The Spelling of Townland Names and Surnames in my Databases

The Spelling of Townland Names in myDatabases

The spelling of official [modern-day] townland names in the databases follow the spellings used in the 1901 Alphabetical Index to the Townlands and Towns of Ireland and the spellings on the Ordnance Survey maps. In most of the databases the townland name entered in the Townland column will be the official [modern-day] spelling e.g. Altaghoney and Gorteade. However, particularly in the earlier databases you will find this kind of entry - Altaghoney [Altohoney] and Gorteade [Bollymonny]. In both instances the actual spelling of the townland name is different from the modern-day spelling so I have included the former in brackets beside the latter. As you can see in the Altaghoney example the actual spelling is simply a variant spelling. However, in the Gorteade example the name of the townland is completely different. Usually this only occurs in seventeenth-century databases. Clearly, some of my interpretations of these earlier spellings and their relationship to modern townland names could be wrong.

For Co. Londonderry, I have relied, to a large extent, on the suggested modern-day names, written in pencil, on the transcripts of sources such as the Hearth Money Rolls. However, some of these are wrong. I have also used Munn's book on place-names throughout the county, originally published in 1925, plus two more recent books published as part of the The Northern Ireland Place-Name Project undertaken by the Department of Celtic Studies, Q.U.B. - Gregory Toner's book on the Moyola Valley [1996] and Patrick McKay & Kay Muhr's book on Lough Neagh Places [2007]. For Co. Antrim I have relied heavily on S, T. Carleton, Heads & Hearths: The Hearth Money Rolls and Poll Tax Returns for County Antrim 1660-1669 [PRONI, Belfast, 1991].

The Spelling of Surnames in my Databases

Again with surnames, creating the databases was not always easy. Not surprisingly, the spelling of surnames in the original sources varied a great deal both within and between documents over the centuries. The names in these documents were entered by various officials and there is some evidence to suggest that this led to regional spelling of surnames, particularly in the earlier sources. Certainly, the spelling of surnames had become more standardised by the time of the Griffith's Printed Valuation of c.1860. Remember too, that the originals of the seventeenth-century Hearth Money Rolls and the eighteenth-century Religious Returns were destroyed in the 1922 Four Courts fire. The only sources we now have are transcripts of those originals and many of these are typed, suggesting that they are probably a transcript of a transcript. Let's not forget that the databases are further transcripts! In transcription it is relatively easy to mistake an "e" for an "a" or an "r" for an "n" and so on.

The key problem in creating a database of names from original sources is to produce a database which is relatively easy to search and sort whilst, at the same time, remains true to the spelling of the names in the primary source. This is particularly the case with seventeenth and eighteenth-century sources.

Surnames in seventeenth-century sources were written down by officials who, if they were not familiar with the spelling of a surname, spelt it phonetically in a way that made sense to them.  For example, McGoldrick can be spelt as Megolrake, McCandless as Micandlass, Ewing as Youing, Brewster as Broster and so on.  However, the greatest problem with names in early sources is the fact that the spellings of some surnames in these documents are completely different from their modern equivalents e.g. in earlier documents Alexander often appears as McCalsenor or McElsinor.

When entering surnames into the county databases I have used two columns or fields in each database. One column contains the spelling of each surname as it appears in the original document. A second column contains standardised spellings of surnames which should make it easier to find names in the database and keep variant spellings of individual surnames together in a sort. Standardised spellings are not intended to replace the spellings that appear in the original documents and you can, of course, ignore the standardised spellings altogether and simply search the column that contains the actual spellings in the original source. In fact if you are unable to find a surname in the standardised column of any database you may find it in the actual spelling column.

When deciding on standardised surnames I was guided by the following observations that I had made as result of working with surnames in various types of sources for Co. Londonderry and North and Mid Antrim which cover a period of some 200 years.

Regardless of the period, there are certain surnames such as Brown [Browne], Carr [Kerr], Dixon [Dickson], Gray [Grey], Maguire [McGuire], McGee [Magee], McGill [Magill] and Miller [Millar] which are spelt one way or the other. Nevertheless officials, for whatever reason, managed to misspell these names from time to time. Some of the misspellings e.g of Brown [Broon and Brune] suggest that phonetic spelling of names was quite common in earlier times.Clearly, a standardised surname would overcome the problem of missing one of these names in a database. Deciding on a standardised spelling here is simply a matter of choosing one spelling or the other. Note that the one that I have chosen does not imply any priority of one spelling over the other. Note that if one of these surnames applies to you, you cannot assume that your surname was always spelt in the past the way that you spell it today.

Others surnames such as Cunningham, Hassan and  Stewart, for example, have more than one variant spelling in the sources that simply reflect the way officials spelt the name across the county at different times in the past. Cunningham [Cuningham, Coningham, Conyngham], Hassan [Hassin, Hasson, Hesson, Hession], Stewart [Steward, Stuart].

There are some surnames where their spelling in early documents bears no relation to their spelling in later documents. These include surnames such as Alexander [McCalsenor, McElsinor, etc. in earlier documents], Ballentine [Bannatyne, etc.], Bradley [Brillaghan, Brallahan, O'Brillaghan, O'Brullaghan, etc.], Cummings [Kimin, Kimming, etc.], McAfee [McDuffee, etc.], Pollock [Poake, Polke, etc.] and Trainor [McCreanor, McCraner, etc.]. I have used the later spelling as the standardised spelling to group together spellings of those surnames that are very different from their modern equivalents.

