Surnames, or inherited family names, are the building blocks of genealogy; without them, it would be impossible to trace our ancestors back through the generations. Irish surnames can provide clues and insight into the origins of your family history as, in many cases, they offer an authentic link between history, location and identity.
Surnames, as they are very much connected to place in Ireland, are an integral part of Irish identity and family history. Surnames of Gaelic Irish origin frequently confirm membership of a sept. It was assumed that members of an Irish sept had a common tribal ancestor. Thus, even today, Gaelic Irish surnames are still very dominant and numerous in the very localities where their names originated. For example, the surname McCloskey both originates and predominates today in the Dungiven area of County Derry.
Not only was County Derry the last stronghold of powerful Gaelic tribes, it also became home to many settlers from England and, in particular, Scotland during the Plantation of Ulster in the 17th century. Thus Derry was home to many emigrants, of Gaelic Irish, Gaelic Scottish, Lowland Scottish and English origins, who departed, over a period of three centuries, for new lives in North America, Great Britain and Australasia.
By examining surname reference books or by using the “Surname search” facility on the Irish Ancestors website at www.irishtimes.com/ancestor, you can build up a picture of the location and history of Irish surnames.
You will find that in the context of Irish historical records there are many spelling variations of the same name. There is no doubt that the process of Anglicisation has obscured the origins of many Irish surnames. From the 17th century Gaelic surnames of Irish and Scottish origin were translated, and in many cases mistranslated, into English; others were changed to similar-sounding English names. Family names of Gaelic origin were further disguised in the 18th century by discarding the prefix Mac, Mc and O.
Thus, in conducting family history research you should be aware of the possibility of different spellings of the same surname. For example, Doherty can also be written, to name but a few, as Dogherty, Dougherty, Docherty, O Dochartaigh, O’Doagharty, O’Dogherty and O’Doherty in record sources; and Rosborough as Rosborrow, Rossborough, Rossboro, Roxborough, Roxbrough and Roxberry.