The Dublin Review of Books has an essay on a phenomenon I had wondered about; it begins:
“A feature of the degradation of the Gael,” wrote Edward MacLysaght in Irish Families (1957), “and the inferiority complex it produced was the wholesale discarding [from the eighteenth century onwards] of the distinctive prefixes O and Mac. Nor was this confined to the downtrodden peasantry. The few Catholic gentry who managed to maintain to some extent their social position, while keeping their Os and Macs within the ambit of their own entourage (usually in the remoter parts of the country), were so deeply conscious of belonging to a conquered nation that they frequently omitted the prefixes when dealing with Protestants, not only in legal matters but also in ordinary social intercourse. Thus we find Daniel O’Connell’s uncle, that picturesque figure universally known as ‘Hunting Cap’, signing himself Maurice Connell as late as 1803 when approaching the Knight of Kerry to enlist his influence in a court case …
“At the beginning of the present century [however] under the growing influence of the Gaelic League a general reversal of the process began to be perceptible. Yet even today there are scores of Gaelic names with which the prefix is seldom, if ever, seen, e.g. Boland, Brophy, Connolly, Corrigan, Crowe, Garvey, Hennessy, Kirby, Larkin, to mention a few of the commonest. The extent of this resumption can best be illustrated by the mere fact that while in 1890, according to Matheson’s calculations, there were twice as many Connells as O’Connells, today, (judging by such texts as directories) we have nine O’Connells for every Connell. I do not know the present proportion of O’Kellys to Kellys, but I am sure it is very much higher than it was in 1890 when the official estimate for all Ireland was 55,900 Kellys and only a mere 400 O’Kellys.”
It goes on to discuss Charles Macklin’s play The True Born Irishman, first performed in Dublin in 1761 and six years later in London as The Irish Fine Lady; the plot concerns a wealthy Dublin family, the O’Doghertys, Murrough and his wife Nancy, who is ashamed of her name:
O’DOGH: Dogherty! … upon my honour she startles when she hears the name of Dogherty, and blushes, and is as much ashamed as if a man had spoke bawdy to her.—No, no, my dear, she is no longer the plain, modest, good-natured, domestic, obedient Irish Mrs. O’Dogherty, but the travelled, rampant, high-li
s[f]’d, prancing English Mrs. Diggerty. […]
O’DOGH: … O’Dogherty for ever – O’Dogherty! – there’s a sound for you – why they have not such a name in England as O’Dogherty – nor as any of our fine sounding Milesian names – what are your Jones and your Stones, your Rice and your Price, your Heads and your Foots, and Hands and your Wills, and Hills and Mills, and Sands, and a parcel of little pimping names that a man would not pick out of the street, compared to the O’Donovans, O’Callaghans, O’Sullivans, O’Brallaghans, O’Shagnesses, O’Flahertys, O’Gallaghers, and O’Doghertys, – Ogh, they have courage in the very sound of them, for they come out of the mouth like a storm; and are as old and as stout as the oak at the bottom of the bog of Allen, which was there before the flood …
The piece concludes with a meditation on the author’s own history with the name:
In the early 1930s my father, Liam (aka Bill, aka Willie James), and his first cousin Martin, son of John, went to Dublin to attend University College Dublin. My father stayed in the city until the late 1940s, and Martin for life. In the capital, perhaps at university, the two young men fell under the influence of Gaelic revivalist and national-cultural thinking and before too long William Doherty and Martin Doherty had become Liam O’Doherty and Martin O’Doherty, a version of the surname which was passed down to the next generation in each case.
There is, oddly, no byline that I can find, but I must presume the author’s name is O’Doherty.
Frequent commenter Breffni, who sent me the link, added:
It suggests that the dropping of Os and Macs in many anglicised Irish names has its roots in cultural insecurity, something that had never occurred to me. I’m not even sure it’s accurate: the Ó and Mac elements could well have been felt by the anglicisers (whether the bearers of the names or others) to be non-essential, particularly since they’re mutable and to that extent more like grammatical markers (Ó Ruairc, Ní Ruairc, Uí Ruairc, Mac Gearailt, Nic Gearailt, etc).