The Great Irish Famine of the 1840’s, which saw over two million people leave home soil in search of a better life, rendered emigration an everyday occurrence in Irish family life. Times have changed, but emigration, whether for economic reasons or simply a quest for adventure, remains something of a rite of passage for Ireland’s youth. It is little wonder then that the Irish diaspora spreads far and wide, with over eighty million people worldwide claiming to be of Irish descent. Of this eighty million, over thirty million Americans can trace their roots back to the green, green grass of home. Of course, there’s never been a better time to trace those Irish roots: Ireland is something of a world leader in genealogy, with multiple online resources, such as extensive census records and the Civil Registration Index of births, marriages and deaths available to help you trace your roots and grow your family tree.
Get in Touch with Your Irish Roots with a Tailor-Made Ireland Vacation
Tracing your origins online is all well and good, but nothing beats the truly authentic experience of setting foot on home soil. As a country that embraces its history and preserves its natural beauty above all else, making the trip to Ireland feels like following in your ancestors footsteps and taking a step back in time.
If you’ve decided to trace your Irish genealogy, then you’re in good company. The tradition of tracing Irish genealogy is believed to date back to the ancient Irish kings who, upon inauguration, would have their ancestry recited in order to establish a hereditary right to rule. Nowadays, you’re more likely to get your genealogy fix on television, via TV programmes such as ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ than in a king’s court, but the fact remains, that from ancient times to modern, genealogy is a point of interest for one and all.
What’s in a name?
From Byrne to O’ Brien, Ireland has a plethora of traditional surnames, each with a distinctive history, not to mention some very interesting meanings. Here are some of the more popular traditional Irish surnames, to help you on your search.
Derived from the Gaelic ‘O’ Broin’, those of you who bear the name Byrne will be pleased to know that you are descended from royalty, namely Bran, the king of Leinster, who died in 1052. The O’ Broin’s, who held the majority of their land in Co. Kildare, were known for their resistance to Ireland’s many foreign aggressors, so much so that they had plentiful enemies, and were eventually driven from Co. Kildare during the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland, in the late 12th Century. The O’ Broin’s eventually settled in Co. Wicklow, where the name Byrne, meaning raven, remains prevalent today.
Places of interest in Co. Wicklow: Visit the Wicklow Mountains and take a walk around picturesque Powerscourt Gardens and House.
With roots in Co. Sligo, the name Higgins, from the Irish ‘O’ hUigin’, has a number of different meanings including skill, knowledge and, most interestingly, Viking. Like a lot of traditional Irish surnames, the name Higgins has its roots in royalty. The first records of this particular name show that it was held by a grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages, High King of Tara. Now, he may not be a high king, well, not exactly, but if you bear the name Higgins, then you may just share a lineage with the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins.
Places of interest in Co. Sligo: Visit the unmissable Benbulben and pay a visit to Yeats’s Grave.
One of the most popular surnames in Ireland, if you bear the name Kelly, then you share a name with the Hollywood actress Grace Kelly, whose roots can be traced to Co. Mayo. The O’Kelly’s or O’Ceallaigh’s, held most of their original territory in and around Galway and Roscommon, where they ruled as one of the most powerful clans in Connacht for many centuries. Today, traces of the ancient O’ Ceallaigh’s can be found in the ruins of Kilconnell Abbey in Co. Galway, which dates back to 1353.
Places of interest in Co. Galway: Explore the walking trails at Connemara National Park and sample the night life on Quay Street.
Of all who bear the Kennedy family name, there is none more famous than 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, who famously traced his roots back to Co. Wexford. Though you may be in good company if you bear the Kennedy surname, the meaning of the name itself is rather unfortunate, with the Irish form of the name ‘O’ Cinnéide’ meaning ‘ugly-headed’ or ‘helmet-headed.’ Oh dear.
Places of interest in Co. Wexford: Visit the Dunbrody Famine Ship Experience and pay a visit to the Kennedy Homestead and John F. Kennedy Museum in Dunganstown, New Ross.
The most common of all Irish surnames, the name Murphy can be found in every corner of Ireland, though it is particularly prevalent in Co. Cork. The name Murphy, derives from the name Murchadh, meaning ‘Sea-Warrior.’ While Murphy may be the most popular of all the traditional Irish surnames, it is also a popular name in the United States where, according to census records, over 300,000 people bear the name.
Places of interest in Co. Cork: Pick up some local delicacies at the English Market before stopping off for a picnic at Fitzgerald’s Park (Weather permitting!)
Many traditional Irish surnames are prefixed by the letter ‘O’ meaning ‘descendant of.’ Thus O’ Brien or O’Briain, means descendant of Brian. In this case that Brian is Brian Boru, High King of Ireland. The O’ Brien name, meaning high, noble or exalted one, is popular in many areas of Munster, most notably Clare and Limerick.
Places of interest in Co. Clare: Visit the Cliffs of Moher and The Burren, for a slice of unmissable Ireland.
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