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Bun na h-ainme de chlann uí Mhaelearcaidh

Origins of the Mullarkey name


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Irish names have gone through a revolutionary transformation over the centuries. Gaelic names of the 12th century are now considerably different from their modern anglicised Irish equivalents. This transformation is not just expressed in spelling and pronunciation differences but as will be seen below changes to the structure of names.

As a result of these transformations, study of the derivation of Irish names is not the exact science one might suppose and this is more difficult when the name in question is not one of the most common, or well documented Irish surnames.

The name Mullarkey, Malarky and the many English variants of the name, have at least two alternative possible derivations :-

  • (a) Dr. Edward MacLysaght, an authoritative writer on the subject of Irish names, gives original form of the name as Ó Maoilearca. As will be seen below, though his explanation is detailed, Dr. MacLysaght gives no authority for his view. In direct correspondence with Dr. MacLysaght in February 1981, he confirmed that he was restating a view expressed in earlier research. The writer is of the opinion, that the earlier work in question, to which Dr. MacLysaght alluded, was that of the Rev. Patrick Woulfe. Fr. Woulfe began compiling his work on Irish surnames from Irish immigrants in Lancashire (England) in 1898. Rev. Patrick Woulfe's pioneering work on Irish surnames was published under the title of "Irish Names and Surnames." His entry for the derivation of the name Mullarkey bares a remarkable similarity to the entry in MacLysaght's publication, "More Irish Names" first published in 1960.
  • (b) A Gaelic version of the Mullarkey name in the west of Ireland is Ó Maelearcaidh. (This Gaelic version sounds phonetically very similar to the English pronunciation). An early authority for this version of the spelling is printed in the State Papers for Ireland of 1608 -(King James 1) at Cal. S.P. Vol 61 Page 251 Ref 802 .

O' Maoilearca

Phonetically the name is pronounced o: , mi:l' , arka.

MacLysaght in his book More Irish names gives "Disciple of Saint Erc" as the most likely derivation.

The element Maoil actually means bald. The combination of Maoil + a saint's personal name is often translated as "disciple of", because tonsuring (shaving a bald cross on the crown of the head) was a visual part of becoming a Christian cleric. Hence, the connection between being a disciple and several Mael names, for example Ó Maolfhachtna which resulted in English variants Mullaghny, Meloughna, Mulloughney, Mologhney and Mollowney, derives from Servant of St Fachctna, an old Tipperary surname and now assimilated into Moloney.

Erc was a fairly common name Celtic name and was taken by both men and women. In St. Patrick's own household one of his Embroideresses was a woman called Erc. In the Biographical Dictionary of the Saints there are records of at least five Saints Erc as well as a Saint Ercan (a related name).

According to MacLysaght the Saint Erc in question is probably Saint Erc, the bishop of Slane. St. Erc originally was an Irish Brehon (A Judge of the ancient Celtic law code, known as Brehon law). In this context Brehon is the English corruption of the Gaelic word "Breitheamh," which simply means judge. St. Erc was converted to Christianity by St Patrick, during his confrontation with the druids at the Hill of Slane. Thereafter, St. Erc became known as Erc of Slane. He was subsequently ordained priest and then consecrated bishop, about the year 465 by St. Patrick.

Bishop Erc lived in the household of St. Patrick. It goes without saying that, having a Brehon living in his household would have been a substantial benefit for St. Patrick, both in his mission to convert the Irish to Christianity and in his dealings with Irish chieftains and druids.

St. Erc later trained Brendan the Navigator (reputed discoverer of Newfoundland) from the age of six, in his dwelling place some three miles north of Tralee in County Kerry. According to Healy's "Ireland's Ancient Schools and Scholars (1890), the peasantry at the time still referred to the district of Kerry as "Termon Eric," i.e. Eric's district. St. Erc died around the year 513.

The derivation of the name Erc itself is a little unclear. The Gaelic word erc had several alternative meanings, including "speckled dark red", which one might suppose might refer to personal characteristics, perhaps it may be given to a red head, or perhaps a freckled or spotted child.

In total contrast, erc also translates as salmon, or a class of animals including cattle, salmon and pigs, which the Celts saw as related. If the correct derivation is not "a disciple of St. Erc," then the root of Erc suggests that the name may be far older, relating to pre Christian Ireland. Furthermore whilst Maol/Maoil/Mael may translate into "disciple of," this is not the translated meaning of all , or even the majority of, mael names. Therefore, if the name is not connected to St. Erc, this entire explanation of the name falls.

O' Maelearcaidh

Phonetically the name is pronounced o: , Mal' , arki .

Mael and Maoil are infact the same word, though the form Mael is an older form. Hence Mael could mean "disciple of" as with Maoil.

Earcaidh could have been originally Earca and then rendered as arkey in English and then re-Gaelicised as Earcaidh. Hence the correct version could be Ó Maoilearca. However just as possible is that the original form may have been Earcaidh which became simplified in the form of Earca. If the latter view is correct, this raises the question of what is the derivation of the Earcaidh element.

