Search

19/10/2021

The history of common Derry surnames: Are you a Doherty, McLaughlin, Gallagher or Kelly?

Brian Mitchell explores where our popular names originate from

Bronagh Gallagher

Derry actress and singer Bronagh Gallagher. Gallagher is one of the top 3 most common surnames in Derry.

Local genealogist Brian Mtchell has carried out extensive research into the history of our local surnames. In this, the first of a series of articles on the most common 20 local surnames, he explores the background of the names Doherty, McLaughlin, Gallagher and Kelly.

1 - DOHERTY

The surname Doherty, which is by far the most popular name in the city of Derry and the Inishowen peninsula, County Donegal, illustrates the very close links between these two areas.

As Derry developed an industrial base in the 19th century in shirt making, shipbuilding and distilling it attracted much of its workforce from Inishowen.

The Doherty sept trace their lineage to Conall Gulban, son of the 5th century High King of Ireland, Niall of the Nine Hostages, who ruled from the Hill of Tara, County Meath. Conall and his brother Eogan conquered northwest Ireland, ca.425 AD, capturing the great hill-fort of Grianan of Ailech which commanded the entrance to Inishowen between Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle.

Ireland was one of the first countries to adopt a system of hereditary surnames which developed from a more ancient system of clan or sept names.

The surname was formed by prefixing either Mac (son of) or O (grandson or descendant of) to the ancestor’s name.

The Dohertys take their name from Dochartach, twelfth in lineal descent from Conall Gulban and were thus in Gaelic O Dochartaigh.

The word dochartach means ‘hurtful’.

The original seat of the Doherty clan was at Ardmire or Ard Miodhair, a district to the west of Ballybofey near Lough Finn, County Donegal.

In 1203 Donnell Carragh O’Doherty was styled ‘Royal Chieftain of Ardmire’.

As the original homeland of the Cenel Eoghain (the race of Owen) in Inishowen became more and more a northern outpost, as they expanded south and east, the O’Dohertys, a powerful branch of the Cenel Conaill (race of Conall), forced their way into Inishowen.

When Conor O’Doherty died in 1413 he was styled ‘Chief of Ardmire, and Lord of Inishowen’.

The Dohertys remained the chief family of Inishowen until their influence was broken after the rebellion of Sir Cahir O’Doherty in 1608, which included the ransacking of the city of Derry.

The defeat and execution of Sir Cahir O’Doherty marked the end of Doherty power and paved the way for the 17th century Plantation of Ulster with English and Scottish settlers.

In the centuries that followed the name was anglicised with many variant spellings and in nearly all cases the O prefix was dropped. By 1890 only 2 per cent were still using it.

However, in the 20th century, many resumed it and by 1950 half of the Dohertys in Ireland had become O’Doherty again.
In the 17th and 18th centuries many descendants of the old Gaelic order in Ireland emigrated, as the so-called Wild Geese, to Europe, and, in particular, to Spain and France.

Dr Ramon Salvador O’Dogherty of San Fernando, near Cadiz, Spain was inaugurated in July 1990 as the 37th O’Dochartaigh, chief of Inishowen.

Ramon O’Dogherty is descended from Sir Cahir’s brother John who fled from Inishowen to County Cavan and whose descendants settled in Spain, as nobility, in the 18th century.

The inauguration ceremony took place on the original ‘crowning stone’, which tradition states was carried from Grianan, in the grounds of the former Belmont House School in Derry, using the ancient ceremonial ritual of the clan: The claimant to the title of ‘The O’Doherty’ standing barefoot on the stone, holding a white wand of hazel wood.

2 – MCLAUGHLIN


The surname McLaughlin, which is second to Doherty in both Derry city and Inishowen, County Donegal, illustrates the very close links between these two areas.

As Derry developed an industrial base in the 19th century in shirt making, shipbuilding and distilling it attracted much of its workforce from Inishowen.

