New tome on Derry surnames sorts your Dohertys from McLaughlins

Brian Mitchell's fascinating new compendium of Derry surnames will be a great addition to the libraries of genealogists and those citizens known by any of the 300 ancestral patronyms featured in the book.

Friday, 21st April 2017, 9:00 pm
Updated Tuesday, 9th May 2017, 6:45 pm

Published by Clearfield in Baltimore in the United States, ‘The Top 300 Surnames of Derry Londonderry’ provides an overview of the history and rank of the top 300 surnames in Derry.

Suffice to say, if you want to sort your Dohertys from your McLaughlins, this is the place to start.

The book is based on the 1989 Foyle Community Directory, which lists 1,860 unique surnames in Derry City.

Each of these surnames bears a distinctive history and taken as a whole they are a record of population movements into the Derry area over the past 400 years.

The three commonest names have Donegal origins with Doherty heading the way with 469 entries, followed by McLaughlin on 276 and Gallagher with 170 entries. By way of contrast 808 surnames occur only once.

Ireland was one of the first countries to adopt a system of hereditary surnames, which developed from a more ancient system of clan and sept names. From the 11th century each family began to adopt its own distinctive family name generally derived from the first name of an ancestor who lived in or about the 10th century.

The surname was formed by prefixing either ‘Mac’ (Son of) or ‘O’ (Grandson or descendant of) to the ancestor’s name. Surnames in Ireland, therefore, tended to identify membership of a ‘sept’. A sept can be identified as ‘a group of persons who, or whose immediate and known ancestors, bore a common surname and inhabited the same locality’. Although Gaelic society was one of the first to adopt a system of hereditary surnames it was also one of the last to perpetuate fixed surnames. People in these societies, in the early 18th century, were often designated by their genealogies stretching back five or more generations.

The family histories associated with the surname histories in this book will, in many instances, be recorded in the database of Derry Genealogy at

The database of Derry Genealogy contains the bulk of pre-1922 civil birth and marriage registers for the city and county of Derry, the early baptismal and marriage registers of 97 churches (the earliest being St Columb’s Cathedral), gravestone inscriptions from 117 graveyards, and census substitutes and census returns dating from 1628 to 1921.

Researchers with an interest in connecting surname histories with Irish mythology and Christian tradition as revealed in the Bible may be interested in Mr. Mitchell’s reconstruction (in Appendix 1) – based on the work of John O’Hart published, in 1892, as Irish Pedigrees: The Origin and Stem of the Irish Nation – of the Doherty family tree back 132 generations from Dr Ramon Salvador O’Dogherty to ‘The Creation’.

The Annals of The Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters (a chronicle of Irish history from ‘the earliest period to the year 1616’) dates the Creation as 5194 BC. Doherty is by far the number one surname in Derry today.

On July 17, 1990 Dr Ramon Salvador O’Dogherty of San Fernando, near Cadiz, Spain, was inaugurated as the 37th O’Dochartaigh, chief of Inishowen, County Donegal. Ramon O’Dogherty is descended from Sean, brother of Sir Cahir O’Doherty (d. 1608), who fled from Inishowen to County Cavan and whose descendants settled in Spain, as nobility, in the 18th century.

The inauguration ceremony took place on the original ‘crowning stone’, known today as ‘St Columb’s Stone’, inside the walled garden in the grounds of Belmont House School, using the ancient ceremonial ritual of the clan: the claimant to the title of ‘The O’Doherty’ standing barefoot on the stone, holding a white wand of hazel wood.

By tradition, the crowning stone, blessed by Saint Columba, was carried to Belmont from Grianán of Aileach. By tradition, the site is identified as being the great ‘royal fort’ of Aileach, the citadel of the Northern Ui Neill from the 5th to the 12th century.