The Gaelic Roots of Manx Names

On the Isle of Man, even a short name can have a long story behind it. Take, for example, the name Leece.

It may come as a surprise to learn that the name is a shortened form of a Gaelic surname meaning “son of the servant of Christ” – Mac Guilley Yeesey!

Most Manx surnames come to us from Gaelic, Norse or English sources, and time has not always been kind to them. The language shift from Manx toEnglish, in particular, worked some remarkable changes on surnames, with “Leece” being a good example.

In this case, the original name would be pronounced (more or less) “mak-uh-lees-uh.”

Early written forms include Mac ilest (1550), Mac Leece (1600), and Mc y leese (c. 1750). We find it shortened to Leece by 1782.

In Ireland and Scotland the name would be written Mac Giolla Iosa, and it is found in Ireland and Scotland toady as both MacAleese and Gillies.

Names identifying the bearer as a servant or devotee of a saint were popular among our Manx forebearers. This was true throughout the Gaelic-speaking world. Another name of this type is Looney, or Lewney.

Early written forms of this name include Mac Lawney (1504), and Lownye (1540). Lewney was recorded as long ago as 1623, and Looney from 1644. The original Manx form of the name would be Mac Guilley Dhoonee, which means “son of the servant of the Lord” (God – Dominus).

Mac Guilley Dhoonee was compressed phonetically into “Muckil-loon-ee” and eventually “Looney,” much as the Irish name Mac Giolla Domhnaigh — the same name — was rendered into “MacIldowney” or “Downey” in English, a clipped version of the original Gaelic name.

A similar prefix to Mac Guilley is Myl- or Myle, as in Mylcharaine, “son of the servant of St. Kieran,” or Mylechreest. “Myle” is related to the Irish “Maol” meaning “tonsured,” though it’s been argued that it could also be a contraction of “Mac Guilley.”

There are plenty of “Mac” and even some “O” names on Man, though it might be hard to spot them. They’re often disguised by “C,” “K” and “Q.”

Collister, for example, is Mac Alasdair; Karagher, Mac Fhearchair; and Quiggin, Mac Uiginn. (In Ireland, Ó hUiginn is translated as “Higgins”.)

In some cases the “O,” which means “descended from,” was simply dropped, as in Gelling – originally Ó Gealáin (descendent of the small bright one) – and Knowles, remarkably Englished from Ó Tnúthghail!

The Gaelic name was roughly pronounced “Nole” or “Noole,” and the “s” at the end of Knowles is all that is left of the hybrid “Tnúthghail-son.”

Interested in the origin of your Manx surname? The Manx Note Book has a good list of resources online.