Discarding O and Mac.

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-lis[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).


  1. What is high-lis’d?

  2. In addition to the processes that piece mentions, there are also differences between Ireland and the US: for example Sullivans are a lot more common than O’Sullivans here in the US, but I get the impression that O’Sullivans are more common over there. I don’t know if this is attributable to prefix-dropping in the US or to prefix-resumption in Ireland.

    Also, for Doherty and Flaherty, I use metathesized pronunciations: [ˈdɒɹəɾi], [ˈflæɹəɾi].

  3. differences between Ireland and the US

    Well, yes, the pressure to drop never got a serious countervailing pressure. Of course, some of us have had our prefixes ablated rather than dropped.

    Eoghan Mac Eoghain

  4. David Marjanović says

    “And if he lack
    both O and Mac,
    no Irishman
    is he.”

  5. Keith: high-lis’d – I wondered that too. No idea.

    Lazar: many speakers put an epenthetic vowel in Moriarty (between the second /r/ and the /t/), and I guess that’s lexicalised in US (and UK?) English. And medial /h/ before an unstressed syllable seems to be problematic for many US and UK speakers: I’ve got an English colleague who’s lived in Ireland for 50 years and still pronounces Mahon /mɑ:n/ rather than /’mæ.hən/. If the moriar-i-ty effect generalises to similar (-erty) names, then that plus the unstressed /h/ problem would add up to your kind of metathesis.

  6. There seems to be a live controversy over whether the 17th-18th Irish harper was Carolan or O’Carolan:

    “Carolan referred to himself as Cearbhallán, not Ó Cearbhallán. In his elegy for Carolan MacCabe uses the same, as do several other close friends in writing of Carolan. Writing in English they refer to him as Carolan – not O’Carolan…

    When using the full name I will use Turlough O’Carolan and when using the last name alone I will use Carolan.”


  7. “By Tre [settlement], Pol [pool, pond], and Pen [hill],
    Thus shall ye know the Cornishmen.”


    /məˈhoʊn(i)/ in America.

  8. So how do you pronounce “Macmahon”? The English language Wikipedia page on McMahon doesn’t actually give a pronunciation.

    The Russian Wikipedia page on Макмэн has this: МФА (амер.) [məkˈmæn] или МФА (австрал.) [məkˈmɑːən]

    People bearing the name have the following pronunciations in Russian:

    Макмэ́н (Макма́он, Макмэ́хон, Макма́хон, Макма́гон, Мак-Ма́гон), as well as Мак-Магона.

  9. True for this American for Mahony, John Cowan, but for Mahon I’d assume something like /’mæən/ as in Ed McMahon.

  10. For me, McMahon is /məkˈmæn/; I guess I’d say Mahon as /mæn/, although that does seem a bit underwrought. Also, am I weird for having /g/ rather than /k/ in McLoughlin?

    One other variable name that comes to mind is Kavanagh (variously spelled): on hearing someone say /ˈkævəˌnɔː/, my grandmother said that in Britain (and presumably also Ireland?) it would be /kəˈvænə/.

  11. Irish is predominantly initially stressed, even more so than English. In this case, the second syllable of the name is long, which anglophones often hear as stress.

  12. Michael Eochaidh says

    I think my father’s second wife pronounced “McLaughlin” with an /f/ instead of a /g/. The thought of tracking her down to ask terrifies me.

  13. Oh, I definitely say it with /f/ at the end of the second syllable. But I meant that I use /g/ rather than /k/ at the start of the second syllable.

  14. Back in Craig McLachlan‘s heyday, everyone I knew pronounced his surname with a voiced sound there (I have no idea how he might pronounce it himself), so you’re not alone, Lazar.

  15. George Gibbard says

    Not all Irish dialects have reliable initial stress: Wikipedia says, “In Munster, stress is attracted to a long vowel or diphthong in the second or third syllable of a word, e.g. cailín /kaˈlʲiːnʲ/ (‘girl’), achainí /axəˈnʲiː/ (‘request’). In the now-extinct accent of East Mayo, stress was attracted to a long vowel or diphthong in the same way as in Munster; in addition, stress was attracted to a short vowel before word-final ll, m, or nn when that word was also final in its utterance.”