The writer sets out below the considered views of Professor Brian Ó Cuív of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (School of Celtic Studies) on derivation of the name as expressed in correspondence dated 11 March 1981.

"I understand that Dr. MacLysaght, in acknowledging your letter of 13 February, said that he was sending it on to us to be dealt with. I have read your comments with interest, but I am afraid that I can give no definite answers to your questions. However, I can make some observations.

1. I think that there may be an extra syllable at the end of the name giving an "í" or "íg" sound. The alternative forms for the second element are Earca and Earcaidh, both being disyllabic.

2. There is a tendency to render the construction of the name in the modern form and in which perhaps Earcaidh might become Earca (Modern genative of Eirc- i.e. of Erc). Simplifications of this kind are not infrequent. Thus the genitival ending -aigh in names based on a nominative -ach, is often reduces to -a, e.g. Ó Dalaigh (<Dalach) > Ó Dála. But this is not true for all dialects, so that the ending might be maintained as -aí (or -ai) in Ulster. I have noted among the (Ulster) names in Cal. S. P. James 1 Page 608 Gorie (<Gofraidh) and Mac Felemie (<Mac Feilimidh). On the other hand, I have also noted there McClosga. The Irish form usually given for this name is Mac Bloscaidh, so that this would appear to be an example of the reduction of -aidh to -a.

3. It is not impossible that the ending -a in an Irish form (as in Earca) could be rendered as -ey in an anglicized form. And there are instances of double forms, e.g. Ó Cadhla - Keily - Ó Cadhlaidh. Hence it is not impossible that Ó Maoil Earca was the historic form and gave anglicized form O' Mullarkie which in turn led to Ó Maoil Earcaidh.

4. MacLysaght's form O' Maoil Earca is certainly possible as a historic form but I do not know what authority he has for it from early records. His interpretation as a devotee of St Erc seems reasonable. Forty instances of the name Erc occur in O'Brien's Corpus Genealogiarum Hiberniae and among them is Erc Sláine who was a contemporary of St Patrick and whose feast day was on 2 November according to the Martyrology of Oengus.

According to a gloss in the Félire, a son of Erc was bishop of Ard Sratha (Ardstraw near Strabane), so it would not be surprising to have devotees of St Erc in Ulster. Unfortunately I have not come up with any instance of a first name Maél Erca from which a surname Ó Maíl Erca (> Ó Maoil Earca) would come, although the name Mac Erca is well established. Nor have I, for that matter, found evidence of the surname itself in the published genealogical collections.

5. If Ó Maoil Earcaidh is the correct historic form we must ask what the element Earcaidh represents. In earlier Irish there is a verb ercaid which has various meanings including "adorns". This could give a noun of agency ercaid, one who adorns, from which we might postulate a name Maél Ercaid, later Maol Earcaidh.

Alongside this possibility, I have thought of the Ulster name O' Sharkey, for which the form now used is Ó Searcaigh. The latter would appear to derive from searc - love through searcach, - a loving (or lovable) person. But it might be possible that the correct form is Ó Searcaidh, with searcaidh - lover. We might postulate a related surname Ó Maoil Searcaidh. This would regularly give Ó Maoilearcaidh, just as Ó Maoil Sheachlainn gave Ó Maoileachlainn, and the termination -ey in the anglicized form would be a regular reflex of the Irish termination. But again must stress that so far I have no evidence to support this suggestion, other than the form you have in the Cal. S. P.

6. One of the many problems with Irish personal names , first names and surnames, is that many of them which are quite old have not found their way into early documents or, if they have been recorded, the documentary evidence has not been published. You at least have evidence for the form Ó Maoilearcaidh for which , as I have shown , one can advance a plausible etymology. That being the case I can see no reason for not adopting it. I would advise against Ó Maoilearcaí or Ó Maoilearcaíg. I regret that I cannot give a more substantial basis for your name."


The situation then is most unclear. On the one hand there is a traditional spelling with one source for the spelling in the British administration records in 1608. This traditional explanation would place the source of the name in Ulster. The Mullarkey name is known to have had a presence in Ulster in the 1600's. Family traditions in the west of Ireland, states that in the clearances of the native Irish from Ulster in the early 17th century, that the clan moved west into the province of Connacht. Today the is name is associated predominantly with Connacht rather than Ulster. In 1891 of the 21 births of babies of parents called Mullarkey, 20 were in Connacht (West), 1 in Ulster (North) and none in either Munster (South) or Leinster (East).

On the other hand there is the spelling version resulting from the scholarship of Edward MacLysaght and Rev Patrick Woulfe. St. Erc's connection with the South West of Ireland seems to be at odds with the present coverage of the name which is predominantly in the west of Ireland, though with some presence in Ulster. On the other hand as a relatively significant figure in early Christian Ireland he may have had a wider appeal, especially if one of his sons was the bishop of Ardstraw in Ulster. Research continues on the subject and further developments will be reported in the Foundation's half yearly newsletters.

