Special Report on Surnames in Ireland
by Sir Robert E. Matheson
(Baltimore: Reprint, Genealogical Publishing, 1994) 94 pages
Reviewed by Doris V. Cummins
Originally published as Varieties and Synonyms of Surnames - Christian Names in Ireland (1901) and Special Report on Surnames in Ireland (1909), the two reports were printed in one volume beginning in 1968. The initial object in 1890 was to assist Registration Officers and the public searching the birth, marriage and death indexes by collating the variant spellings of names and those names that differ altogether but were used interchangeably.
The author observed that apart from the official purposes, for which the indexes were prepared, the indexes were interesting because, like the figures in a kaleidoscope, names were continually changing, old names dropping out, and new ones appearing.
The first report is a fascinating study of both surnames and Christian names and how they appeared in various districts. An alphabetical listing follows with their varieties and the many peculiarities found in differing Poor Law Unions.
To summarize, the first report analyzed the changes in surnames, the variant spellings, the use of prefixes and affixes, spellings according to pronunciation, time change alterations; local variations of spelling and form; variations in spelling at pleasure, and changes owing to illiteracy and other causes. It also contained examples of the use of entirely different names interchangeably by the same person (often translation of Irish names into English or vice versa).
The second report (the first section of this book, however) concentrates on the numerical strength, derivation, ethnology and distribution of surnames in Ireland. The author uses the surnames most effectively in the section of this two-book volume in tabular form. He shows data on the principal surnames in Ireland in 1890 compared with those in other portions of the United Kingdom (Murphy being the most common name followed by Kelly, Sullivan, Walsh, Smith, O'Brien, Byrne, Ryan, Conner and O"Neill) On pages 38-75 appear the widely used tables showing distribution of surnames having upward of five entries in the birth index of 1850 together with the number in each Province and the counties in which they are principally found. This is the starting point for anyone to trace an ancestor with no knowledge of specific county of origin.
Sir Robert Matheson's book is considered a classic reference work.