Keeping it Simple For the Tourists

Michael D. Higgins. President of Ireland
By Mac and O' you'll always know

True Irishmen they say

But if they lack the O' or Mac

No Irishmen are they

So goes the old rhyme often quoted by Americans who claim Irish heritage and which we, being the clever Irish folk we are, are only too happy to affirm as we sell them souvenirs and trinkets of their ‘heritage’ here on ‘the oul sod’. It may be that they are Irish and it may be that they are not – for such is the complexity of Irish genealogical history.

The traditional definition of Irish is the Milesian Celts. Although family names like O’Moore, Mannion, Connolly and O’Dempsey appear Irish, they came before the Milesian Celts. So, who were they? They were the Cruitinwhich refers to all families who were not Irish before our ‘interaction’ with England. It is my theory that Cruitin was a word for ‘others’ – akin to the concept of ‘Barbarian’ to the Romans and the Greeks, ‘Gajge’ to the Romany, or ‘Goyim’ to the Jewish.

Of particular Galway interest are the Mannion and Mangan families – and their variants. They were of a people referred to as ‘The Old Vassals’ and came from an area to the east of Lough Corrib, where they became the subjects of Miliesian over-kings. In his documentary ‘Atlantean’, Irish film maker Bob Quinn hypothesised that the people of the Western seaboard had more in common with the people of North Africa than Europe. He used language and music patterns as well as their style of crafts to illustrate his point.

The ‘otherness’ of areas like the Claddagh filters down to the current day. Certainly, there was no great sense of Irishness about the people in the Claddagh area, so much so that many joined militias to oppose the 1916 Rising. Could it be there was a secret identity among these people? They were known in particular for their intra-clan marriages and thick Gaelic dialect – spoken only among themselves, similar to the Romany cant and primarily used to obscure communication when within earshot of people they considered ‘outsiders’.

A Galway Hooker In The Claddagh

A Galway Hooker In The Claddagh

The Soghain clans ruled an area from Moylough to Kilkeel and were also classed as Cruitin by Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh. We only know about them from those who conquered them – which is a bit like a Chinese person learning Irish history from Oliver Cromwell’s troops! So much of the story will be lost and so much changed to suit the view of the teller.

The truth in history is told by the victors and is but a version of the truth - often a poor one.

The Uí Maine clan rose to power led by the Kellys – which many Americans claim as their heritage. But it’s all in the spelling. Kelley with an ‘e’ is from the Isle of Man. While Celtic, it is not Irish. And yet it could be a misspelling by immigration officials. It could also be a variation of the original – in an effort to distance themselves from others of the same name, a typical practice when families changed religion or reverted to the old faith for political reasons.

On looking at family maps, the concentration of families with ‘O’ as opposed to ‘Mac’ on the west and north of Ireland got me thinking of the translation we take for granted. Literally ‘Mac’ is ‘son of’ and ‘Ó / Uí’ is ‘grandson / granddaughter of’. But what if they mean something more akin to ‘of the people of’ – which would relate to a clan that is subjected to the rule of another? Families such as O’Driscoll and O’Keeffe are seen as Clan Eoghanchta when in fact they were actually conquered by them – and owed them fealty as under-clans to their Eoghanchta conquerors. They are primarily seen by academics as being of the same blood in origin when, in fact, they are not.

Turning history on its head like this can be viewed as quite controversial but this theory, advanced by Iain Adamson and his ilk, has hardcore support from those that have a political agenda – as opposed to an academic one. The fact that British Israelism is quite popular among supporters of the theory serves to debunk it to a large degree, but it does tell a story of which many are unaware.

The most tragic ancient Irish story is the Flight of the Earls, the motif of O’Neill and O’Donnell abandoning their homeland to British rule. Ulster changed its pure Irish identity to one of Scots and Anglo-Irish. Name an Irish family that screams Ulster? It’s either O’Neill or O’Donnell. But they are not Uliad. They were originally Connachta – from Conn’s share, the loser’s share, the West of Ireland – noted for its poverty and lesser material value among kings long before Cromwell’s infamous ‘To Hell or to Connaught’ decree. The O’Neills and O’Donnells moved up through Fermanagh and Donegal and east across Ulster until they got a foothold in the actual Ulaid lands of North Antrim.

Sculpture of The Flight of the Earls in Rathmullen, Co. Donegal

Sculpture of The Flight of the Earls in Rathmullen, Co. Donegal

So, there is quite a history in a name. Even Michael D. Higgins is not as Irish as he seems! His is one of the few Gaelic names that is actually Norse in origin – not including Gallowglass names like Sweeney.

If we were to be accurate, ‘By Mac and O’ should be altered to ‘from Ireland but not necessarily Irish in the Milesian sense’. What many Americans consider ‘Irish’ comes from before the Milesians. In an effort to minimise their confusion, we will continue to turn a blind eye when they refer to themselves as ‘Celtic’ or ‘Irish’ and keep selling the illusion. Let’s keep it simple, at the very least for the sake of maintaining the market for ‘Irish’ souvenirs and trinkets!

About the Author

Thomás Carty

Thomás Carty is a Renmore resident, having moved to Galway for work a couple of years ago. Both his parents were originally from Ballinalee in Co. Longford but he grew up in Banagher and maintains his Offaly connections with membership of the poetry group Tullamore Rhymers Club.

An amateur genealogist and historian, he writes on a range of topics that grab his interest.

He works at security to pay the bills, and travels widely around Europe to keep sane!