Irish & Scots Female Ancestor Names in Primary Sources
As you progress with your genetic genealogy research you will eventually reach a point where records were not written in modern English. The records are often in Gaelic or written is an English dialect, such as Lallans or Hiberno-English, with the surname rendered into phonetic Gaelic.
With men’s names this does not present too much difficulty if you are familiar with their Gaelic forms, but, do not overlook the possibility of locating a female ancestor from this time period. Most records and pre 1600 genealogies tend to feature only male names. However, in some cases the name of a female ancestor will appear, but you will need to know how to recognize the surname when you see it.
Finding the name of a male ancestor is fairly straight forward. It will appear in some anglicized or phonetic spelling of the original Gaelic surnames. Most people are familiar with male surnames in Gaelic; Ó means “descendant of” and Mac means “son of.” Mag is an alternative spelling of Mac and was sometimes used when the name that follows it began with a vowel. The ladies used a similar system. Girls and unmarried women with surnames that began with Ní for an Ó surname and a Nic with Mac prefix surnames.
Married women would take their husbands names, but the prefix form was different than the male form. Ó became Uí and Mac became Mhic. This name change did not always hide the surname of the woman’s father however. In traditional Gaelic society some women retained their father's surname due to the strong sense of family and clan affiliation. This was done when the woman was the daughter of a land holding family and had high status within society.
Two examples from the mid to late 1500s that I located in my own research are: Fionnuala Nic Eáin married Dónaill Mac Ailín. Her “married name” becomes Fionnuala Mhic Ailín. In actuality, she retained her maiden name in the community and is listed by that name in the records. Her name appears crudely anglicised as Finvall Nikean. Here is an entry from the Argyll records where she appears:
…In the same year (1572) Finvall Nikean, the wife of Donald M'Alane V'Donile of Dunnad, resigned to James Scrymgeoure of Dudhope constable of Dundee the twenty shillinglands of Carnyame, the said Donald warranting the constable free of all harm in respect of the lands from the heirs of the deceased Lauchlane M'Donald V'Alane.
This data allowed me to connect Fionnuala Nic Eáin to the House of Dónaill Mac Ailín’s cousin, a Donnchadh Rua Mac Ailín, who used the clan surname of Mac Eáin. (the man's name in the above document 'Donald M'Alane V'Donile' is Dónail Mac Ailín Mhic Dhónaill, the 'Mhic' meaning grandson, and in some cases, descendant of.)
Another example connected with the family of Donnchadh Rua Mac Ailín, is Aifric Nic Dhonnachaidh Rua the wife of Malcolm Scrymgeour. Again, this Gaelic woman does not use her husband’s surname, but rather a surname that identifies her clan. In this case once again, to the family of Donnchadh Rua Mac Ailín of Dunemuck, a thane in Glassary and who held his lands through Clann Lachlainn. In the actual record her name is recorded as “Effreta nein Donche roy.”
When you get on the trail of your Irish and Scottish ancestors be aware of both male and female Gaelic forms of your surname. This is especially important when your ancestor was from a Gaelic speaking area. You might make a great find, I have done so several times now.