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The history of surnames: Are you a Moore, Coyle, Harkin or Bradley?

Latest in our series looking at the history of our most common names

Richard Moore

Derry charity founder Richard Moore.

In the latest in our series of articles by Derry genealogist Brian Mitchell on the history behind the local area's most common surnames, we look today at the names which rank from five to eight in the 20 most common in the local area.

5 - MOORE

This name, which can be of English, Irish or Scottish origin, is among the 20 most common in Ireland and has the distinction of being found in every county.

A quarter of all Moores in Ireland are in County Antrim alone and the name is common too in Counties Derry and Tyrone.

In Northern Ireland, most Moores are of Scottish origin. This name, which is the seventh most common in the city of Derry, is regarded as the most numerous name in the city for which a gaelic origin is unlikely. Nowadays, Moore is quite common in the lowland hinterland to the east, west and south of Derry, but not in Inishowen.

Although Moore is one of the 40 most numerous names in England, deriving from residence in or near a moor or heath, it also comes from that area in the south and west lowlands of Scotland which provided so many of the seventeenth century settlers in Ulster.

The surname was first noted there in a variety of places, including Ayrshire and Lanarkshire, in the 13th century.

In Scotland, the name often took the form ‘Muir.’ There were Mores, a sept of Clan Leslie, and Muirs, a sept of Clan Campbell.

The defeat of the old Gaelic order in the Nine Years War, 1594-1603, and the escape of the most prominent Gaelic Lords of Ulster in ‘the Flight of the Earls’ in 1607 from Lough Swilly, County Donegal were ultimately responsible for the settlement of many Scottish families in the northern counties of Ireland.

In 1609 the Earl of Salisbury, Lord High Treasurer, suggested to James I a deliberate plantation of Scottish and English colonists on the forfeited estates of the Gaelic chiefs in counties Armagh, Cavan, Donegal, Fermanagh, Londonderry (then known as Coleraine) and Tyrone.

Settlers to Ulster came, by and large, in three waves: with the granting of the initial leases in the period 1605 to 1625; after 1652 and Cromwell’s crushing of the Irish rebellion; and finally in the 15 years after 1690 and the Glorious Revolution. It is estimated by 1715, when Scottish migration to Ulster had virtually stopped, the Presbyterian population of Ulster, ie of essentially Scottish origin, stood at 200,000.

Scottish families entering Ireland through the port of Derry settled in the Foyle Valley which includes much of the fertile lands of counties Donegal, Derry and Tyrone.

The lands along the Firth of Clyde in the county of Ayrshire, the Clyde Valley and the Border Lands consisting of the counties of Wigtown, Kirkcudbright and Dumfries were home to many of these Scottish settlers.

Confusion arises because the Irish sept name of O’More was invariably changed to Moore. The O’Mores, derived from Gaelic O Mordha, meaning ‘majestic,' were the leading sept of the ‘Seven Septs of Leix.’ They were based at Dunamanse, near Portlaoise, County Laois (also known as Leix) in central Ireland. The ancestor who gave the O’Mores their name, ie Mordha, was 21st in descent from Conall Cearnach, the legendary hero of the Red Branch Knights of Ulster.

6 – COYLE


This name is most common in Ulster in its homeland, County Donegal and in Counties Derry, Tyrone and Cavan.

Coyle is among the top ten names in the city of Derry today.

The 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.

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. From the 11th century each family began to adopt its own distinctive family name generally derived from the first name of an ancestor who lived in or about the 10th century.

The surname was formed by prefixing either Mac (son of) or O (grandson or descendant of) to the ancestor’s name. Surnames in Ireland, therefore, tended to identify membership of a sept.

Coyle is derived from Gaelic Mac Giolla Chomhgaill, meaning ‘son of the devotee of St Comgal.’ St Comgal was the patron of Galloon parish in south Fermanagh.

This sept was based in the parish of Meevagh in the barony of Kilmacrenan in County Donegal.

The name was first anglicised as McIlhoyle, then McCoyle and finally Coyle. One branch of the Coyles were erenaghs, ie hereditary stewards, of the church lands in Galloon Parish, County Fermanagh.

Owing to the mistaken belief that the Gaelic word coill, meaning ‘wood,’ was part of this sept’s name, Mac Giolla Chomhgaill was often anglicised to Woods.

Coyle has also become confused with McCool. Although the surnames of Coyle and McCool have quite distinct origins their ultimate origins have become confused as a result of anglicisation. In some cases people whose origins are Mac Giolla Chomhgaill of Kilmacrenan may be disguised by bearing the surname McCool.