    I’m partly descended from Canadian McLaughlins [məgˈlɑklən]. They were protestant (probably eventually methodist?) and think I was told they were Scotch-Irish. Wikipedia, again, says “In Gaelic, the word Lochlainn means ‘of the lakes’ and refers to the Scandinavians (Vikings) from the West of Norway.” But the article “Lochlann” (indeed “viking, Norwegian”) says “earlier Laithlind”, so any connection to lakes may be folk etymology.

  16. for Mahon I’d assume something like /’mæən/ as in Ed McMahon.

    The McMahons I personally know (east of the Atlantic Ocean) pronounce their name /məkˈmɑːn/ (to rhyme with non-rhotic barn).

  17. McMahon: [mækˈmæ.hən]. So Макма́хон is closest to the Irish (well, my Irish) pronunciation. Are your McMahons UK or Ireland, Piotr?

    Kavanagh: [ˈkæ.və.næ] (there might be some neutralisation of the final vowel, but it isn’t reduced to schwa in my pronunciation, at least not in citation form). This might well be different in British speech. I don’t know how it’s pronounced in the series Kavanagh QC.

    McLaughlin / McLoughlin: I also have [g] in the Mac, like Lazar and as transcribed by George Gibbard, though I’d move the [g] into the second syllable, [mə’glɑklən]. I presume the version with /f/ is originally a spelling pronunciation.

    Bloix, that gives me a slender excuse to link to one of my favourite melodies, (O’)Carolan’s Sí Bheag, Sí Mhór, in a version by Planxty.

    George Gibbard: I’m originally from Waterford, but I first learned about the Munster final-stress pattern here last year.

    Incidentally, the author of the essay is Enda O’Doherty; he’s one of the editors of the DRB.

  18. Some Irish speakers will drop the Ó from someone’s name when speaking English. They’ll say “Paddy Flynn will be here tonight” even when the person’s official surname is O’Flynn. This may be related to what Bloix said about O’Carolan.

    I’ve never heard it done with Mac though.

    John Cowan: “Pen” means head, like penguin=pen gwynn, “white head”. (This derivation is debatable.) The Irish equivalent would be ceann fionn. But it also means a headland, giving placenames like Kinsale and Kinvara, and in Cornwall the many “Pen-” names.

  19. I have cousins who go by Sweeny or MacSweeny interchangeably. I mean the same person uses either.

    A short list of Irish names pronounced differently outside Ireland. The ending -ane and intervocalic -(g)h- and are the main points of difference that spring to my mind. The former generally has the PALM vowel, so Pat Spillane is not like Michey Spillane. The latter is unpredictable: “Youghal” is one syllable but “Drogheda” is three. As a child I was disappointed when I thought we were going to Mars, but we only went to Maher’s.

    In Ireland the name Patrick has the PALM vowel, not the TRAP vowel. The first syllable of “Donegal” seems to have the LOT vowel in Donegal and the UK, and the STRUT vowel in the rest of Ireland.

    And moving away from anglicised spellings: learn to say “Saoirse”.

  20. Are your McMahons UK or Ireland, Piotr?


  21. Also, for Doherty and Flaherty, I use metathesized pronunciations: [ˈdɒɹəɾi], [ˈflæɹəɾi].

    My colleague two doors away is named Flarity.

  22. we only went to Maher’s

    Presumably not the one on the not-very-Irishly-named Lake Oswego.

  23. McMahon’s Mill, on the Potomac near Sharpsburg, is pronounced “McMann’s”, or very close to it.

  24. Some Irish speakers will drop the Ó from someone’s name when speaking English.

    We recently had a teacher of Irish in our Celtic department who used Ó Buachalla and Buckley (sans O’) as alternative versions of his surname.

  25. Interestingly, from Saoirse herself: “’Searsha’ is how Irish people pronounce it, but I would pronounce it ‘Sersha’, like ‘inertia’.”

