Mac, Kil-, Gil-, Mal- prefixes to Celtic Surnames

Tomas O Flannghaile
For the Tongue of the Gael
Start of essay Celtic Surnames

It is strange that though the method of designating men by reference to their father is certainly older in Ireland than the designation by reference to a grandfather or remoter ancestor, yet the O appears rarely, if ever, to have been joined with a non-Celtic name, whereas Mac was freely prefixed to many foreign names. The only doubtful instance of the former sort is O Conaing, which has been anglicised ‘O’Gunning’ and ‘Gunning,’ but has sometimes been corrupted into the better known name ‘O’Connell,’ and is probably the original of some of the northern Irish ‘Cannings’ and ‘Cannons.’

Conaing is now generally considered Norse, and is equated with king: the Norse word is certainly found in such place names in England and Scotland as Conyngham, Coningsby, Conington, Cunningham, &c.—names which are equivalent to ‘King’s home,’ ‘King’s town,’ and the like. If the name in O Conaing be this Norse word, then possibly we may have others, but certainly they will be very few. The name, after all, may yet be proved to be pure Celtic with a different meaning altogether from that of the Norse word with which it is now generally identified.[3]

But as for the Mac, it is found joined to all sorts of foreign names, almost as easily, but, of course, not near so plentifully as to Celtic names—Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Danish, Norman, and Welsh.

To Hebrew names as in MacThomas, MacComas (the Th being lost), MacParlan, MacFarlane (for MacPartholáin, i.e., MacBartholom-aeus.)

Very strange is the junction of the western mac with some decidedly eastern names, as in MacDavid (also MacDavitt, MacDevitt, and MacDaid), MacSimon (anglicised Fitzsimons, Simmons, and Simson).

Even MacIsaac is found in Scotland and in the Isle of Man, in which latter place it is sometimes shortened and corrupted into ‘Kissack’; and, of course, we are all familiar with the Highland MacAdam.

It is found with Greek names in MacAndrew (for MacAindreis), MacNicholas (MacNioclàis), MacNicholl (MacNiocoil), MacGregor (MacGriogora), and others.

With Latin names, as in MacManus (for MacMaghnusa from Magnus), MacConsidine, and Considine without the Mac (from Constantin-us), MacRealey, Magrealey, and Grealey (for MacRiaghla, from Riaghal, i.e., Regulus), and several others.

These Latin, Greek, and Hebrew names—many of them Biblical—might have been borne either by Celts or foreigners; but as most of them go back to the first ages of Christianity in Ireland, they generally denote families of Celtic origin.

Many families of Danish origin show this by their name, as the MacAuliffes (from MacAmhlaoibh, i.e., son of Amlaf or Aulaf), the MacHammonds and MacCammonds (from MacAmaind), the MacOtters and ’Cotters (MacOtair) and others; yet, it must not be forgotten that after a while Amhlaoibh, Amand, Otar, &c, came to be used also by Celtic families, and therefore in some cases the only thing Danish about such people would be their names.

Many Norman families assumed the Mac having given up the style and title of Norman barons and adopted those of Irish chiefs. Hence we have MacWilliam, MacHenry, MacWalter—which in the Isle of Man became shortened to Qualter and QualtersMacFheorais, shortened to ‘Corish’ and ‘Coriss’ from Feoras, a weakened form of Peoras or Piaras, i.e., Piers or Pierce, in modern French Pierre; MacRicard and Crickard, which latter may be compared with the Welsh-Norman Prichard.

The Norman Fitz became Mac in Irish; hence Fitzgerald became MacGearailt, while from Gerauld or Geraud came the Christian name Gearóid, sometimes anglicised ‘Garrett’; Fitzgibbon became MacGiobúin, Fitzmaurice MacMuiris, &c.

Of names originally Welsh, MacHale (for Mac Héil, i.e., MacHoel from Howell or Hywell), and MacArthur are instances, but there are others not so well known.

No purely English names appear to have taken the Mac—any that may seem to be English, being really Danish or Norman.

While the Mac, both in Highland and Irish names, has often become incorporated, the O has generally resisted this.

The name Ogilvie is an exception, but even this was formerly written O’Gilvie, and is sometimes found thus written yet.

It is said also to be the solitary instance of a Highland O, but, perhaps, if we looked closely, we should find others.

In at least one northern Irish name the O has become incorporated into the body of the surname, and changed into an A, viz., ‘O’Gnimh,’ which was once anglicised ‘O’Gneeve,’ but now mostly ‘Agnew.’

In the North the O is pronounced very short and obscure, and this makes the corruption or suppression all the easier.

What the O was—what it really meant—used to exercise many foreigners and even some Irishmen greatly, and even yet, though its meaning in Irish is thoroughly known, men are not agreed as to what its true Aryan analogues are. But it is no abbreviation—no preposition—it is like Mac, a full substantive.

It is only the modern form of a word which was formerly spelt ua (still so spelt in its literal sense) signifying at first a grandson, and then any remote descendant, as O’Briain (O’Brien), descendant of Brian.

In old Irish the word was aue, which would represent a prehistoric Irish *auas or *avas. Now if *auas had lost an initial p—as is the case with many of our Irish words that now begin with a vowel or a liquid—as Ir. athair (father) for *p-athair, iasc (fish) for *p-iasc, lân (full) for *p-lán, etc., we could infer an original *p-auas which might be compared with the Latin puer, poir, and the Greek pais (a boy, a son).

