IRISH SURNAMES | It's All in a Name:

Six Nations Rugby Victory 2015

The Irish rugby flag

The last day of the 2015 Six Nations Championship will rightly be remembered as one of the most dramatic events in Irish sporting history, with a nerve-shattered Ireland emerging as eventual victors on a day which had begun with four teams still in contention. At times during the day, especially during the second half in Rome's Stadio Olimpico where the waves of a red sea repeatedly crashed over the Italian try-line, it looked like the championship may have slipped from Ireland's grasp. However, if any Ireland fans had entertained doubts about an Irish victory, they need only have had a look at the names on Ireland's teamsheet to dispel them.


Beginning with the forwards, Ireland's lynchpin in the front row, Rory Best, has a surname which very fittingly derives from the word 'beast.' The name Best has an English origin, with those of the name in Leinster deriving from a family which arrived from Kent in England in the seventeenth century, while those in the North, where the name is now more numerous, arrived more recently. As Rory is from Craigavon, Co. Armagh he is most likely descended from the second wave of Bests. In both cases, the name derives from the Old English best ('beast') which, again very suitably, denotes 'one in charge of cattle.'


Beside Rory Best, then, you had the mighty Cian Healy, whose surname is derived in some instances from the Irish éilidhe, meaning 'claimant,' and he was certainly a player who wasn't going to let his team's claim to the championship fade without a fight.


Behind them, you had Ireland's now almost legendary captain Paul O'Connell, whose surname is most associated in Ireland's history with the emancipation of the Catholic Irish by Daniel O'Connell, and Paul too performed great feats to free the Irish, his early try and unrivalled leadership doing much to free Ireland from the spectre of defeat.


The name O'Connell is traditionally traced back to a man called Aengus Tuirmeach, said to have been High King of Ireland around 180 B.C. In terms of his physical size (6' 6" tall) and powers as a leader, Paul O'Connell could certainly be called a 'High King,' but standing beside him on that day was a man of kingly origins who was even higher, at least in physical height. This was the giant Devin Toner (6' 10"), whose unusual name, although being Gaelic, is derived from a Norse forename, Tomar, in this case a tenth century Viking king of Dublin. Toner, then, is likely not the first of his name to venture on to the field of battle.

Devin Toner's surname derives from a Viking forename

The surname Toner itself derives from the fact that, a thousand years ago, when a Gaelic man married a Norse woman, it was common enough that some of the children would be given Norse first names and, indeed, this explains the origins of other Irish surnames such as MacManus ('son of Manus'). It was in the anglicisation of the Irish name Ó Tomhrair ('son of Tomar') that the 'R' sound was changed to an 'N' sound, which was a common practice, thus the modern name 'Toner.'


O'Connell and Toner were not the only forwards to line out that day who could claim a name with great royal connections. In the back row, Seán O'Brien can claim descent from the most famous Irish king of all, Brian Boru. In 1005, Brian had himself proclaimed as Imperator Scottorum, which does not mean 'Emperor of the Scottish' but 'Emperor of the Irish' – the Irish being the original 'Scots' (called Scotti by the Romans), and 'Scot'-land deriving its name from the influx of Irish people to northern Britain from almost two thousand years ago onwards. However, with a towering display in Murrayfield, including two tries, Seán O'Brien could well lay claim to both titles on that day.

Mural in Dublin City Hall of Brian Boru before the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 by James Ward (1851–1924)

The forwards were not the only players with auspicious surnames, though. At full back stood the ever-present Rob Kearney, whose surname is an anglicised form either of the Irish Ó Cearnaigh, which is likely derived from the word cearnach, meaning 'victorious,' or Ó Catharnaigh, which means 'warlike'.


The winger, Tommy Bowe, also seems to hail from winning stock, as his surname may be derived from the Irish name Ó Buadhaigh, from buadhach, which also means 'victorious.'


With such a collection of beasts, kings, and victors lining out for the Irish on that most memorable of days, perhaps it was inevitable that the next name to be engraved on the Six Nations cup would be that of Ireland.

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