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Historically there are three basic classes of surnames found in Ireland. Firstly, Celtic surnames of the oldest Gaelic inhabitants, the well known Os and Macs; secondly, those of the so-called Anglo-Norman invaders of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; and finally the English and Scottish surnames of the various British settlers who arrived in Ireland during the period 1550-1720. This is the first in a series of articles which will deal with those unique Irish surnames of Anglo-Norman origin, which constitute up to 10 percent of modern Irish surnames.
Who were the Anglo-Normans?
The so-called history that was taught in Irish primary schools until very recent years dismissed the Anglo-Normans as merely the first wave of English murderers and rapists in the long 800 year saga of English colonial misrule in Ireland. Fortunately the present generation of scholars is being taught history of a somewhat superior quality. The Anglo-Normans were, in fact, a multi-ethnic group of French, English, Welsh and even Flemish (Dutch) background! In earlier centuries the modern concept of nation and race being synonymous did not exist, and many kingdoms consisted of peoples of varying nationalities united under one royal dynasty. The Anglo-Normans who invaded Ireland in the 1170s were the subjects of one such kingdom, ruled by the Angevin family. The origins of this kingdom go back to the early 900s AD, when Danish Vikings settled a large slice of northern France, still called Normandy after them. In 1066 their now thoroughly Gallicised (French) descendants invaded England and made their duke, William the Bastard, king of England. These Frenchmen of Danish ancestry conquered England and became its new ruling class. Their attitude to the old English aristocracy they had replaced became frozen in time in the new meaning they gave to the names of important classes in that society: boor (a large wealthy farmer), and churl (nobleman). The French influence on the English language was enormous, as can be seen easily today by any English-speaking student of French. For centuries after this, French remained the language of the English nobility and the first English king to actually learn to speak English in addition to French was Edward III in the 1330s! At the time of the invasion of Ireland King Henry II, a Frenchman from Anjou, ruled England, half of France and much of Wales!
The bulk of the leaders among the invaders of Ireland came from the Welsh colony, which itself consisted of two nationalities: Frenchmen (Normans) and Flemings, the latter being descended from mercenaries employed by the Normans at the time of the invasion of England. Both of these groups had of course intermingled over several generations with the native Celtic Welsh, who thus formed yet another element in the stew-pot. These native Welsh, in addition to a greater number of English, formed the bulk of the underclass of tradesman, small farmers and peasants who settled the countryside and the many new towns of the approximately two-thirds of Ireland conquered by the Anglo-Normans.
The new invasion was very much an economic one, in which the new settlers colonised only the good agricultural land, upon which they practised their manorial system of mostly tillage based agriculture, much of the fruit of which would be exported overseas to other parts of the Angevin empire through the extensive network of new market towns and ports founded by the invaders. The years 1170-1250, which saw the Irish colony established, were ones of economic and technological boom and accelerated population growth throughout western Europe. Most of Munster and much of Leinster were settled by the newcomers, although Connacht and Ulster, being colder and wetter, saw much less settlement. Some of the coastal areas of Leinster were so heavily settled that a dialect of English replaced Gaelic, but over the bulk of the settled area it was only the old Gaelic landowners who were driven out, the bulk of the native population being retained to work as serfs on the new intensive farms. Accordingly, in the countryside the Irish remained in the majority (albeit at the bottom of society), but in the towns the Anglo-Normans formed the bulk of the population. In the settled areas the native Irish usually had the status of serfs (some would however be granted English citizenship) and were a second class population in their own land, but of course about one-third of Ireland was never colonised and here the old native kingdoms and ways continued. Thus began Irelands long and still current tradition of playing host to two nationalities.
Decline and Decay
Throughout western Europe the boom of the thirteenth century was followed by the recession of the fourteenth. Climatic changes brought colder, wetter weather which in turn diminished harvests and led to famine among the large populations. Decades of these were followed by the arrival of the bubonic plague which decimated the populace, especially in urban areas. In Ireland the partly conquered nature of the country meant that in addition to famine and plague the colony was vulnerable to attacks from the Irish of the uncolonised areas, which increased in tempo and destructiveness throughout the century. Appeals for military help to England fell mostly on deaf ears as the English kings were then engaged in trying to conquer all of France in the so-called Hundred Years War and had little resources left for their relatively unimportant Irish colony. Although some parts of Anglo-Norman Ireland, as for example eastern Ulster, were completely overrun by the Gael, about half of Ireland would remain within the colony; here however the enemy was emigration rather than conquest.
Beginning in the 1330s, successive administrations unsuccessfully attempted to ban the growing flood of mostly lower class colonists fleeing the increasing breakdown of the economy and of law and order. Peasants, tenant-farmers and tradesmen in their thousands with their families returned to England, emptying the rural towns and depopulating the manors, forcing the lords and squires to employ native Irish in their place while making their lands yet more vulnerable to Gaelic attack. This haemorrhage continued well into the fifteenth century and something of its extent is suggested in the fact that over half of the Anglo-Norman surnames recorded in Irish court records of the fourteenth century are now extinct in Ireland. Thus Anglo-Norman Ireland disintegrated from the bottom up.