This is just the identification some have made, but others, supposing a reversal of meaning, equate aue (perhaps less reasonably) with the Latin avus, a grandfather.[4]

While the O has generally resisted incorporation the Mac admits of it easily enough—as in such names as Macreary (MacRiaraidhe), Macready (MacRiada), Maclernan (MacGiolla-Earnáin), which may be compared with the more distinctively Scottish names, Macintosh (Mac-an-toisich), Maclean (MacGill’Iain), Macaulay (MacAmhalghaidh), &c.

This incorporation is most general with the northern Macs, and is especially the case when the ancestral name begins with a vowel, and the c of Mac has become flattened to g; as in the names Magee (Mag Aoidh for Mac Aoídh), Maguire (Mag Uidhir for Mac Uidhir=son of Odhar), Magauley=Mac Aulay, Maguinness and Magennis (for Mag Aonghusa), Mageraghty (Mag Oireachtaigh), Magough (Mag Eachach), Magurk, Magirk (Mag Eirc), &c.

This change of mac to mag, analogous to the change of Welsh map to mab, occurred also sometimes before F, which when aspirated disappeared in the pronunciation, and hence dropped out of the English spelling; as in Maginn (i.e., Mag Fhinn), Maglynn (i.e., Mag Fhloinn); occasionally also before l, n, r, as Maglonan, Maglennon, Magnoud or McGnoud (i.e., Mag Nuadhad), Magroarty (Mag Robhartaigh), Magrannell (Mag Raghnaill).

Sometimes before names beginning in Irish with S, this flattening of the c to g occurred, and here again the S sometimes disappeared in the English spelling, as in Magibney, Magivney (for Mag Shuibhne), Magovern, McGovern, Magauran (for Mag Shamhradhain).

As if these were still too Irish, many have discarded the first syllable Ma but retained the g, hence such names as Gee, Gough, Guinness, Glynn, Geoghegan, Gauran, Grannell, &c., &c.

The flattening of Mac into Mag had already begun in Irish, for Mag Uidhir, Mag Aonghusa, Mag Eochagáin have been recognised Irish forms for some four hundred years.

As said above, however, the change is almost peculiar to the northern Irish names—the Mac being preserved pure in other parts of Ireland, and apparently also in Scotland.

All the Giolla-names are Macs, but most of them have rejected the Mac in the anglicised forms. Irish giolla, a servant, Scottish gille, hence ‘gillie,’ assumes the forms Gil- Guil- and Kil- in the English spelling; as Gildea (Mac Giolla-De), Gilchrist (Mac Giolla-Chríost), Gillies, Gilles (Mac Giolla-Iosa), Gilmore (Mac Giolla-Muire).

Names formed from Giolla, followed by a saint’s name, were very popular in mediaeval Ireland, as Giolla-Pádraic, ‘servant of St. Patrick;’ Giolla-Eoin, ‘servant of St. John;’ Giolla-Brighde, ‘servant of Brigit,’ &c. Most of them gave rise to surnames beginning with Mac. Guilfoyle is Giólla-Phoil, ‘servant of (St.) Paul.’

Some of these surnames begin in English with Kil—assuming then the form of place-names (kill, i.e. cill=cella, a church), but they are not place-names, the Kil- being but a hardening of Gil-(giolla), arising from the c of Mac which has been rejected. ‘Kilbride,’ therefore, is for Mac Giolla-Brighde, ‘Kilpatrick’ for Mac Giolla Padraic, Kilmartin=Gilmartin, Kilkelly=Gilkelly=Mac Giolla-Ceallaigh, &c., &c.

Sometimes the Gil- or Kil- is rejected, and the Mac retained, as in Mac Bride for Mac Giolla-Brighde.

In a few of these names the giolla is not joined to a saint’s name, and then it has the older meaning of boy, youth, as Gilrea (Giolla-riabhach), Gilroy (Giolla-ruadh), and some others.

Maol was another word much used in name-making. But there are probably three different words so spelt in Irish: (1) Maol, a lord or chief, which is the rarest of the three meanings; (2) Maol, bald, shaven, tonsured; and (3) Maol, a servant.

The last two are generally considered the same, but this is doubtful. They are anglicised variously, mal- mel- mol- and mul; as Malcolm (Maol-Coluim, disciple or servant of St. Columkill); Malone=Maol-Eoin, servant of St. John; Meldon=Maol-dúin=lord of the Dun or fort—also Muldoon; Molloy (=Maol-muaidh=lord-of-honour). They are however mostly found under the form Mul, as in Mulready, (Maol-Riada), Mulrenin, Mulrenan (Maol-Bhréanainn, disciple of St. Brendan), Mullooley (=i>Maol-umhla), ‘servant of humility.’ All of these are O-names, at least in Ireland, and, strange enough, few of this class appear to survive in Scotland, among the best known being Malcolm (Maol Caluim) and Mellis or Mellish (Maol-Iosa.)


[3] Since writing the above, however, I have come to the conclusion that not only O Conaing (whence ‘O Conning,’ ‘Gunning’ and occasionally Canning) but O Bruadair (whence ‘O Broder’ and ‘Broderick’ i.e., Bruadarach) and O Cionga (anglicised ‘King’) are non-Celtic names—probably Norse—which have assumed the O. There may be others.

[4] It is clear, however, that as the O is no abbreviation but a full and complete word, there is no sense in the apostrophe which is so generally used in the English spelling of Irish names, and sometimes also in the Irish forms. The apostrophe is from English analogy and is very modern. Neither is there any reason for writing the O as a capital letter, unless at the beginning of a sentence.