Scott is a very common surname in Ireland, and is particularly numerous in Ulster. It derives ultimately from the Latin Scottus which, confusingly, means ‘Irishman’. After the Irish colonisation of that country in the sixth century, ‘Scotland’ eventually became the English name for the territory controlled by the Gaelic speaking descendants of the settlers, more or less the Highland. In the course of time, by extension, the name was applied to all of what we now know as Scotland. ‘Scott’ as a descriptive name was initially used for the Highlanders but, like the name of the country, in the end came to refer to all Scots. A Lowland Scottish family, based along the Borders, are in fact the forbears of many Ulster bearers of the name. They were one of the notorious ‘riding clans’, many of whose members settled in Fermanagh in the seventeenth century after their power was broken by James II. Johannes Scottus Eriugena (c180-877), the philosopher and theologian, appears on the Irish 5 note. His work was not uncontroversial: De Praedestinatione was condemned at the Council of Valence in 855 as pultes Scottorum, ‘Irish porridge’, and his major work, De Divisione Naturae, was repeatedly condemned and finally placed on the Papal Index in 1685.

Sheehan is the anglicisation of the Irish O Siodhachain, from a diminutive of siodhach, meaning ‘peaceful’. The principal family of the name were part of the Dal gCais, the tribal grouping occupying an area now in counties Limerick and Clare which produced Brian Boru, High King of Ireland in the eleventh century. Some of the traditional genealogies have the descent of the Sheehans from one Sidhechan, a contemporary of Brian Boru and distantly related to him. Initially they appear to have lived in the south of Co Limerick, in the barony of Connello. In very early times, however, they migrated south, into the northeast of the present Co Cork, where they are still most numerous. Over the course of the centuries, large numbers have also migrated into Co Kerry, while a significant number also remained in their homeland of Limerick. In these area, the surname is very common indeed.

Sheridan is the English version of O Sirideain, from the personal name Sirideain, which is possibly related to sirigh, ‘to seek’. The surname arose in the modern Co Longford, where the O Sirideain held hereditary church offices and land in the parish of Granard. They later moved to the adjoining county of Cavan, where they became followers of the rulers of Breffny, the O’Reillys. Cavan is still the area in which the surname is most common, though it has now spread throughout the northern half of the country. The most famous bearer of the name was the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1817), born in Dublin, whose three masterpieces, The Rivals, The School for Scandal and The Critic display brilliant comic invention.

Smith is a surname famous for being ordinary; it is the most common name in England, Scotland, Wales and Ulster, while it is the fifth most common in Ireland as a whole. Antrim and Cavan are the areas in which it is most numerous. Its English origin, designating an armourer, smith or farrier, and many bearing the same name, in Ulster especially, will be of English stock. The Scottish originals anglicised as Smith are Mac Gobha and Mac Gobhann, both meaning ‘son of the smith’.These were also anglicised phonetically as (Mac)Gow and (Mac)Gowan. At least two major families of the name are recorded, branches of the Clan Donald and the Clan MacPherson. The principal Irish name is Mac Gabhainn, also ‘son of the smith’, and is strongly rooted in Co Cavan, where the Mac Gabhainn were one of the most powerful families. The vast majority of the family in Cavan anglicised their name to Smith. Among less prominent families adopting Smith were the O Gabhainn (O’Gowan) of Drummully in Fermanagh and of Co Down, and the Mac an Gabhan of Ballymagowan in Co Tyrone.

Although coming among the top sixty in the list of the most common names in Ireland as a whole, Stewart or Stuart is to be found almost exclusively in Ulster, where it is of Scottish origin. The surname is occupational, referring to an administrative official (modern English ‘steward’), and this word derives from a compound of the two Old English terms stig, ‘house’, and weard, ‘guardian’. The surname arose in various locations in Scotland, no doubt due to the fact that every local lord and bishop would have his own steward. Its popularity as a surname was also influenced by the royal family, the Stuarts, who ruled Scotland from 1371 to 1603, and Scotland and England from then until 1688. They were hereditary High Stewards of Scotland for six generations before they acquired the throne, and this is the source of their surname. The spelling ‘Stuart’ is the French version of the name, popularised in the sixteenth century by Mary, Queen of Scots, who was educated in France.

Sweeney, along with its variants MacSweeny and MacSwiney, comes from the Irish Mac Suibhne, from suibhne, meaning ‘pleasant’. The original Suibhne from whom the surname derives was a Scottish chief based in Argyle around the year 1200. His people were of mixed Viking and Irish descent, and their fame as fighters meant that they were much in demand in Ireland as gallowglasses, or mercenaries. Suibhne’s great-great-grandson Muchadh Maer Mac Suibhne settled in the Fanad district of the modern of Co Donegal in the fourteenth century, and his offspring soon split into distinct groups, the principal ones being Mac Suibhne Fanad and Mac Suibhne na dTuath. For over three centuries, up to the final defeat of the seventeenth century, they fought as gallowglasses in the struggles of Ulster, mainly on behalf of the O’Donnells. Members of both groups also made their way south to Cork in the late fifteenth century and served the MacCarthys, acquiring territory of their own in Muskerry. The Cork family prospered and multiplied, and today the surname is more numerous in the Cork/Kerry area than in its original Irish homeland of Ulster.


Tobin is in Irish Toibin, which is a Gaelicised version of the Norman ‘St Aubin’, after the place of the same name in Brittany, so called from the dedication of its church to St Albin. The family came to Ireland in the immediate aftermath of the Norman invasion, and by the early thirteenth century were well established in counties Kilkenny and Tipperary; their power in the latter county is attested by the (unofficial) title ‘Baron of Coursey’, by which the head of the family was known in the Middle Ages. In the course of time the surname also spread into the adjoining counties of Cork and Waterford, and this is the area in which it remains most common by far today. The two best known contemporary bearers of the name in Ireland are the comic actor Niall Toibin and the novelist and poet Colm Toibin.


