Simple method to recognize irish and icelandic surnames


Somewhen along the way I visually learnt to recognize irish surnames. This is a fortunate effect of my interest in irish culture which I find both fascinating and intimately connected with me. Since that time, I can’t confuse these surnames with english ones. There are a few patterns: irish surnames often have characteristic ending ‘y‘ and doubles like ”ll”, ”nn” or ”rr” and characteristic beginning ”o’…” and ”Mc…” which mean respectively ”grandson of” and ”son of”. Irish names, in turn, often have ”an” ending. Following these pecularities we can instantly recognize many irish names and surnames:

Irish surnames:

O’Sullivan ( Ronnie O’Sullivan! )
O’Brien ( Conan O’Brien! )
O’Reilly ( Bill O’Reilly! )
O’Hara ( Maureen O’Hara! )

McCarthy ( Joseph McCarthy! )
McDowell ( Andie McDowell! )
McKenna ( Terence MacKenna!)

Murphy ( Joseph Murphy! )
Kennedy ( John Fitzgerald Kennedy! )
Murray ( Bill Murray! )
Duffy ( Keith Duffy! )
Donnelly ( Ignatius L. Donnelly! )
Rooney ( Wayne Rooney! )

Brennan ( Moya Brennan! )
Nolan ( ? )
Regan ( Ronald Reagan! )
Hannigan ( Lisa Hannigan! )

Irish names:


As you can see, it’s not very difficult to guess if someone has irish heritage
and indeed a great many of successful and famous individuals are of irish origins, including John Lennon, George Carlin and George Clooney to name a few. Note however, that not all irish surnames follow these pecularities but nontheless, still a great deal of them do.

It’s even easier to spot icelandic  surnames, because there really are no surnames in Iceland but instead they choose from limited number of names to which they simply add ”son of – (s)son” or ”daughter of – (s)dottir”. And thas’t it!

Icelandic surnames:



Do never let yourself get confused with seemingly long and complicated icelandic surnames for they are very simple indeed and don’t let yourself naively think that characteristic irish surnames must necessarily be english because it was Englishmen who established USA, Canada and Australia. It just happens that wherever English people established their colonies, many Irishmen were also heading there, especially during the Great Famine in Ireland between 1845 and 1852,.causing possibly as much as 20% of population of New Zealand to be of irish origins. There is also at least 30 million of American people today who can trace their heritage, even if partially, back to distant families of Ireland.

”No Englishman will be able to understand my first impressions of England. The strange English accents with which I was surrounded seemed like the voices of demons. But what was worst was the English landscape … I have made up the quarrel since; but at that moment I conceived a hatred for England which took many years to heal. Like all Irish people who meet in England, we ended by criticisms on the invincible flippancy and dullness of the Anglo-Saxon race. After all, there is no doubt, ami, that the Irish are the only people: with all their faults, I would not gladly live or die among another folk.”
C. S. Lewis ( author of ”The Chronicles of Narnia” )

RE 3


One thought on “Simple method to recognize irish and icelandic surnames

  1. -son is a pretty common ending across many language groups.

    -son tends to be English (or Scottish like my family)
    -sen is more Danish/Norwegian
    -sson is Swedish/Icelandic

    This worked out well with our kids since a very wide variety of names sounded good with Anderson. Scottish, Irish, Scandinavian or English all paired very well. We went with Liam and Henrik.


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