Introductory Remarks.

Robert E. Matheson
Chapter I

The investigation into the personal names of the people of any country is a subject surrounded with very great interest. By means of family nomenclature much light can be thrown on the early employments and customs of a people, as well as the sources from which they have sprung. In fact, the history of our country lies enshrined in its Surnames; and on our shop fronts and in our graveyards may be found side by side the names of the descendants of the Milesian Prince, of the Scandinavian Viking, and of the Norman Knight.

So far back as 1851 the Census Commissioners for that year attempted to arrange the Surnames of the country in such a way as to show their distribution. The effort, however, proved unsuccessful, owing to the difficulties met with, and when the names were partially extracted the task was abandoned.

At the termination of the Census of 1881, the late Dr. Lyons, then M.P. for Dublin, pressed the Government to institute an inquiry into names, such as had been attempted in 1851, and his proposal was very favourably entertained, but as the work of the Census Department was then about to close, the Commissioners were unable to comply with his request.

It may be observed that as a preliminary to any successful effort to tabulate the Surnames in the country, some codification of the variations in form and spelling was necessary. With this and other objects in view, from the materials collected during many years in the General Register Office, as well as special reports obtained from local officers in the Registration Service, I prepared in 1890 a treatise entitled “Varieties and Synonymes of Surnames and Christian Names in Ireland,” which was issued by the Registrar-General for use in connection with searches in his Office, and in those of the Superintendent Registrars and Registrars throughout the country.

That book set forth the principal orthographical changes in Surnames, exhibiting the varieties in spelling; the use of prefixes and affixes; spelling according to usual pronunciation; older forms of names showing the alterations they have undergone in course of time; local variations in spelling and form, exhibiting the tendency of names to assume different forms in different localities; variations in spelling at pleasure; and changes owing to illiteracy and other causes.

It further contained examples of the use of entirely different names interchangeably by the same person, a practice which prevails in some parts of Ireland, many being cases of translation of Irish names into English, or vice versa, or equivalents, modifications, or corruptions of them. A table was also given showing cases of English names and their Irish equivalents met with in the Registration Records. The work also contained an Alphabetical List of Surnames, with their Varieties and Synonymes, and a Table showing the respective Poor Law Unions and Districts in which many of the peculiarities had been found.

The reception which that book met with at the hands of the Press and the Public was very gratifying, and I determined to attempt, in connection with the Census of 1891, the interesting work of extracting and classifying the Surnames of the population generally on the lines unsuccessfully followed in 1851. An unexpected occurrence, however, prevented this. The Census Records which previously afforded complete data for the purpose were, in 1891, rendered imperfect in this respect, owing to the insertion of a clause in the Act of Parliament, directing that in the case of Inmates of Public Institutions, initials only should be given in the Enumeration Forms.

The Surnames of a considerable number of persons were thus omitted from these Records, and the question arose whether with these imperfect data, the work should be abandoned, or whether the general results could not be obtained with sufficient accuracy from other sources.

The indexes of the General Register Office afford a reliable basis on which to found general conclusions regarding Surnames, and though in the Index for any one year all the Surnames in the country will not be found, yet if a name be of frequent occurrence it is certain to be represented in the Index, the number of entries opposite the name indicating its relative frequency with respect to other Surnames.

The indexes further afford facilities for distributing the Surnames over the country, as in the case of each entry the Poor Law Union is given.

In view of these facts, I decided to take these Indexes as the basis of my inquiries, and I was confirmed in my determination by the opinion of that eminent scholar, the late Right Rev. Dr. Reeves, Lord Bishop of Down, Connor, and Dromore, and President of the Royal Irish Academy, who encouraged me to undertake the task, and promised me his cordial assistance. His lamented death, however, unhappily deprived me of the benefit of his valuable aid and advice.

I may mention that both in England and Scotland the subject of personal nomenclature has received attention, and statistics relating thereto, derived from the Indexes of Births, Deaths, and Marriages, have been published by the respective Registrars-General, to which I shall further refer.

I have divided the consideration of the subject as follows:—

1st. The principal Surnames in Ireland compared with those in other portions of the United Kingdom.

2nd. The Derivation of Surnames in Ireland.

3rd. Surnames in Ireland Ethnologically considered.

4th. The Local Distribution of Surnames in Ireland.