Wallace comes from the Anglo Norman French le waleis, meaning simply ‘the foreigner’ or ‘the stranger’, which was used in different parts of Britain to denote Scots, Welsh or Breton origin, strangeness obviously being in the eye of the beholder. In medieval Ireland the name was generally used to mean ‘the Welshman’, and arrived in the wake of the Norman invasion; the first Norman invaders came from Wales. The surname became, and remains, numerous in the major urban centres of population: Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway. It is most numerous, however, in Ulster, where bearers will generally be of Scottish descent. In Scotland the name was more usually applied to descendants of the small pocket of Strathclyde Britons who survived into the Middle Ages. This was the origin of Scotlands national hero, Sir William Wallace. The best known Irish bearer of the name was the composer William Vincent Wallace (1812-1865), who became world famous after the success of his operas Maritana, and Lurline.

Walsh is among the five most numerous surnames in Ireland, found throughout the country, with particular concentrations in Connacht in counties Mayo and Galway, in Munster in counties Cork and Waterford, and in Leinster in counties Kilkenny and Wexford. It is a semi-translation of the Irish surname Breathnach, meaning ‘British’ or ‘Welsh’, also sometimes anglicised as ‘Brannagh’. The surname thus has the same historical origin as Wallace, but arrived at its present form by a more circuitous route. Unlike most of the other Hiberno-Norman families, such as the Burkes, the Fitzgeralds etc, who can trace their ancestry to a small number of known individuals, the Walshes have many different origins, since the name arose independently in many different places, for obvious reasons. Two exceptions should perhaps be mentioned; the descendants of Haylen Brenach, one of those who arrived in 1172, became very well known and prosperous in the south and east of the country, while ‘Walynus’, who arrived in 1169, is said to have been the progenitor of the Walshes of Tirawley in Co Mayo, and the brother of Barrett, the ancestor of the Barretts of the same county.

Ward is common and widespread throughout Ireland, England and Wales. In Britain it is generally an occupational surname, derived from the Old English weard, meaning ‘guard’. Some in Ireland may be of English stock, as, for example, in the case of the family who now hold the title of Viscounts Bangor in Co Down. In the vast majority of cases, however, Ward in Ireland is the anglicisation of Mac an Bhaird, meaning ‘son of the poet(bard)’; the equivalent Scottish surname almost always became ‘Baird’. Two families are historically prominent, one based near the modern town of Ballinasloe in Co Galway, and the other near Glenties in Co Donegal. Both families were professional hereditary poets, as their surname implies, to the O’Kellys and the O’Donnells respectively. A branch of the northern family also became poets to the O’Neills in Co Tyrone. Today the largest single concentrations of the surname are to be found in the original homelands, counties Galway and Donegal.

Whelan, along with its common variant Phelan, comes from the Irish O’Faolain, from a diminutive of faol, ‘wolf’. Taken together, the two names come among the fifty most numerous in Ireland. The family originated in the ancient kingdom of Decies, part of the modern county of Waterford, where they were rulers up to the Norman invasion. From this centre the surname has now spread to the adjoining counties of Kilkenny, Cork, Wexford and further north, Carlow. It is also to be found throughout the country, however. The best known modern bearer of the name was Sean o Faolain, the novelist and short story writer, whose writing career spanned six decades. His family name was originally Whelan. His daughter Julia is also a distinguished novelist.

White is of the most common surnames in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. In England its most common origin is as a descriptive nickname for someone who was fair-haired or pale, and a sizeable proportion of those bearing the name in Ireland will be of English extraction; such families were prominent in Clare, Waterford and Kilkenny. In some cases, as families were absorbed by Gaelic culture, White was phonetically hibernicized Mac Faoite. After the final collapse of the Gaelic order in the seventeenth century this was re-anglicised as MacWhitty and MacQuitty, as well as the original White. In the north of Ireland, many Whites are of Scottish extraction. The surname was a semi-translation of the Highland Gaelic Mac Gille Bhain, ‘son of the fair-haired servant or youth’, and was also adopted by many of the MacGregors and Lamonts when they were outlawed and their own names proscribed. Elsewhere in Ireland White was sometimes used locally for many Irish originals containing, or thought to contain the elements ban (‘white’) or fionn (‘fair’).

In appearance at least, Woods, together with Wood, is of course an English name, denoting a person who lived near a wood or, in some cases, a woodcutter. In Ireland however, the majority of those bearing the surname are of native Irish extraction. The Irish for a wood is coille, plural coillte, any many Irish names containing elements which sounded similar in untutored English ears were mistranslated as ‘Woods’. Among such names are Mac Giolla Comhghaill (‘MacIlhoyle’/’Coyle’), ‘son of the follower of St Comall’, found in Donegal and Monaghan. Mac an Choiligh (‘MacQuilly’/’Magilly’), ‘son of the cock’, from Co Roscommon; Mac Giolla Chomghaile (‘MacElhone’), ‘son of the follower of St Comgan’ in Co Tyrone, and Mac Caoilte (‘Quilty’) in Munster. The only family whose surnames actually did contain coill were the Mac Conchoille, ‘son of the hound of the wood’, who were also anglicised phonetically as MacEnhill. They were based near Omagh in Co Tyrone. The former Woods is more than ten times commoner in Ireland than in England and Wales.