Today, 80% of Donegal McLaughlins are still concentrated in the Inishowen peninsula.

The McLaughlin sept trace their lineage to Eogan, son of the 5th century High King of Ireland, Niall of the Nine Hostages, who ruled from the Hill of Tara, County Meath.

Eogan and his brother Conall Gulban conquered northwest Ireland, ca.425 AD, capturing the great hill-fort of Grianan of Ailech which commanded the entrance to the Inishowen peninsula between Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle.

Eogan, styled ‘King of Ailech’, established his own kingdom in the peninsula still called after him Inishowen (Innis Eoghain or Eogan’s Isle).

Eogan was converted to Christianity by St Patrick, when he travelled to Ailech, ca. 442 AD.

His descendants, known as the Cenel Eoghain (the race of Owen), became the principal branch of the Northern Ui Neill (descendants of Niall of the Nine Hostages).

The Cenel Eoghain in the next five centuries expanded to the east and south from their focal point in Inishowen.

Ireland was one of the first countries to adopt a system of hereditary surnames which developed from a more ancient system of clan or sept names.

The surname was formed by prefixing either Mac (son of) or O (grandson or descendant of) to the ancestor’s name.

The McLaughlins take their name from Lochlainn, which in turn was derived from a Norse personal name, and were thus in Gaelic Mac Lochlainn, i.e. son of Lochlainn. The McLaughlins were initially the senior branch of the Northern Ui Neill and their territory was in Inishowen.

In the 12th century the McLaughlins, ruling from their royal palace at Ailech in Inishowen, were High Kings of Ireland and patrons of the monastic settlement in Derry. Domhnall Mac Lochlainn, styled ‘King of Ireland’, died at Doire-Choluim-Chille (by tradition the monastery at Derry was founded in 546 AD by St Columcille, also known as Columba) in 1121.

After a decisive battle in 1241 at Caimeirge (which scholars believe was near Maghera in County Derry) the O’Neills of Tyrone ousted the McLaughlins as the leading power in Ulster.

Brian O’Neill was now ‘installed in the lordship of the Kinel-Owen’.

In the 15th century the Dohertys ousted the McLaughlins as Lords of Inishowen.

Some McLaughlins in Ulster, particularly Antrim, may derive from the Argyllshire clan known in Scotland as MacLachlan.

The O’Melaghlins of north Leinster have also changed their name to McLaughlin.

3 - GALLAGHER

Gallagher is the third most common name in Ulster and two-thirds of the Ulster total are in the sept’s homeland of County Donegal where it is the most numerous name.

Although it is only the thirteenth most common name in County Derry, it is the third most numerous in the city of Derry.

This name illustrates the very close links between the city of Derry and County Donegal.

As Derry developed an industrial base in the 19th century in shirt making, shipbuilding and distilling it attracted much of its workforce from Donegal.

The Gallagher sept trace their lineage to Conall Gulban, son of the 5th century High King of Ireland, Niall of the Nine Hostages, who ruled from the Hill of Tara, County Meath. Conall and his brother Eogan conquered northwest Ireland, ca.425 AD, capturing the great hill-fort of Grianan of Ailech in County Donegal which commanded the entrance to Inishowen between Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle.

Conall, styled ‘King of Tir Conaill’, established his own kingdom in County Donegal called after him Tyrconnel, i.e. the ‘Land of Conall’, which was the ancient name of Donegal.

His descendants, known as the Cenel Conaill (the race of Conall), formed one of the principal branches of the Northern Ui Neill (descendants of Niall of the Nine Hostages).

The septs of the Cenel Conaill firmly established themselves in County Donegal while those descended from Conal’s brother Eogan expanded to the east and south into Counties Derry and Tyrone.

Ireland was one of the first countries to adopt a system of hereditary surnames which developed from a more ancient system of clan or sept names.

The surname was formed by prefixing either Mac (son of) or O (grandson or descendant of) to the ancestor’s name.

