Sir: It is a pity so many people here drop the Irish O, for it is a prefix of nobility that is the oldest in Europe. Many of our best Dutch families in New York came here without a surname, but there is not a family in Ireland possessing a surname in O that has not borne that surname since at least the twelfth century. That is surely a high distinction and proof of social standing that Ireland’s fall from her high estate cannot obliterate. I believe that Venice has families whose surnames date from the ninth century, but with that exception, Irish surnames are the oldest in Europe.
Under compulsion of the penal laws, many people in Leinster adopted English names, but these people belonged mainly to the lower classes, and the names they adopted — Smith, Carpenter, Cook, Butcher — showed their occupations, and the meaning of their Irish surnames. Such names always bore the Mac, and in Ireland’s whole history, you will find nowhere in her ancient nobility a family bearing a name associated with any trade or occupation, nor any such name with the O prefixed. Howard or Hogward, the most aristocratic name in Britain, would have been borne only by hereditary swineherds in the old Irish world.
Other evidence shows the high reverence in which the O, which means “descendant,” was held. Thus it is rare in Scotland, an Irish province to which only the poorer Irish emigrated. The O, moreover, was never prefixed to names beginning with the word Giolla (servant), seen in the Scotch “gilly.” O’Donovan, the celebrated translator of the “Annals of the Four Masters,” says: “Throughout the ‘Annals of the Four Masters,’ only O’Giolla, namely O’Giolla Phadruig (Kirkpatrick), occurs, and that in only one instance, and I have no doubt that this is a mere error of transcription.” These annals were compiled in the seventeenth century by the four masters from more ancient manuscripts, and they contain every existing Irish name.
The belief prevails in parts of Ireland and Europe that only five families rightly bear the O — the O’Neils, high monarchs of Ireland and kings of Ulster; the O’Donnels, princes of Tyrconnell; the O’Conors, kings of Connaught; the O’Briens, kings of Thomond; and the O’Flahertys, princes of Iar Connaught.
Sir Henry Piers wrote in 1682: “Such as have O prefixed were of old superior lords or princes; and such as have Mac only great men, viz. lords, thanes, etc.”
“I would rather be The O’Neill of Ulster than King of Spain,” declared the immortal Shane O’Neill to the British Elisabeth, when requested to change his Irish title for an an English dukedom; and as such, claiming Ireland’s throne, he died.