What's in a name?

 Spelling of family names took some strange twists in the 19th and 20th centuries  --  at least when viewed from our perspective.   We can understand the differences if we recognize that people in those days were speech oriented rather than writing oriented.  So spelling was unimportant; pronunciation was key.

Saint Marcellin Champagnat, the founder of the Marist Brothers, signed his own name with several different spellings in his letters written in the 1825 to 1840 period. 

Bridget is a name which gets amorphous treatment.  It is commonly spelled Brigid, even for the same person. The nickname Delia often became the official first name, particularly for those who came to America and had Delia written on their immigration papers.   And many Bridgets are called Bridie  colloquially.

You can spell Foy several ways, depending on where you think the name originated.  In French, the name is derived from foie, the word for faith.   However, Napoleon's general was Maréchal Foy,  the saint of the small town of Conques is Sainte Foy, and the suburb of Québec is Sainte Foy..   If you lean towards thinking of Foy as a derivative of the Irish name Fahey, or Fay, or Fahy, the spelling without the e is more natural.  In Kansas, William Foy(e) added the e to differentiate his family from the family of Michael Foy, to avoid confusion in the mail service;  many of his descendants changed back to the original Foy.  The parish and town records in Ireland seem to use Foy and Foye interchangeably.

Morley is also spelled Morally and Marley.  I once taught a student with the name Marley JonesHe told me his family came from County Mayo and his given name was his grandmother's maiden name.

Margaret Phillips notes that  Briody  may have been Brady.

My thanks to Margaret Riley for sending the following short piece by Edward MacLysaght.


Even in Ireland, where there is a genealogical tradition, it is quite common for people to be uncertain of their ancestry for more than three generations. Consequently a man in those circumstances whose name is, say, Collins or Rogers, to take two common in Ireland, cannot assert with certainty that he bears a native Irish surname. However, if he is a Collins, born and living in Dublin perhaps, " whose people came from West Cork the odds are very strongly in favour of the true name being the Gaelic Ơ  Coileain. Smith, the commonest surname in England, comes high up in the Irish list -- fifth in that given by Matheson. There can be no doubt that many of our Irish Smiths are the descendants of English settlers and traders but it is equally probable that at least eighty percent of the Smiths of County Cavan are of native stock, being MacGowans or O'Gowans who, under pressure of alien legislation or social influence, accepted the translated form and have used it ever since.

In some cases the anglicization process has had very unfortunate results. The beautiful name Mac Giolla losa, for example, usually rendered as MacAIeese, takes the form MacLice in some places. The picturesque and heroic  Ơ DathIaoich in County Galway ridiculously becomes Dolly and the equally distinguished Ơ SeaIbhaigh whIch is anglicized Shelly in its homeland (Co. Cork) is Shallow in Co. Tipperary. Schoolboys of these families, unless they use the Irish form, need no nicknames; Grimes, too, is a miserable substitute for its Gaelic counterpart Ơ Greachain, which has  also Grehan as a more euphonious anglicized form.

These corruptions, of course, are due to the influence of the English language, the spread of which in Ireland was contemporary with the subjection and eclipse of the old Catholic Irish nation:  names of tenants were inscribed in rentals by strangers brought in to act as clerks, who attempted to write down phonetically what they regarded as outlandish names ; in the same way Gaelic-speaking litigants, deponents and witnesses in law cases were arbitrarily dubbed this and that at the whim of the recording official.  It was not until the nineteenth century that uniformity in. the spelling of names began to be observed, but the seventeenth century was the period during which our surnames assumed approximately the forms ordinarily in use in Ireland today.

  The corruptions we have noticed above have been cited as examples of the tendency to give Irish names an English appearance.  Most of them have at least some phonetic resemblance to their originals or else were frankly translations or supposed translations.  There is, too, a large class of Irish surnames anglicized in a way which makes them quite unrecognizable. Often these distortions are aesthetically most unpleasing, as Mucklebreed for Mac Giolla Bride and Gerty for Mag Oireachtaigh.   There is, too, a large class of Irish surnames anglicized in a way which makes them quite unrecognizable. Often these distortions are aesthetically most unpleasing, as Mucklebreed for Mac Giolla Bride and Gerty for Mag Oireachtaigh

  I have said that the mutilation and corruption of Irish surnames took place in the seventeenth and to a lesser extent in the eighteenth centuries. It must be admitted, however, that even to-day, fifty years after the foundation of the Gaelic League, the gradual re-gaelicization of names resulting from its influence is to some extent counterbalanced by the opposing forces of de-nationalization. This is found more in pronunciation than in spelling: though even in this official registration age pronunciation does tend to affect spelling. A notable example of what I have in mind is the internal H. The English seem unable to cope with this sound which presents no difficulty to an Irishman : for Mahony they say Mah-ney (or, as they would write it, Marney, since the internal R is also dead in England.

source:     Irish Families, by Edward MacLysaght,   Crown Publishers, New York, 1972.
most recent revision:  26 October, 2002
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