The surname Connor can sometimes appear as McKnogher or McNogher or indeed as Knogher or Nogher. Many of the Connors in Co. Londonderry are descended from the O'Connors of the barony of Keenaght, a very old tribal group predating the O'Cahans of the Cenel Eoghain who overthrew the O'Connor sept in the twelfth century. According to Bell the name was also made McConnor [Mac Conchobhair in Gaelic] which became anglicised as McKnogher, Nogher, etc. I decided to use Connor as a standardised spelling for all of these surnames.

Irish names, particularly those beginning with O or O and a space, can create problems in databases. Furthermore, in some periods officials included the O and at other times they dropped it. At first I thought about dropping the prefix O' in the standardised spelling of most Irish names and did so on my CD Researching Derry and Londonderry Ancestors. However, I decided to retain the O' prefix in the databases on this website. But, I should warn you that when looking for O'Kane, for example, you should consider also looking at Kane in nineteenth-century databases. If you are searching any of the Excel databases you should use a "contains" search where you type in Kane. This will "bring out" all of the Kanes, O'Kanes, McKanes, etc. My impression is that many people who are listed as Kanes in the 1831 and c.1860 databases may have been O'Kanes. In fact some may have been McKanes. Note that in the case of O'Mullan which tends to appear more so in the earlier databases and less frequently in the later databases, I have used the standardised name Mullan to include O'Mullan and its variant spellings. McMullans, McMullens, etc. and McMillens have been standardised as McMullan. Note that I have dropped the O from the fiollowing names with the names O'Brien and O''Bryan .and have grouped these names with Bryan and Bryans under the standardised surname of Brien.

The other prefix which can cause chaos in a database is Mac or Mc. In most cases I have retained this prefix in surnames. Within the sources the Mc can appear as M', Mc, Mac, etc. I have always used Mc in the "standardised spellings" with no space between the Mc and the rest of the name. Note that some internet databases do put a space after the Mc. Quite often if I look for my own name under McAfee I get a nil result because the name is entered either as Mc Afee or M'Afee. I have dropped the Mc in a few cases. Note that in the case of McReynolds and its variant spellings McRannell and McGrannell, I have used the standardised spelling of .Reynolds. Again with McAtaggart and McAtagart I have used the standardised spelling of Taggart.

The surname McIntyre is spelt in many different ways throughout the documents - McIntire, McEntire, etc. Sometimes it is also spelt as McAteer or McAtier.In fact as Bell in Ulster Surnames points out the original Scottish and Irish surnames have become confused and McAteer, in particular, has become lost in McIntyre. For this reason I have included both names and their variants under the standardised surname of McIntyre. Local and family knowledge would be required to disentangle some of these names.

The following surnames Irwin/Irvine, McCaughey/McGaughey, McGeogh/McGeough and Louden/London have been standardised using the first name in the aforementioned list. I have done this because it is very difficult, particularly in the 1831 Census Returns, where names are hand written, to distinguish between vowels in the handwriting. In other words some Irvines could be Irwins and vice-versa.

If you look at the 1831 and c.1860 databases in the townland of Carnanbane in the parish of Cumber, Co. Londonderry you will find the name Crosbie in 1831 and the name McCrossan in 1858/59. This is because the officials were using the anglicised version of the surname in the earlier document. Therefore, I have used the standardised surname of Crossan to cover that name plus McCrossan and Crosbie/Crosby. Note that some Crosbys are not McCrossans but I will leave it to you to work out those that are not. 

Another example is the name McGuigan. Most of the time the surname McGuigan, apart from the usual variant spellings, is not a problem. However, in the 1831 Census Returns an anglicised version of the name, Goodwin, is used for some of the McGuigan families in the parish of Ballynascreen. By the time of Griffith's in 1859 only the surname McGuigan was listed in Ballynascreen and there are only three Goodwins listed in the entire county.

Also, I noticed that in the 1831 database for the parish of Cumber Upper, Co. Londonderry there were 28 Donaghys of various spellings and 1 McDonagh. In 1858/59 in the same parish there were 8 Donaghys and 18 McDonaghs. Clearly some of the 1831 Donaghys are now being listed as McDonaghs in 1858/59 [see Bell Ulster Surnames].

I began using the standardised surname Kerrigan to group together a collection of names which appear to be used interchangeably between 1831 and 1859. These names are Kerrigan, Kirgan, Cargan, Cargin, Cargon, McKerrigan, McKirgan. See, in particular, the parishes of Ballyaghran and Lissan in Co. Londonderry. Because I was looking recently at the name McKirgan in the Portstewart area I decided to use the Mc again. If you are looking for any of these names adopt a flexible approach to your search.

Note that the surnames in each database are presented alphabetically by standardised surname. A quick scroll through the list of surnames in any of the databases will familiarise you with the standardised names that I have chosen, and, I repeat - there is no significance in the spellings that I have chosen -  I am not suggesting that this is how a particular surname should be spelt. It is simply a method of grouping together surnames in the original source which, I think, are variant spellings of the same surname and keeping them together in both a sort and a search and use a "contains" search in Excel.

Note that some of the standardised names that I used on my CD relating to Co. Derry are slightly different e.g. I use the standardised name Kane to cover Kane, McKane, O'Kane, and all variant spellings of these names. I did the same with Neill, Connell, Donnell, etc. If you are using the databases on the CD then you should read the paper on the CD that deals with the spelling of names on the CD. Again, scrolling through the names will reveal what I have done.

Copyright 2012 W.Macafee.