In the light of the discovery of the version in the Cal. S. P., the writer and the Foundation have adopted the version Ó Maelearcaidh, until evidence proves otherwise.

Gaelic naming structure

As mentioned above the study of the origins of Irish names is more difficult not just because of the transformations in the spellling and pronunciation of Gaelic names but also because of the transformation in the structure of names and the naming system.

Prior to the arrival of the Normans the Gael had a Patronymic naming system. An individual would have a name which basically described his lineage, identifying him, with his parent, grandparent etc. Hence a male individual might be described as Seán, Mac Liam, Mac Domhnail, Mac Ruairi mhic Aoidh Uí Néill. This would translate as John, son of William, son of Donald, son of Rory, son of Hugh of Neil's sept. The name might even omit reference to the root sept name (Ó Néill in the above example), as it would be an understood aspect of the name. Should one ancestor be particularly significant a new sept might emerge basing itself on it's connection to him. The new name would signify its new root by simply adding Ó (grandson/ seed of) before the relevant ancestor. Hence in the above example one might find a new sept forming, based on Donald as the root name, in which Seán might then have the name Seán, Mac Liam, Ó Domhnail.

Female names would decline somewhat similarly but with the use of Ní or Nic (daughter of) in place of Mac. Hence one might have a sister for Seán called Aoife Ní Liam Ní Dhomhnaill Ní Ruairí Nic Aoidh Néill.

The personal names were themselves traditional, or based on local places. Names might also be supplanted in adulthood by descriptive knicknames, or their professions. Examples of personal name might be Briain or Domhnail. Examples of knicknames might be Ceann fhada (Kennedy) - Long head, or Dúarcán (Durkan)- the pessimist.

As seen above these personal names were linked by a patronymic such as Mac (son of )or Ó (grandson of), or Ní (daughter of) to the personal names of their forebears. With the arrival of Christianity in Ireland in the 5th century, additional patronymics based on adopting the name of a saint, in combination with "Giolla", meaning "follower of" developed. An example of such a personal name is Giolla Íosa - follower of Jesus.

Hence one might have a male individual called Seán, Mac Liam, Mac Giolla Íosa. Much along the same lines, older Mael names based on earlier pre-Christian deities, became equated with local Christian saints. In the section on derivation, we have seen that various authorities have commented that in Christian times Mael was often translated as "disciple of". Hence Mael Earca - disciple of Erc. From this a Patronymic name might develope such as Seán, Mac Liam, Mac Domhnail, Ó Mael Earca.

Into this very fluid naming system came the Normans in the 13th century. Gaelic naming system, as well as their view of property, law and inheritance were completely different to the equivalent Normans systems. Within the Pale the Normans were able to physically impose their own institutions, but outside the Pale even within the Norman Lordships the Gaelic institutions continued to run parallel to those of the Normans. Inevitably the competition between institutions led to conflict. Within the Pale the Normans anglicised Gaelic names so that they could deal with the Irish on their own terms. Additionally they imposed their naming structure on the Irish, under which individuals were known by their Christian name(s) and a single surname, which passed through the father's line to sons and daughters. In other words they introduced the naming system which we now have.

As the Irish language and culture began to take hold in the Pale during the reign of John III laws were introduced into the Pale to defend it's Norman/English nature. These laws from 1217 onwards included a ban on adopting Gaelic names and the Gaelic naming system. Though the laws failed to halt the Gaelicisation of the Normans, the Normans in the Pale influenced the Gael, who slowly began adopting their naming system. When the New English came onto the scene in the early 16th century, this process was dramatically accelerated throughout Ireland. Over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries the New English imposed their legal and military control to the whole of Ireland. In the process came the relatively sudden imposition of both anglicised Irish surnames and our modern system of family surnames.

The problem was that this anglicising/normanising of surnames did not happen in a regular, consistent, or effective way. Taking the examples of Seán and Aoife, they might be given an anglicised surname based on any of their patronymics, hence they might become John and Eve MacWilliam or John and Eve McDonald or John and Eve McRory or John and Eve O'Neil. Adding to the complexities of unravelling the history of clan names, the Irish outside the Pale often used a dual system of anglicised surnames alongside Gaelic names and naming structure. Hence in dealing with an English landlord a Gael might be known as both John MacWilliam and Seán MacLiam Mac Domhnaill etc.

In view of the purported history of the name in Donegal and it's relative concentration in Connacht the 19th century, tends to indicate indicate that the Ó Maelearcaidh or Ó Maelearca name was a root sept name, as opposed to just an anglicised patronymic name. Against this the lack of a record of the name in the known Gaelic genealogies, points to the name being a patronymic. There again Professor Ó Cuív mentions that he has no record of the name as a patronymic. For now the jury is out on whether the Ó Maelearcaidh name is a patronymic splinter from one of the larger Ulster clans such as the Ó Néill's or Ó Domhnaill's or is a clan in it's own right.

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