  26. 32 kghits for O’Buckley, 49,000 kghits for Buckley speaks for itself, except that the latter may reflect a hill (used to graze goats?) in Lancashire, the “buck-lea”.

  27. Digression: I once received an impromptu half-hour lecture from Brían F. O’Byrne on why I lack his O’. Short version: my ancestors are from Wicklow, his from Donegal. Apparently in some long ago, unspecified century the O’Byrnes split, one faction escorting a beleaguered king to the NW as bodyguards, the other staying behind in what’s now referred to as Wicklow. Donegal’s always been a bit difficult for the English to exert their authority over (and much of it is now in the Gaeltacht), so the O’ stayed. Whereas my section of the family was very close to Dublin Castle, so we shed our O’ as a survival mechanism.

  28. David Eddyshaw says

    I feel that I owe it to my people to bridle at the fictional Dogherty for characterising Jones, Rice and Price as English names. That’s not the way to Pan-Celtic solidarity, Dogherty!

  29. I grant you Rice and Price, but Jones is an English calque on Welsh, surely.

  30. David Eddyshaw says


    Surely; but nonetheless a characteristically Welsh name. My relatives in Merthyr are no less Welsh-speaking for not being Bevanseses.

  31. Apparently Rice and Price are believed to have the vowel they do today for the same reason so many Irish discarded O and Mac.

  32. David Eddyshaw says

    Great Vowel Shift as status symbol!

  33. J. W. Brewer says

    What’s the parallel history for Scottish surnames, some of which are more heavily Anglicized than others? My L1-Gaelic-speaking ancestors in 19th century Nova Scotia were surnamed Finlayson (not, e.g., MacFhionnlaigh) in all of the records of which I am aware, but for all I know they were referred to more Gaelicly when being discussed in intra-community conversations conducted in Gaelic.

  34. One unusual thing I noticed in Scottish Gaelic media is that, wherever possible, all names are given in Gaelic, regardless of what form the person uses in their daily life. In Ireland that’s only done in Irish classes and immersion environments.

  35. Well, regardless of what official name the person goes by. As J.W. Brewer says, they might be using the Gaelic name in the Gaelic community.

  36. “In Ireland the name Patrick has the PALM vowel, not the TRAP vowel.”

    My father was from County Wicklow, and he pronounced “palm” with an extended soft “a” and an enunciated “l”, so the above statement left me in some initial confusion.

  37. A few Welsh celebrities have changed their surnames to the Welsh form. Not sure how common that is among the general population. Rhys Ifans, on the other hand, adopted a strange hybrid version, and says his motivation was just to be difficult.

  38. an enunciated “l”

    Yes, PALM is probably the worst of the standard Wells keywords for lexical sets, but there is no really good alternative. FATHER almost works, but there are a few dialects that have the FACE vowel in father.

    nonetheless a characteristically Welsh name

    Hmm. When you hear of someone named Jones in the UK, do you tend to expect that they are Welsh? In the U.S., Jones is paired with Smith (which is of multilingual origin due to translations) as a completely featureless name: the Joneses is a generic term for the people who live next door.

  39. David Eddyshaw says

    “When you hear of someone named Jones in the UK, do you tend to expect that they are Welsh?”

    Or, to be more accurate, of Welsh origin. Not all Patrick O’Neills are Irish, either.

    Could just be me …
    Don’t think so though. There are jokes depending on it.

  40. David Eddyshaw says


    Admittedly, one needs an English control group to prove the point.

    A pan-UK one wouldn’t be helpful, because the fact that Welsh surnames are comparatively few means that Welsh surnames would be pushed up the overall league table.

  41. @Hector: That’s the first account I’ve heard of -alm words taking an /l/ in Britain or Ireland in modern times; a fair number of Americans have it, but I’ve always seen it chalked up to spelling pronunciation rather than conservation.

    On Price: my family in Wales changed the spelling to Pryce, I’m told as a status symbol. I don’t know how it is in Britain, but according to one surname frequency site, Price is over 100 times more common than Pryce in the United States.