The Gallaghers take their name from Gallchobhair, and were thus in Gaelic O Gallchobhair, i.e. descendant of Gallagher. This name is derived from gallchobhar, meaning ‘foreign help’.

The O’Gallaghers claim to be the senior and most loyal family of the Cenel Conaill.

Their territory extended over a wide area in the baronies of Raphoe and Tirhugh in the east and south of County Donegal.

The O’Gallaghers, from their bases at Ballybeit and Ballynaglack, were chief marshals and commanders of O’Donnell’s military forces from the 14th to the 16th centuries.

The O’Gallaghers also provided many wives for the O’Donnell sept.

As well as being a military family the Gallaghers have produced many churchmen.

Six O’Gallaghers were bishops of Raphoe in the 15th and 16th centuries, and Redmond O Gallagher, the 16th century Bishop of Derry, befriended the survivors of the Spanish Armada.

Today the name is found widely in Scotland where it often takes the form Gallacher.

It also occurs in the English cities of Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds where it is pronounced ‘Gallocher’.

4 – KELLY

Kelly is the second commonest family name in Ireland, after Murphy, and part of the reason is that, at least seven and possibly as many as ten distinct septs of the same name arose in different parts of the country.

Kelly is the sixth most common name in Ulster, and the third most numerous in Counties Derry and Tyrone.

The Kelly sept of County Derry trace their lineage to Eogan, son of the 5th century High King of Ireland, Niall of the Nine Hostages, who ruled from the Hill of Tara, County Meath.

Eogan and his brother Conall Gulban conquered northwest Ireland, ca.425 AD, capturing the great hill-fort of Grianan of Ailech in County Donegal.

Eogan, styled ‘King of Ailech’, established his own kingdom in the peninsula in County Donegal still called after him Inishowen (Innis Eoghain or Eogan’s Isle).

His descendants, known as the Cenel Eoghain (the race of Owen), became the principal branch of the Northern Ui Neill (descendants of Niall of the Nine Hostages).

The Cenel Eoghain in the next five centuries expanded to the east and south from their focal point in Inishowen.
Ireland was one of the first countries to adopt a system of hereditary surnames which developed from a more ancient system of clan or sept names.

The surname was formed by prefixing either Mac (son of) or O (grandson or descendant of) to the ancestor’s name. Kelly is derived from Gaelic O Ceallaigh, the root word possibly being ceallach meaning strife.

The O’Kellys were one of the leading septs of Clan Binny (Eochaid Binnigh was a son of Eogan) possessing territory on the banks of the River Foyle near Lifford in County Donegal.

The first outward thrust of the Owen clan was that of Clan Binny in the 6th century AD who thrust southeast into County Tyrone, bypassing a hard core of resistance in County Derry of the Cianachta, as far as the river Blackwater on the borders of Tyrone and Armagh.

Clan Binny eventually ousted the Oriella clans from the district lying west of the river Bann from Coleraine to beside Lough Neagh, and drove them across the river.

In the course of time the O’Kellys moved eastwards into County Derry and were based in the barony of Loughinsholin in south Derry.

The most powerful Kelly sept was that of Ui Maine, often called Hy Many, who ruled O’Kelly’s Country in Counties Galway and Roscommon.

This sept claims descent from the 4th century Colla da Crioch, King of Ulster and first King of Oriel. Other O’Kelly septs originated in Counties Kilkenny, Leix, Meath, Sligo and Wicklow.

Kelly was known as a surname in Scotland long before 19th century Irish immigration really established the name there. There was, for example, a Kelly sept attached to Clan Donald.

In Thursday's Derry News, Brian Mitchell looks at the history of the names Moore, Coyle, Harkin and Bradley.

Buy the e-paper of the Donegal Democrat, Donegal People's Press, Donegal Post and Inish Times here for instant access to Donegal's premier news titles.

Keep up with the latest news from Donegal with our daily newsletter featuring the most important stories of the day delivered to your inbox every evening at 5pm.