What’s in a Name? lessons from my own journeys in irish research


This is part of a series of related posts discussing how names can be both challenging and illuminating in genealogical research. Names are everything in Genealogy: they identify us as individuals, they help us build our family groups–they are the foundation stone for our research. It is the first search item we employ when we are looking for more information on any individual or family. But is a name just a label? Is it just a one-dimensional handle for a person or family? Absolutely not.

1855 New York State Census, John and Margaret Morgan Family Group

Through the course of my work in researching my Irish ancestors, I have had to learn how to get the most out of a name during the research process. With Irish names here are a few of the things I have learned:

  • Changes in spelling or form are common and can happen for several reasons.
  • Repetition patterns can help to identify or confirm potential family links.
  • Every family is different, and does things their own way. Never take a convention as a rule. Ever.

Changes in Spelling or Form

The first, and most basic thing to remember is that no matter how simple the name may seem to you, it is likely to have been written down with all sorts of wacky spellings that you could never have intuited. Not ensuring that you are looking at all possible derivatives means you likely won’t find who you are looking for. Surnames get changed all the time, for various reasons.

  • An unrelated person is taking the information and unsure of how a name should be spelled, so they make it up.
  • A family may decide to change their name because of concerns of persecution or prejudice.
  • Current custom can influence how a name is recorded.

An unrelated person is taking the information and unsure how of a name should be spelled…

…and so they made it up. Seriously.

Just imagine being a Census taker in the late 1800s in the United States. These days, when Census time comes around you either get a packet of forms in your mailbox, which you are expected to answer honestly, and return to the government, or you can fill it out online for the same result. There is no face to face between the family and the government. Honestly, you could say whatever you like, today, and I doubt anyone would get around to checking, but I might be wrong there. During the last few centuries, however, at least in the United States, “taking the census” was exactly how sounds. Every ten years the Bureau of Statistics would employ a legion of clerks, who must be able to write in English, to go door to door in their assigned area and ask every family to answer a bunch of questions, which they would then record in their form books and set off to the next door to do it all over again. A Census taker would have a huge area to cover, or perhaps a small area with a huge population, either way it adds up to the same thing: a huge amount of information to gather and a limited time in which to do it. Consider the census taker in Manhattan, or Boston: massive numbers of families from countless countries, not all of whom speak English fluently, and if they do, they likely have a significant accent for our humble census taker to contend with.

Or how about the poor sod whose job it is to take down the names, ages, country of origin and occupations of every migrant coming off the ship at the Port of Arrival. Your family gets to the head of the queue, they are exhausted, likely terrified, and probably don’t understand the accent they are hearing. They respond the best they can, and the person filling out the manifest (list of passengers) writes down what they hear. They have already faced hundreds of immigrants, and there are hundreds more to come. It’s not a scenario designed for accuracy.

An illustration from Harper’sWeekly, May 29, 1880, depicts immigrants landing at Castle Garden, New York City. From 1855, Castle Garden served as the main immigration depot for the United States until Ellis Island was opened in 1892. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)

So, an Irish passenger is disembarking and gives their name as “Byrne” but with a bit of the brogue it may sound like Burren or Brine. The manifest taker may record that name as Burn, Burren, Birn, Birren Brin, Brine, Bryn…you see how this goes.

It is absolutely imperative that you do all you can to accommodate even the most far-fetched variants of the name you are seeking.

The family changes their name out of fear of persecution or prejudice.

Put yourself in their shoes. If things were bad enough that leaving your ancestral homeland was your only option to save yourself and your family, then fears of taking such major decisions only for it all to come to naught may lead you to relinquish everything, down to your identity, in order to make it work. In the case of the Irish, those that followed the first wave of emigrants during the Famine period had already heard the stories of “No Irish Need Apply”, and so it was quite common for them to choose to change their name, such as going from McClellan to Cullen–related but less obviously Irish surname–or perhaps go for something much more generic, and unrelated, like Smith. With no guarantee of what was ahead, and no ability to go back if it doesn’t work out, these were drastic, but frequent choices our ancestors made.

Local custom changes how names are recorded.

Local custom can be a doozy. My three times Great Grandmother’s maiden name was Trainor. Over the course of 9 years, at the baptisms of each of her children, and within the same Parish of Ardee in County Louth, Ireland, her maiden name, and indeed her given name, was recorded a different way for each child.

  • She was Peggy Trenor on the baptism record for her first child, Patrick, in 1840.
  • She was Peggy Traynor on the baptism record for her second child, Mary, in 1842.
  • She was Peggy Treanor on the baptism record for her third child, Catherine, in 1845.
  • She was Margaret McCreanor on the baptism record for her fourth child, Anne in 1847.
  • She was Margaret Treanor on the baptism record for her fifth child, Margaret, in 1849.