It is axiomatic that the better off in society always survive times of difficulty better than the poor and Anglo-Norman Ireland was no exception. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries many powerful landed families increasingly adopted Irish customs and language in the course of ruling the increasingly Gaelic population of their territory, and many formed great lineages which adopted some of the features of the aristocratic Gaelic clans. This becoming more Irish than the Irish themselves has however been rather exaggerated by past historians and a truer picture shows the Anglo-Norman aristocracy, whilst indeed becoming Gaelic in speech and some customs, retaining important Anglo-Norman cultural elements, especially in relation to the practice of law, descent of land and a clear awareness of Anglo-French nationality that decisively marked them apart from their Gaelic fellows. Indeed even as late as the political turmoil of mid-seventeenth century Ireland the Old English formed a political common cause, Catholic yet fiercely loyal to the Crown, marking them as separate to the Gaelic Irish. Centuries of intermarriage between both groups had, of course, occurred by this time so that the distinction should be understood in a political rather than racial context. Ironically, the actions of both Oliver Cromwell and Charles II combined to sink the descendants of the Anglo-Normans into a union of poverty and discrimination with the Gaelic Irish from whom they finally became indistinguishable.
Anglo-Norman influence on Ireland
It would be wrong to exaggerate the gap between the civilisation of the Anglo-Normans and that of the Gaelic Irish it superseded. Nevertheless the Anglo-Normans with their mainland European heritage were sufficiently advanced in both military and economic technology to give them a distinct edge over the older insular Celtic civilisation of Ireland.
Just as with the English language so also did French have an influence on the Gaelic language, although not to anything like the same degree. Words which seem very Irish, such as for example seomra (a room) and garsún (a boy, often anglicised as gorsoon) derive from and retain the pronunciation of their French originals: chambre and garcon. Similarly many Christian names which appear so Irish today were first borrowed from the Anglo-Normans. In this category come Seán (from Jean), Eamon (from Edmond), Séamus (from James), Pairas/Pierce (from Piers), Siobhán (from Jean) and many others.
The majority of the numerous towns founded by the colonists (previously the Irish with their rural culture had had little use for towns) survive today, and a majority of Irelands main towns and cities were first founded by the Anglo-Normans. Of particular interest to genealogists will be the foundation by the Anglo-Normans of Irelands parish system in the thirteenth century. While the older Celtic church had district chapels these were not parochialised. It was the settlers who extended the existing diocesan system down to parish level. Often the new parish churches simply took over from the older Celtic ones but in addition many new churches were also built to cater for the greater population levels under the colony. It is usually possible to tell one from another by ascertaining the name of the saint to whom the church is dedicated; one with an Irish name will have originated as a Celtic foundation while one with an Anglo-Norman dedication will have been founded by the settlers. The Anglo-Norman period was, of course, before the reformation when everyone was Roman Catholic. With the trauma of the Reformation in Ireland during the period after 1536, the Established Church forcibly seized all parish churches, the majority of which were later allowed to go to ruin as this Church did not have the membership to maintain more than a certain number, thus accounting for the fact that today the majority of Irelands ancient parish churches are merely overgrown ruins in overgrown graveyards in the middle of the countryside, mute testimony to the population boom of the thirteenth century and to the later religious wars which deprived the entire nation, Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter, of our mutual Christian heritage.
The most enduring legacy of the Anglo-Normans was, of course, their blood, which today flows in the veins of all of the people of Ireland and those of Irish descent overseas. As an example we might take the various Taoisigh (prime-ministers) of the Irish Republic in the period since its foundation (1922) to the present. Of the ten holders of this office three (Costello, Fitzgerald and Bruton) bear surnames of Anglo-Norman origin while that of another (Lemass) is probably also of similar origin.
About the Author Dr. Paul MacCotter obtained his MA in history by
independent research at UCC in 1994. After this he continued his studies into
general and specialist genealogy and medieval history. During this time he
continued to study, research and publish in the areas of medieval history,
Anglo-Norman history, church history, genealogy, and Irish surname studies.
MacCotter currently has nearly fifty papers published and four books. He was
awarded his PhD in UCC in 2006. His book, Medieval Ireland: territorial,
political and economic divisions has come to be regarded as a major
reference work and MacCotter as a leading authority on this aspect of medieval
Irish history. He worked as Historical Consultant for the Heritage Council
funded INSTAR project, Making Christian Landscapes, and obtained a prestigious
Government of Ireland fellowship, in 2010. Dr. MacCotter currently continues
his academic research, and is an assistant lecturer in the Schools of History
and Adult Continuing Education, UCC, and runs his own genealogical and
historical consultancy (www.paulmaccotter.com)