Irish Isonymy Project
Surnames, Forenames and the Application of Isonymy to Historical Data: The Irish in Nineteenth-Century Britain
The Project Context
The study of the Irish in 19th century Britain has yielded numerous path-breaking works which help us to understand the relationship between the islands of Britain and Ireland. Quantitative studies, however, are relatively few in number; and those which exist tend to focus on the census as a source for historical reconstruction. However, the limitations of the UK census means, with its failure to record specific birthplace in any but a small minority of cases, means that, till now, very little written has been written about the specific county of origins of Irish migrants. However, we believe that uncovering these origins helps us still better to understand the specific sub-pathways of migration which Irish people followed in migrating from one island to the other. Our project has, for some years, sought to shed greater light on the issue of interregional connections of this sort by applying a technique called Isonymy to the questions of origins which the census cannot answer.
The Project Method
Isonymy—a quantitative method based on the distribution and frequency of surnames—has been used extensively in biological anthropology to investigate the structure populations, but has seldom been applied in social sciences. Research on the origins and migration pattern of the Irish in Britain in the late nineteenth century is hampered by lack of detailed birthplace attribution in the 19th century censuses.
Between 2002 and 2005 our research was funded under the ESRC Research Methods programme. More details can be found on the CCSR website. In addition, a poster explaining our methods and findings by case study can be found here (opens pdf file).
We are currently completing a monograph which explores the issues of origins and interregional connection by focusing on the Irish in the north of England.
In addition, we have more recently added the study of forename selection as a way of examining the cultural evolution of non-Irish practices. Our research shows that, over time, the Irish in Britain ceased using classic Irish forenames, such as Patrick and Bridget, favouring neutral names instead.
Names and Socio-Economic Integration
We have also begun to use surnames’ analysis to selection second generation migrants to test, via occupational analysis, whether or not the Irish climbed the socio-economic ladder over time. Our research on data on mining occupations from the 1881 census suggests that advancement was slow and that certain types of prized mining occupations were closed to the Irish.
MacRaild, Donald M. and Malcolm Smith [with John A. Burnett and Kyle Hughes], ‘Scottish Migrants in the northern “Irish Sea industrial zone”, 1841-1911: Preliminary Patterns and Perspectives’, Northern History, forthcoming 2012.
MacRaild, Donald M. and Malcolm Smith, ‘Migration and Emigration, 1600-1945’, in Liam Kennedy and Philip Ollerenshaw (eds), Ulster Since 1600: Politics, Economy, and Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 140-59.
Smith, Malcolm, and Donald M. MacRaild, ‘The Irish in the mining industry in England and Wales in the 19th Century: Evidence from the 1881 Census’, Irish Economic and Social History, 36 (2009), pp 36-62.
Smith, Malcolm, and Donald M. MacRaild, ‘Nineteenth-century population structure of Ireland and of the Irish in England and Wales: an analysis by isonymy’, American Journal of Human Biology, 21, 3 (2009), pp 283-289.
Smith, Malcolm, and Donald M. MacRaild, ‘Paddy and Biddy no more: An evolutionary analysis of the decline in Irish Catholic forenames among descendents of nineteenth century Irish migrants to Britain’, Annals of Human Biology, 36, 5 (2009), pp 595-608.
Smith, Malcolm, and Donald M. MacRaild, ‘Origins of the Irish in Northern England: An Isonymic Analysis of Data from the 1881 Census’, Immigrants & Minorities, vol. 27, nos 2/3 (2009), pp 152-77.
The project's findings have been reported widely in the media. Please click on the links below for more:
Irish Independent: 'Biddy (104) parties in style as name slowly vanishes'
Belfast Telegraph: 'How Irish immigrants almost killed Patrick and Bridget'
Irish Herald: 'How 'Paddys' buried their origins'
|Prof Don MacRaild||Dr Malcolm Smith|
|Department of Humanities|
School of Arts & Social Sciences
Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 8ST
T: +44 (0) 191 243 7259
|Department of Anthropology
Durham, DH1 3LE
T: +44 (0) 191 334 41600
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