Postcards: What’s In A Name?

One of my interests is History…not just the “big” issues of Military History but I enjoy Social History and Family History.

In Ireland, “Irish” names are often based on a single ancestor for example Connor, Brian, Donall, Niall etc. The prefixes “Mac”  and “O'” signify “Son” and “From”. Other names reflect descent from a man with specific characteristics…for example names like Finn, Duffy and Kennedy might indicate a light-haired, dark haired or ugly ancestor. My own family name Mooney (Irish-Ó Maonaigh) seems to be derived from an ancestor who was either “dumb” or “wealthy”. It is impossible after more than a thousand years to be precise…but I speculate that I never had a “wealthy” ancestor.

It is also a fact of Irish History that names are associated with specific areas….thus a noble name like O’Connor is associated with the Irish midlands, O’Donnell is associated with County Donegal and O’Brien with County Clare. My own …not-so-noble name is associated with County Offaly. Despite  Norman, English and Scottish invasion and colonisation, there is still a close connexion to these medeival names and geography.

“Irish” names are basically Gaelic names which after the Norman invasion were supplemented with “new” names such as those pre-fixed with “Fitz…”. Other names found in Ireland often originate in England and Scotland due to later invasion.

The whole notion of Irish family crests makes Historians extremely skeptical. There is …like Scottish crests and tartans…a lot of re-writing of History. But for ethnic groups, often deprived of land, wealth and education, the family crests are I think a means of finding a form of documentation for the undocumented. Lack of records means that Irish Family trees go back just a few generations. It is an odd situation to have a name recorded in the ninth century and yet only have a family tree that goes back to 1841 …coincidently on paternal and maternal sides.

Really for me…and most Irish people, we have no evidence for the centuries in between. All we know is that there is defeat, dispossession, humiliation, poverty, illiteracy and degradation. So we over-compensate by inventing a narrative.

Most families…my own included…have a coat of arms on the wall. It is a fairly standard wedding present. And there has always been a local and tourist market for this. While a coat of arms on the wall can be expensive, there are now key rings, fridge magnets, coasters etc in most tourist shops. And of course on the internet, you can literally buy the T-shirt, coffee mug etc. There is no item too tacky.

So Family Name Postcards?

Certainly in the 1980s, it became quite common to see postcards such as the card below. This “Mooney” card was published in 1986. Only the most common Irish names were sold. For the record, Mooney is the 110th most common Irish name. The cards were sold (if I recall correctly) in packs of four. I have not seen these family postcards in a few years. I suppose new computer technology means it is possible to self-publish.


The blue and green postcards were bought in a heraldry shop in Dublin, several years ago. They show the historical distribution of family names in Ireland. The yellow postcard was bought in the west of Ireland in the mid-1990s. It was published by a small firm called Bella’ Cards, which produced map cards and cards such as Irish Horses, Irish Birds, Irish Dogs etc. I have not seen any Bell’cards in recent years.

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I have not seen these “family name cards” in a while. Perhaps it is because I am not really looking for them. Or perhaps it is related to the Internet and firms like ZAZZLE who can produce these for the (mainly) American market.





About John

Dia Duit! Hello. My name is John. I am retired. I live in Ireland. I am on a five year mission to visit every city, town, village and place of historic and scenic interest in Ireland.
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