The origins of the name McCool are not certain. It has been suggested that McCool, derived from Mac Giolla Comhghaill, meaning ‘son of the devotee of St Comhghal’ or from Mac Comhghaill, is a distinct sept from the Raphoe area of County Donegal. The surname McCool is most common in Counties Donegal and Tyrone. This name has also been made Cole, which is a common English surname, in the Glenties area of Donegal.

In Scotland MacCool can be a variant of MacDougall, Gaelic Mac Dhughaill. In a few cases, therefore, the name may have come with Scottish immigrants at the time of the Plantation of Ulster in the 17th century.

7 – HARKIN

Harkins are found only in Ulster where over half are in County Donegal and most of the rest in County Derry.

The name is particularly associated with Inishowen, County Donegal.

This name, which is among the top ten in the city of Derry, illustrates the very close links between the city of Derry and Inishowen.

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

From the 11th century each family began to adopt its own distinctive family name generally derived from the first name of an ancestor who lived in or about the 10th century.

The surname was formed by prefixing either Mac (son of) or O (grandson or descendant of) to the ancestor’s name. Surnames in Ireland, therefore, tended to identify membership of a sept.

Harkin is derived from Gaelic O hEarcain, the root word being earc, meaning ‘red’.

In 1659 the Harkins were recorded as a ‘principal name’ in the barony of Inishowen, County Donegal.

This sept’s association with Inishowen is recorded long before that, for the O’Harkins were erenaghs, i.e. hereditary stewards, of the church lands of Cloncha.

One appears as such in Bishop Montgomery’s diocesan survey of 1606. Daniel O’Harcan, who died in 1581, was one of the Ulster martyrs defending the Roman Catholic faith.

The Parish of Cloncha, which includes Malin Head, is the most northerly parish in Ireland.

Many Inishowen families trace their lineage to Eogan, son of the fifth 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.

Today there are more Harkins in Derry city than in their original homeland of Inishowen.

8 – BRADLEY

This name is most common in Ulster and, in particular, in County Derry, where it is the fourth most numerous, and in Counties Antrim, Donegal and Tyrone.

The name is most concentrated in central and south Derry.

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.

From the 11th century each family began to adopt its own distinctive family name generally derived from the first name of an ancestor who lived in or about the 10th century.

The surname was formed by prefixing either Mac (son of) or O (grandson or descendant of) to the ancestor’s name. Surnames in Ireland, therefore, tended to identify membership of a sept.

Bradley and O’Brollaghan, an earlier anglicized form of the name, are derived from Gaelic O Brollachain, meaning ‘descendant of Brollach’.

Brollach is an old personal name, the root word being brollach, meaning ‘breast.' The territory of this sept was the area which straddles the borders of Counties Derry, Donegal and Tyrone.

In the 12th century, in particular, The Annals of The Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters makes many references to the O’Brollaghans.

In 1158 Flahertagh O’Brollaghan was appointed as ‘successor of Colum Cille’, i.e. Abbot of all monasteries under the rule of Colum Cille, which included Derry and Iona in Scotland.

He began preparations for the erection of a new cathedral in Derry worthy of its distinguished founder, St Colum Cille (also known as Columba).

In 1164, in the space of 40 days, Templemore or ‘the great church of Doire’ was erected near the original Dubh Regles or Black Abbey church. From this cathedral, the parish of Templemore, which contains the city of Derry, derived its name.

Today, O’Brollaghan has been entirely anglicised to Bradley. In some instances, notably in County Derry, the earlier version of O’Brallaghan survived into the 17th century. For example the Hearth Money Rolls of 1663 for Maghera Parish, County Derry records one Edmond O Brallaghan.

A branch of the O’Brollaghans was established, in the 12th century, in the Highlands of Scotland through their connections with the monastery on Iona. Donal O’Brollaghan, prior of Derry, who died in 1202, was Abbot of Iona in the 12th century. Here too the name was anglicised to Bradley.

Another branch of the O’Brollaghans early migrated to County Cork and the numerous Bradleys of that area descend from them.

Bradley is also an English name derived from many places of that name in northern England. Here Bradley is derived from the Old English bradleah, meaning ‘broad wood or clearing’.

Few Bradleys in Ulster, however, are of English origin.

If you have a story or want to send a photo or video to us please contact the Derry Now editorial team on 028 7129 6600 for Derry City stories Or 028 7774 3970 for County Derry stories. Or you can email editor@derrynews.net or editor@derrypost.com at any time.


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