    To John’s point: yes, the Welsh patronymics in -s (Jones and Williams being chief among them) are seen as generic WASP names in the US, and I imagine most Americans would identify them as English. There’s very little sense of a distinct Welsh heritage in the United States – to even know what Wales is is arguably a shibboleth for being somewhat informed about Great Britain.

    And on the topic of Smith: another such cross-cultural name is Miller. Though it does exist in Britain, it’s much more common in the US, largely on the strength of Müller being the most common name in Germany.

  42. Very interesting, I’d never thought of that!

  43. The McMahons I personally know (east of the Atlantic Ocean) pronounce their name /məkˈmɑːn/ (to rhyme with non-rhotic barn).

    The same in Australia. Which makes the Russian Wikipedia representation of Australian pronunciation as /məkˈmɑːən/ incorrect.

  44. I think my father’s second wife pronounced “McLaughlin” with an /f/ instead of a /g/. The thought of tracking her down to ask terrifies me.

    Here in Donegal I mostly hear [məˈglɔxlın], which a Sudanese consultant (= Oberarzt, attending physician) had trouble accepting, despite خه in Arabic. I think it was because when he asked for clarification all the indigenous responses differed, as is the way of these things.

  45. There are a fair number of hits for “keeping up with the Joneses” on .uk web sites, but WP says it is of American origin: it means “living beyond one’s means in order to impress the neighbors (who are presumably doing the same)”. John Brunner, the English sf author, also used “Jones” as a generic name in Stand on Zanzibar (1968), though it’s not clear to me whether he meant it to be an Americanism.

  46. David Eddyshaw says

    “There’s very little sense of a distinct Welsh heritage in the United States – to even know what Wales is is arguably a shibboleth for being somewhat informed about Great Britain.”

    The Japanese translation of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” informs me on the flyleaf that the author was born in the Wales Prefecture of England (which is evidently rather more extensive than the Wales I am familiar with. I don’t have a problem with that.)

  47. Re use of Gaelic forms in Scotland; it certainly seems to extend to people who are not known as members of the Gaelic-speaking community, such as a certain Dàibhidh Camshron, e.g. http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/gaelic-boinne-ann-am-beul-na-gaoithe-1-2488020

  48. @ Lazar: My father was born in a town in County Wicklow around the turn of the century. His father owned a livery stable. By the time I was born, he’d lived in Canada over twenty years, and had lost most of his accent, although like my mother he had a few idiosyncratic (to my ears) left-overs. (My mother pronounced “potato” as if it was spelt “ptaytuh.”) My father’s younger brother, on the other hand, retained a strong Irish brogue. He was a handsome man, and I always suspected he’d kept it because it went down well with the ladies.

    Speaking of whom, has no one noticed that Mrs. O’Dogherty seemed to be having a lot more fun as an Englishwoman? “She is no longer the plain, modest, good-natured, domestic, obedient Irish Mrs. O’Dogherty, but the travelled, rampant, high-lis’d, prancing English Mrs. Diggerty.” Free at last, Mrs. O’Dogherty, free at last!

  49. David Eddyshaw says

    Thug Barack Obama …

    I think they could have tried harder for the President. Bàrac Ua Bàma?

  50. David Eddyshaw says

    (As is well known, all Presidents of the United States are of Irish origin.)

  51. John Cowan says:
    December 10, 2015 at 3:58 pm […] Eoghan Mac Eoghain

    There’s still time for you to move to .ie and start using the leagan Gaeilge, as is perfectly usual and requires no legal tedium at all! No more Hassids convinced you’re betraying your heritage, all you’ll have to deal with will be a Dublin full of Googlers (if you move there) and the pleasant satisfaction of using your name as it clearly was intended to be used 🙂 .

  52. As is well known, all Presidents of the United States are of Irish origin.

    Except Martin van Buren (1837-41), who was 100% double Dutch.

