Middle Names

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Researchers will often differentiate their ancestor on the basis of a second name. He was ‘Michael Martin Murphy’ rather than plain old ‘Michael Murphy’. However, the middle name usually has little relevance when seeking a Catholic ancestor in pre-20th century Irish records. Even if an ancestor is described in a US or UK record as having a second name, you would be well advised not to put too much reliance on finding this second name in any official Irish record. Catholic children were rarely baptised with a second name until the 20th century. This can be easily demonstrated by a search of the 1901 census returns ( where a search of almost any ‘humble’ household will show that only a minority of the occupants will have a second name.  The illustration above is a good example.    In my own case, I am the first person in my family to have been given a second name at birth as my father, born 1921, has only one name as have all the members of the previous generations.

Nevertheless, many Irish émigrés appear in overseas records with a second name, so where might this second name have come from? It is doubtful that there is a general rule about this. In areas where a particular name is very common, e.g. O’Donnell in Donegal or O’Sullivan in Kerry, people were often distinguished by a second ‘name’ which linked them to their specific family. Thus Seamus John O’Sullivan was the son of John which distinguished him from the other Seamus O’Sullivans in the area. This may have been one origin. However, this distinguishing label was often not a name. He could equally have been, for instance, Seamus ‘Óg’ (young) O’Sullivan or Seamus ‘Rua’ (Red) O’Sullivan. These names were, and still are, in common local use in areas where particular families are abundant. However, they are ‘nicknames’ rather than formal names.

In truth, it is likely that many immigrants, faced with the perceived need to fit into the local US or Canadian custom and furnish a second name, made the decision to take their ‘nickname’ as a formal part of their name. In summary, a second name is therefore unlikely to be very useful as an identifier in Irish records.

Among Church of Ireland and Presbyterian families, and (later) in upper-class Catholic families, second names were much more commonly used, particularly within wealthier families. Their particular usage can also be useful to researchers. Among Church of Ireland families, the mother’s maiden name was often taken as a middle name, presumably to ensure that it would not be forgotten. In this way surnames often came to be used as personal names within particular families and this can be a useful indicator of family lineage when conducting research.

For information on Irish surnames or family names,  Flyleaf Press publish ‘Source for Irish Family History 2021‘ which lists 6,500 articles, books and monographs on around 2,500 Irish families.

(The illustration above  shows a Scanlon household in 1901 with no middle names)

Other articles in our series on Irish Family Sources:


This piece, written by Dr. Jim Ryan, originally appeared in

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