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Collected Name Resources from LoARs (2010-present)

Articles from Juliana de Luna and Lillia de Vaux

- Irish Gaelic -

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February 2011 - Juliana de Luna Link to LoAR Cover Letter

In Irish Gaelic, there is often confusion between literal bynames and inherited family names. While literal bynames dominate in the early part of our period, family names begin to appear by the 10th century. The first kind of family names were clan affiliation bynames, which for men take the form followed by the name of clan founder in the genitive (possessive) case, like Conchobhair or hAodha.

The most typical kind of literal byname describes a man as his father's son (again using the father's given name in the genitive case): mac Conchobhair or mac Aodha. As time went on, family names that use Mac begin to appear; this are sometimes indistinguishable in form from literal bynames. The difference from our point of view is whether the name after mac is the father of the person in question or some ancestor further back in time.

By the time we get to the 16th century, an awful lot of the names that are recorded are inherited family names rather than literal bynames. Therefore, we have to be careful in looking at the names in Woulfe and other sources for late period names; only some of them allow the construction of literal bynames, while others are only registerable as family names. One tip in recognizing the difference: family names are often written, especially by modern scholars, with the relationship terms (like Mac) in capital letters, while literal byname are almost always in lowercase. So if you're looking at a source that has both Mac and mac, that's probably why.

This distinction matters a great deal when we get to women's names, because the constructions for women's literal bynames and women's family names are different. The literal byname form for a woman, used when the name in question is her father's given name, is inghean followed by the father's given name in the genitive case, like inghean Chonchobhair or inghean Aodha. Additionally, the first letter of the father's name often has to be lenited, a softening of the sound often written by adding an h after the letter in question. But a literal byname can only exist when the name is constructed from a given name still in use or a handful of special bynames that were used to create literal bynames. Other kinds of constructions can only be used to create family names.

Women's names take different forms; a woman can never be known in Gaelic as mac X or X. Instead, family names for women generally take the form inghean followed by the masculine form of the family name in the possessive form, meaning "daugher of the X family." The forms are inghean U or inghean Mhic; the second words are the possessive forms of the masculine and mac. Examples include inghean U Chonchobhair, inghean U hAodha, inghean Mhic Conchobhair, or inghean Mhic Aodha. Don't forget that the rules for lenition are based on context, so that C is not lenited after a word that ends with -c like mhic. A woman's name in Gaelic always must have the inghean.

So, when you're constructing women's names in Gaelic, you need to be careful. If you're using a source for given names, like Mari Elspeth nic Bryan's "Index of Names in Irish Annals," you can construct either literal bynames (using inghean) or family names (using inghean U or inghean Mhic). If you're using a source with family names, like Woulfe, you need to figure out if the family name can be used to construct a literal byname, or else stick to the appropriate family name form (using inghean U when the masculine is documented and inghean Mhic when the masculine Mac is documented).

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