County Kerry
O & Mac NamesNaming Traditions

Spelling and Date Variations


You are not alone. The above circumstances are all too common when it comes to Irish research, and there are reasons why.

I wrote the following to a researcher recently, if you have questions about Surname, Townland and Date variations I think this might address your questions as well.:

Take a look at the following example of surname spelling variations in my Heffron family, take note, how the same man was listed in different records like this:

Griffith's Valuation: Rupert Heffernan

child's birth record: Robert Hefferon

child's birth record: Hubert Heveran

US Census: Robert Hefron

Robert/Rupert /Hubert never changed his name, he couldn't read or write! Its the information takers that experimented phonetically with what they heard that gives us these different spellings. The variation had more to do with the information taker and whether they spoke Irish and or English as my GG grandfather Heffron spoke Irish, and not English.

Here is and example of another type of problem with the original gaelic surnames and how they were recorded. In the Griffith's Valuation which was a (1852 era) mandated survey by the British Government; all my O'Connor relatives were listed as Connor. Believe me, no one in our family ever referred to themselves that way ever, it was a source of pride for them not to. Despite being one of the most numerous names in Kerry; there were no &O& names in the Griffith's for the part of Kerry I was researching; because the British establishment wanted to anglicize the Irish and taking off the &O& was one way to marginalize them; besides trying to force/coerce them to change their language and their religion of course in a variety of ways. It was the record takers that took off the &O& in the records I searched. (read more about O and Mac names below)

In addition in case you had any doubts, those very same Connors listed in the Griffith's were all O'Connor in the church records of baptisms and marriages ... at least the Priests were Irish and many spoke Gaelic so they were more likely, but not always to spell the name closer to the original. There were some priests that thought it beneficial to go with the flow and anglicize the names, so they may have altered them on their own also. You can tell by the records if you see any names at all with &O& or &Mac&. Remember too, any of the versions of these names you see were approximations of the Irish Gaelic names where they were originally from anyway. i.e. O'Connor = Ó Conchubhair.

I am not a professional, but there are a few things I have learned about researching ancestors from Ireland:

  1. You CANNOT go by exact spellings. There is no such thing as the &correct spelling&
  2. You CANNOT always go by &exact dates& from various record sources
  3. You need to be creative and flexible when deciphering the relevance of either!
  4. Many Irish familes followed Naming Traditions (read below)

As far as your relative not knowing their birthdate or the spelling or their names or even where they came form...YES ITS MORE THAN POSSIBLE; IT HAPPENED A LOT.... especially if they were Catholic and from the western areas of Ireland. Penal Laws

You must realize that many of the Irish who emigrated in the mid to late 1800s were uneducated peasants who therefore could not read nor write and may have only spoken Irish (Gaelic). Think how hard it would be to remember a date if you never wrote it down, or saw it written, or couldn't read a calendar... or maybe never even knew it to start with! If you were a peasant farmer you'd have very little reason to use a date anyway. Another problem with dates... because of what the common Irish peasant farmer considered as oppression by the British government many were reluctant to give any information such as births, deaths or marriages to them unless they were forced to. That could be one reason why you have a birth date varying greatly from a baptism. It all depends on when the birth was reported to the authorities. Another problem, practicing the Catholic religion was illegal at times in Ireland. Priests traveled from area to area and performed large groups of marriages and baptisms at the same time... another reason for birth and baptism discrepancies for instance.

Note ... anyone who has researched census records will tell you about the variations in spelling and dates of info provided by people ... professionals will tell you not to go by the dates or ages given, (unless corroborated by other sources) as they could be off as much as 10 years (before and after). Could people not have known their exact birthdate and had to guess? Yes. Could peoples memories of their guesses change from decade to decade? Yes. Could people have lied about their ages? Yes. Could you have the same person at age 20 in the 1850 census, be only 60 in the 1900 census? YES! Be cautious of even numbered birthdays on census information! Be wary of birthdates given on things like naturalization papers as July 4th or St. Particks Day... common dates given when the person didn't know and had to pick something!

