North West Ireland–bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, by the Glens of Antrim to the east, and by the lakes of Fermanagh to the south–refers to counties Derry, Donegal, and Tyrone. Not only was this region the last stronghold of powerful Gaelic tribes, it also became home to many settlers from England and, in particular, Scotland during the Plantation of Ulster in the 17th century. North West Ireland was home to many emigrants of Gaelic and Planter descent who departed in significant numbers during the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries for new lives in North America, Great Britain, and Australasia.
Brian Mitchell has compiled concise but informative histories of the principle surnames that are most closely associated, through numerical strength or uniqueness, with North West Ireland. Drawing on a range of primary and secondary sources, the author has produced 324 single-page histories of surnames that either originated in or became established in North West Ireland. Owing to spelling variations, these histories apply to an additional 57 common surnames for the region (e.g., variant spellings of Doherty include Daugherty, Docherty, Dockerty, Dogerty, Dogherty, Dorrety, Dougherty, O’Doagharty, O’Dochartaigh, O’Doghartye, O’Dogherty, and O’Doherty); as a matter of fact, Mr. Mitchell estimates that these histories document the surname origins of over 80% of people with roots in North West Ireland.
As the author explains in his Introduction, surnames of Gaelic Irish origin frequently confirm membership of a sept. It was assumed that members of an Irish sept had a common tribal ancestor. Thus, even today, Gaelic Irish surnames are still very dominant and numerous in the very localities where their names originated. For example, the surname McCloskey both originates and predominates today in the Dungiven area of County Derry, while 80% of McLaughlins in County Donegal are still concentrated in the Inishowen peninsula, the ancestral homeland of the McLaughlin sept.
Most of the specific histories included in Mr. Mitchell’s book describe the geographic prevalence of the name in North West Ireland today, the ancient origins of the name’s founders, the name’s meaning, the expansion/contraction of the name often in association with military campaigns, surname variations, and much more. These characteristics distinguish Brian Mitchell’s new book as the most important addition to Irish onomastics in many years.