Another branch of my family, situated in County Leitrim, gave me quite the challenge until I began to learn more about Latin forms of common names. I missed finding my ancestor Timothy for years until I came to realise that not only would Catholic priests write register entries in Latin, but they would also frequently record the names themselves in Latin, so Timothy became Thaddeus, or Thady.


Naming Patterns

There is a relatively consistently observed traditional naming pattern that was used through the late 19th century that can be quite helpful to bear in mind when faced with a brick wall. However, it is also good to bear in mind that conventions are made to be broken, and not everyone follows the rules.

The generally accepted convention for naming children goes as follows:

  • First Son is named after the Father’s Father
  • Second Son is named after the Mother’s Father
  • Third Son is named after the Father
  • Fourth Son is named after the Father’s Eldest Brother
  • Fifth Son is named after the Mother’s Eldest Brother
  • First Daughter is named after the Mother’s Mother
  • Second Daughter is named after the Father’s Mother
  • Third Daughter is named after the Mother
  • Fourth Daughter is named after the Mother’s Eldest Sister
  • Fifth Daughter is named after the Father’s Eldest Sister

However, it is also good to bear in mind that conventions are made to be broken, and not everyone follows the rules.

Conventions could be strayed from for many reasons, not the least of which was that it was considered bad luck to have three living people in the same family line with the same first name. So if Patrick Morgan, and his first son Patrick Morgan are both alive and kicking, and then first son Patrick goes and has his first child, a boy, naming him Patrick according to the convention would be bad luck.

Using my Morgans for illustration, my three times great grandparents John Morgan and Margaret Trainor seem to have generally followed the conventions.

  • Patrick was born in 1840, he is their first son, and is named after John’s father.
  • Mary was born in 1842, she is their first daughter, and by convention she should have been named Catherine, after Margaret’s mum, but she was named Mary instead. There could have been too many Catherines in the family at that stage, or it could have been a sentimental change for unknown reasons.
  • Catherine was born in 1845, she is their second daughter, and is named after Margaret’s mum.
  • Anne was born in 1847, she is their third daughter, and is named after Margaret’s eldest sister.
  • Margaret was born in 1849, she is their fourth daughter and is named after Margaret herself.
  • David was born in 1852, he is their second son and is named after Margaret’s dad.

So looking at the Morgan children, their parents generally follow the convention, but with a bit of a hiccup with the second child. Mary could have been named after someone in John’s family, or an unrelated friend of the family, this is not yet clear.

Move to the next generation and their first son Patrick, who was born in 1840, married Elizabeth O’Neil and they go on to have 13 children between 1872 and 1890. Whether it was a break from tradition now that they were creating a family in the New World, a lack of familiarity with the pattern, or simply that the convention was falling out of fashion, we’ll never know, but their 13 children, while their names definitely come from both families, do not appear in a particular pattern.

Every family is different, and does things their own way. Never take a convention as a rule. Ever.

As with anything when researching people, conventions and patterns are great, and can be helpful, but do not be overly seduced. People will, in the end, do what they like. While it is true that Irish families in the late 1700s and early to mid 1800s seem to have followed these conventions in large part, they didn’t always. Where is it helpful? When you find yourself staring at records that give you multiple people from the same family with the same name – for example baptism records showing four Patrick Morgans from the same townland but born in different years.


When it comes to Irish research and names, there’s a lot to consider, but knowledge is key. You may not be at quite the brick wall you think you are when you begin to incorporate spelling changes, name alterations and conventional naming patterns into your search methodology. Think about the context of the records you are looking at, who wrote down the name? How literate was the community at the time? What was the situation in which the record was created?

Good luck, and stay tuned for the next post in this series about “What is in a Name” where I will focus on French and French-Canadian research.

3 Comments on “What’s in a Name? lessons from my own journeys in irish research

  1. Alana, as usual, excellent research!!! Never tire of this, just got results from a DNA Test which shows “98% “northern” Irish. ( my mom’s parents were both Irish Immigrants)2% Northern European. My brother, showed the same 98% Irish, with 2% Iberian Peninsula “ hence the the 1588 connection. Funny how Siblings can differ slightly. The “Northern European “ had peaked my interest in my Paternal Grandmother’s background, Mary Cecilia Connors Morgan AKA Minnie. Thanks again for your work. Your Dad is one of my favorites! Your Cousin once removed ( not sure that’s correct) Don

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    • Hi Don, great to hear from you! I’m currently working up a future post specifically about our DNA, and how we get it and why siblings can see different results. Glad you are enjoying the website. I have been working on fleshing out the Connors branch, and will have more info there soon. Hope everyone on your end is healthy and well during these bizarre times!

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  2. Pingback: What is in a name? Lessons Learned from my french and quebecois research – KinQuery.Com

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