Friday, 16 September 2011 14:04

More Irish than the Irish Themselves

Written by  Darren McGettigan
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As a very young undergrad student at UCD I used to love my medieval history course. Although as I remember, the classes were on very early in the morning, I used to make a special effort to turn up to learn about life in Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales in the 1300s and 1400s. To this day I still have an interest in Art McMurrough Kavanagh and the O'Neills of Tyrone, led by Niall Mór, Niall Óg and Henry 'the Contentious', and their wars with King Richard II of England who campaigned in Ireland twice in an unsuccessful effort to subdue these Gaelic kings.

Another theme of these classes which I still remember was the remarkable Gaelicisation of many of the Anglo-Norman families in Ireland at this time. These families were the descendants of Anglo-Norman conquerors who had settled in Ireland in the years after 1170, as the Anglo-Normans first conquered and settled Leinster and Meath and in the ensuing decades spread out into most parts of Ireland. The course showed us how the advance of the Anglo-Normans slowed in the late 1200s, due to the success of some of the Gaelic chieftains such as Godfrey O'Donnell of Tír Chonaill, who now had the use of heavily armed battalions of Scottish gallloglass warriors who were beginning to arrive in Ireland at this time. Plagues and famine then hit the Anglo-Norman population of Ireland during the 1300s leaving some Anglo-Norman families, particularly in Connacht and east Ulster, isolated and surrounded by increasingly powerful Gaelic Irish neighbours. Under this pressure and also due to ordinary neighbourliness, the Anglo-Normans began to adopt the Irish language and many other Gaelic Irish customs such as style of dress and manner of riding horses (The Irish did not use stirrups). Intermarriage between the Anglo-Normans and the Gaelic Irish was probably the most important mode of cultural influence. If an Anglo-Norman lord married an Irish noblewoman, their children would possibly be raised speaking Irish and would have extensive contact with their Irish in-laws. This process began right from the beginning of the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in Ireland when Strongbow, the original leader of the invaders married Aoife, the daughter of King Dermot McMurrough of Leinster.

By the mid 1300s the English authorities in Ireland were horrified by the Gaelicization of a large proportion of the Anglo-Norman population and tried to halt it with laws such as the Statutes of Kilkenny which tried to forbid the adoption of Gaelic Irish customs by people of Anglo-Norman descent. However, the pull of Gaelic culture was too strong and most of these laws were widely ignored. The result of this was that by the year 1400 the English crown had lost any authority over vast areas of Ireland, especially in Connacht, where the Anglo-Norman population became almost totally Gaelicised and refused to recognize English authority any longer. As a result of this, many Anglo-Norman families in Connacht, particularly the McWilliam Burkes of County Mayo, by the 1500s were absolutely indistinguishable from their Gaelic Irish neighbours. This fact led the English to come up with the phrase 'More Irish than the Irish themselves' to describe such families. What follows is a list of the most prominent Gaelicised Anglo-Norman families and the new Gaelic surnames they often adopted to fit in with Gaelic Irish society:

Bermingham - Mac Fheorais (now often Corish), Bissett - Mac Eoin (now McKeown)de Nangle - Mac Oisdealbhaigh (now often Costello)de Burgh - de Búrca (Burke) with many sub-clans also - McWilliam, McRedmond, McGibbon and Mac Seoinín (now called Jennings), Fitzmaurice - Mac Muiris, Savage - Mac an tSábhaisigh, Fitzgerald - Mac Gerailt and Nugent - Mac Nuinseann. There are many more.

Next week I hope to add a Tuesday blog also to my website, concentrating on more technical aspects of genealogy and website development. However, the Friday series will continue as normal.


Last modified on Monday, 03 December 2012 19:22
Darren McGettigan

Darren McGettigan

Darren is an historian, author and genealogist from County Wicklow, Ireland. He provides genealogy services to help you discover your family history in Ireland.