    There’s still time for you to move to .ie

    I am in fact an Irish citizen, as my grandfather was a British subject born in Ireland. My brother lives part of the year in each country and has two passports. And it’s not the Hasids in general, it’s just one (evidently secular) Jew. All things considered, I’ll stay in NYC.

  53. A few years ago my mother registered herself as a British citizen because her mother was British – she would have done so earlier, but for a long time the law allowed this only if the father was British. Either way, though, she can’t pass it on to me.

  54. Breffni, you’re right, Sí Bheag, Sí Mhór is an extraordinarily lovely tune.

    But I’m afraid I buried the lede in my comment. There is at least one school of thought that claims that the traditional usage was that – in both English and Irish – O’ or Ó was used only when both first and last names were used, and that it was omitted when only the last name was used. That is, O’ or Ó was not part of the family name at all – it was a preposition linking the given name and the family name, and the full two-part name was conceived as a phrase, not a unified noun.

    If this is so, it was perfectly reasonable to leave the O’ off when the convention of treating first name-last name as a unified noun was adopted, and it was just as reasonable to include it.

  55. Yes, I would have had to register my daughter as an Irish citizen before she was 18, so it’s too late now.

  56. “high-lis’d” – misreading of f as long s, it appears. She was high-lifed.

    Not sure about pan-Celtic solidarity: the Irish never got any from Charles Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary to the Treasury in London and in charge of the administration of Government relief to the victims of the Irish Famine, notorious for saying that the Famine was “‘The judgement of God sent … to teach the Irish a lesson”

  57. mollymooly: I think there are some unconventional transcription choices in that Wikipedia page. Among other things it seems to sporadically use ɑ for æ or a. Otherwise I can’t make sense of məˈgrɑ: for McGrath; I’ve only ever heard məˈgræ: / məˈgra. And ˈmæhʌnɨ is fine, but ˈmɑːənɨ or ˈmɑːnɨ? And ˈmɑːræ for Meara? Maybe I just don’t get out enough.

    For me the PALM vowel is distinguished from the TRAP vowel only by length, [a] for TRAP vs [a:] for PALM. But I use the the short one for Patrick.

    Bloix, thanks for the clarification; I hadn’t heard of that convention, but maybe that’s where mollymooly’s Mac/Sweeney cousins’ usage has its ultimate roots. That ambiguity of O seems to explain the randomness in dropping/retention, though I don’t know why Mac should be retained more consistently. And why is O’Murphy (for example) vanishingly rare?

    Are you a Carolan aficionado? My father is from the village where he’s buried, Ballyfarnon.

  58. high-lis’d -> high-lif’d – ah! Great catch.

  59. Otherwise I can’t make sense of məˈgrɑ: for McGrath

    That’s how I say it.

  60. Sure, but the Wikipedia list has məˈgrɑː in the Irish pronunciation column (and məˈgræθ in the American one).

  61. Ah, gotcha.

  62. “I think there are some unconventional transcription choices in that Wikipedia page” English Wikipedia in general uses a cross-dialect English IPA transcription; although since that page is a user page and not a legitimate article all bets are off.

    “FATHER almost works, but there are a few dialects that have the FACE vowel in father.” and THOUGHT (or CLOTH?) in Ireland

  63. @Breffni: I’ve seen some people blithely claim that English has no vowel length distinctions, but I’d reckon that at this point most non-North American speakers have them.

  64. David Marjanović says

    that page is a user page and not a legitimate article

    It’s not a user page in the sense of belonging to one particular user’s page; but it’s not a legitimate article either. At least the discussion on the talk page is lively…

  65. “It’s not a user page in the sense of belonging to one particular user’s page”

    — apologies: by “that page” I meant not the “cross-dialect English IPA transcription” page I linked in that post but the “short list of Irish names pronounced differently outside Ireland” page I had linked to in my earlier comment.

  66. Breffni, I’m a fan – i don’t know enough to be an aficionado. I have never been to that part of Ireland – perhaps someday I will go, but many of the sights to see there seem to be unbearably sad, like this one: http://www.strokestownpark.ie/famine-museum


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