What’s in a name? Well, a lot or not so much, if you are a genealogist. Sounds like a contradiction, but as family historians, we tend to have a love/hate relationship with the names of the ancestors we are researching. One of the very first lessons a budding genealogist learns is that they are going to find their family names in many forms, some that will even be totally unrecognizable. Given the information that before the introduction of wide-spread public education in the early 20th century, many of our ancestors were, at best, semi-literate, this makes a great deal of sense. How could someone who could not read and/or write correct the bureaucrat who was filling his/her name out on a sheet of paper? In 2014, we take offense at the telemarketer who cannot pronounce our name the way we do when reading it off a sheet of paper. In 1854, that differing pronunciation ultimately may have become an accepted spelling of our name.
Of course those of us who are researching ancestors of some ethnic groups- Russian, Polish, German, Italian, etc, are used to and expect that name variations and changes will occur, whether it be a single letter or a full re-tooling of the name. The motivations of our ancestors to change their names when they arrived in the United States were varied and many. (It’s a myth that officials at United States ports changed names FOR immigrants) The desire to assimilate and become more “American” played a large role in the decision to change a name from one form to another. What then, of the thousands of Irish immigrants whose names also changed? Was there ever a time when names like “Murphy”, “Sullivan” or “McNamara” did not seem common in this country?
In my own personal research history, early on I could easily accept the variations I stumbled across of my own surname: WALSH, WALCH, WELSH, WELCH. A tougher sell was the ancestor whose “properly spelled” Irish surname was HEHIR, but who had relatives in the United States who changed the name to AYERS. Since then I have encountered countless spelling variations of hundreds of Irish names. Some are easily understood and accepted without much explaining. Others take a bit more arm-twisting.
I once did some work for a client whose American surname was CANFIELD. Not a name you hear every day but certainly not uncommon. His family had 100% Irish origins, but after 25 years of research by several professional genealogists, no trace of his family in Ireland could be found. I was hired to see if modern technology and access to records would make a difference in acquiring any new information. I examined some baptism records in the area where the family lived in the United States, and noticed dispersed amongst the CANFIELD baptisms were a few using the name CANTWELL. There appeared to be some families who used the names interchangeably (especially in the first few years after their emigration to this country), and I even found an example or two of my client’s own ancestors identified as CANTWELL. Checking the Irish records, I was able to find a likely baptism for my client’s ancestor under the surname CANTWELL. The dates matched up with what was already known, as did the parents’ names, including the mother’s maiden name. The only difference was that the surname was CANTWELL, not CANFIELD. I don’t know to this day if this client was sold on the probability of the name change, but it was compelling enough for me to alter how I approach the search for families, especially in records originating in Ireland.
In the case of Irish church records, often the priest recording the information was the only fully literate person in the area. He may have used Latin or English to record the records of the rituals of the church- baptism, marriage, burial. Sometimes the names used were forms of old Irish spellings, sometimes anglicized, sometimes a combination of the two. Consistency does not seem to have been a priority. Just because your name was spelled “Conners” on one child’s baptism record does not mean the next child’s record might not be under the name “Cahir”. Using the context of the record (the clues surrounding it) help determine whether the record actually refers to our ancestor. Often this is a leap of faith we have to take in the absence of supporting evidence.
If I were researching someone from Poland, there would be very little debate as to whether a name change might have occurred. I would go into the project prepared for this and fully expecting to make determinations as to whether a surname I was looking at was an acceptable variation. I would use additional genealogical skills to determine if the record I was looking at pertained to the person I was researching. Why would it not make sense to adopt this same approach when researching families of Irish origins? Just because all those Murphys, Kellys and Conners look familiar to us doesn’t mean it was always so. More about using the contexts of records next time.