it is ordinarily cited as “ Matheson “ from the name of the Registrar-General of Births, Deaths and Marriages" under whom it was produced. It was published in 1894 with a re-issue in 1909. In addition to a general dissertation on the subject and some very interesting examples of the vagaries of spelling and even recent translation of Irish surnames, it lists every name for which five or more births were registered in 1890 and it usually gives the county or counties in which each name is most prevalent. It is possible to say “ is “ rather than “ was “ in this connexion, because various tests (which will be indicated at the appropriate places in the book) show that the distribution of surnames in Ireland has not altered materially in the sixty years which have since elapsed: the revolution in transport, emigration and all the other disturbing elements of modern life, which might be expected to change the pattern, have not in fact done so. Matheson, therefore, has been found very useful, especially in the preparation of Part II of this book. A further bluebook sponsored by Matheson was issued in 1901: this is entitled Synonymes of Irish Surnames and is of considerable interest.

The unsettled conditions produced by successive invasions, rebellions, agrarian revolution and emigration have resulted in the wholesale loss of family papers so that, though every effort is now being made to save what remains, we have in Ireland nothing comparable to the family and local archives in which Britain is so rich. The destruction of the Public Record Office in 1922 was also a major disaster to Irish genealogists, particularly to searchers concerned with the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Nevertheless there are compensating factors. The Gaelic order was essentially aristocratic in character, and the Norman invaders who were assimilated into it were no less so. Thus was created a unique corpus of mediaeval genealogical material, the greater part of which has been preserved. In this we may include not only the actual genealogies and genealogical tracts and poems but also the Annals, the “Book of Rights” and such like works. These sources are of the greatest value in the preparation of a book on Irish families.

Finally, reference should be made to a vast and, until quite recently, almost un-explored manuscript source, namely the papers relating to the Wild Geese and their descendants now for the most part stored in Continental archives, particularly in France, Austria and Spain. These, together with much ecclesiastical material, are becoming available for consultation in Dublin, thanks to the initiative and energy of Dr. R. J. Hayes, Director of the National Library of Ireland, whose comprehensive scheme for the microfilming of Continental records relating to Ireland is already well advanced.

     Having indicated in this preliminary chapter the nature of the problems inherent in Irish genealogy and heraldry, we may now proceed to consider our subject in its various aspects. This I hope to do in a way calculated to interest the general reader well as the student.

(1)   Atlas and cyclopedia of Ireland, New York, 5905.

(2)   Many of the oldest armorial bearings have no crests. In some eases different crests were in use by the several branches of a family or sept, while the arms were common to all. A crest on the other hand cannot exist except as an appendage of a coat of arms.