Bottom line... I would go by the date and months you have and not worry about the discrepancy in the years ... that is more likely where someone's memory is faulty, unless the information was taken contemporaneously. Example a birthdate offered on a death certificate was not given by the diseased but by another, and many years later. If the date was taken down when the event occurred such as a marriage or a baptism, you have a better chance of accuracy. ... and remember there is always transcription errors from when it was originally transcribed to whoever copied the information

&This database also listed a Maurice McElligott being married to a Margaret Gallivan (not Galvin).&

This isn't necessarily a discrepancy probably just a variation on spelling!

&The death certificate in my possession from Boston, MA shows Ellen as being 77 in 1944 when she passed away, this then would indicate her date of birth as being 1867 but she had her first child in 1883-84 so was she 16/17???&

Death records are the worst things to base a birth date by!!! ... The further you go from the original date the more likely the chance of error and especially with memory. When someone dies other people give the information (sons, husbands people not likely to be present at the original even of birth)! And they can be wrong or be going by misinformation themselves.

In my own research for the same person's birthdate I had a range of 1820 by gravestone marker, 1823 by census dates and 1822 by one more accurate than the other? None was taken from contemporary sources ... but the date my relative gave me when pouring over the birth records in Latin at the parish in Ireland said 1821...

So which date do you go by?... 1821 ! ... its most likely to be more accurate than any of the other dates as it was taken down as the event happened, not years later.

Remember ... think of the source of the information ... who gave it? Who took it down? Did the person giving it speak English or Gaelic? Did the information recorder speak English or Gaelic? Was the information recorded at the time or form someone's memory years later? Did people lie about their ages? Did people after 40 or 50 years forget when they were born (as if they ever knew when exactly?)

One more point... some of our ancestors were asked &Where did you come from?& They may have given an answer like &Cork&... but that may not be where they were born it may have been where their boat left from !... ie Queenstown(or Cobh) in Cork.

Copyright © 2006 Waterlilys
Further reading : Whats in a Name? by Nora Hickey


O' & Mac Names

The following was originally written to the O'Connor mailing list but applies to all O' names:

&Surprise information from Waterlilys about our name O'Connor! (Surprise to me anyway!)

Dear O' researchers,

I just found out something about our name that I wanted to share with you. Ready to be surprised? There are numerous misuses of Irish Gaelic to English, the most pervasive of which is the apostrophe in the family names such as O'Connor! Get this:

The Irish noun O (with an accent ABOVE) means descendant/grandson. It has been and is confused with the contraction of the preposition &of& as in jack o'lantern. Bottom line is, our names never should have had an apostrophe but an O with an accent above! Ó &

A few words about prefixes: Mac is the Gaelic word for &son& and is sometimes written Mc, despite the widely held notion that Mac is Irish and Mc is Scottish. Both are found in the two Gaelic national traditions. O is really a word all by itself, signifying &grandson.& The apostrophe that now usually appears after it is simply the result of a misunderstanding by English-speaking clerks in Elizabethan time, who took it to be a form of the word &of.& That other distinctively Irish prefix, Fitz, derives from the French word fils, meaning son.

O'CONNOR Surname History


Naming Traditions

Our ancestors often used the following naming procedure when picking out a name for a new child. This explains why certain names are VERY common in a given family line. Watching for these patterns can help in your genealogy research.

1st son = father's father
2nd son = mother's father
3rd son = father
4th son = father's oldest brother
5th son = father's 2nd oldest brother or mother's oldest brother

1st dau = mother's mother
2nd dau = father's mother
3rd dau = mother
4th dau = mother's oldest sister
5th dau = mother's 2nd oldest sister or father's oldest sister



Lastly... a lot of the problems with identifying your family that you are dealing with, I went thru myself ... please read my search story ... you might get some clues and hopefully some encouragement!

My Search ~ Adversities of Fortune

hope you found this helpful!
slan, (that's Irish for good-bye)
mary in Florida


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