5 common myths about Irish surnames, debunked

Last names from Ireland come with certain misconceptions. Here we debunk 5 common myths about Irish surnames.

People of Irish descent have travelled far and wide across the globe to set up home. Their surnames, however, will forever link them to their roots in the Emerald Isle.

Think you know everything there is to know about your last name, or Irish last names in general? Read below to challenge some misconceptions that you may have picked up over the years.

Here are 5 common myths about Irish surnames, debunked.

5. They don’t all originate from Ireland.

5 common myths about Irish surnames include that they all originate from Ireland

Irish people all over the world are very proud of their heritage, and rightly so. However, it may come as a surprise to some people that many popular Irish surnames don’t actually have Gaelic origins.

In 1169, the Normans invaded Ireland, and with their arrival they brought names that are now widespread across the island, including “Burke” and “Powers.” It was also around this time that the prefix Fitz, deriving from the Latin word meaning “son of,” first began to be used here.

Today, “Walsh” is one the most common surnames belonging to Irish people living in Ireland and beyond. This surname, however, actually means “foreigner” or “Briton” and probably referred to Welsh and Cornish soldiers who came to Ireland during and after the Norman invasion.

4. No, they don’t all start with Mac/Mc or O.

5 common myths about Irish surnames include that they all start with Mc or O.
Father Dougal McGuire from sitcom Father Ted

For many people outside Ireland, their first exposure to Irish people may have been through a fictional character in popular media, such as Father Dougal McGuire from sitcom Father Ted, or Jim McDonald from England’s Coronation Street.

But while many popular Irish surnames such as “O’Reilly” and “O’Sullivan” do follow this name format, many of the most common Irish surnames do not.

3. They may not have always been spelled the way they are now.

5 common myths about Irish surnames include that they were always spelled the same way

Spelling wasn’t always so important to Irish people. In previous generations, it wasn’t uncommon for siblings from large families to have variations in their surname. For example, some could have O’Connor on their birth certificate, and some could have Connor.

It didn’t help that literacy rates were not as high as they are today, particularly in rural areas where young people spent much of their time helping older relatives in the fields.

As English rule intensified in the 1600s, it became increasingly common for people to drop the O and Mac prefixes from their names, meaning that surnames such as O’Toole became Toole.

This was due to the fact that it became more difficult for people with “Irish-sounding” names to find work as prejudice grew across the country.

In the 1800s, many began to reintroduce the prefixes to their names. This led to some confusion, however, when the wrong prefix was reinstated, with some families adding O in place of Mac and vice versa.

2. Your ancestors may not have actually had a surname.

Irish ancestors may not have had a last name at all

While it may be difficult to imagine it today, it wasn’t always so common to have a surname in Ireland at all. In fact, it wasn’t until approximately the 1100s that they came into use, and even then, they didn’t apply to all Irish people.

As the population of Ireland grew, social classes began to form, and upper classes began to adopt hereditary surnames.

People who didn’t belong to this class—which meant the majority of the Irish population—weren’t perceived as needing surnames until the 1500s, when it became common practice to have one.

1. The most common Irish surname may not be what you think.

The most common Irish last name may not be what you expect

As discussed above, common myths about Irish surnames in fiction usually pin an O or a Mac prefix in front of an Irish surname.

The surname O’Reilly, for example, has become as synonymous with Irish folk, just as the first name Paddy has. And while O’Reilly ranks at number 11 on the most common Irish surnames, the name that grabbed the top spot may surprise you.

“Murphy” is the most common Irish surname across the country. Meaning “sea battler,” this surname translates to MacMurchadh (son of Murchadh) and O’Murchadh (descendent of Murchadh) in Irish.

The families that share this name lived mostly in Wexford, Roscommon, and Cork, but are now widespread across the island.