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EDITOR......M.M. Gollaher
WEB AUTHOR..M.M. Gollaher
UPDATED:....January, 2002
- A Short Introductory History of the Sept -
CONTENTS: Origin of the ÓGallaghers
The approximate date and place of origin.
Surname Origin and Meaning
The meaning of the surname.
Return to history index page

he name of the sept, signifies descendant of Gallchobar or Gallagher (about 950 A.D.), who was himself descended from Maolchobha, King of Ireland who reigned from 642-654. The O'Gallaghers claim to be the senior and most loyal family of the Cenéal Conaill (kindred of Conal Ghulban), son of Nial Nóigiallach "of the Nine Hostages," - who was high king at Tara circa 450 AD.  

The clan's territory extended over a wide area in the northern baronies of Raphoe and Tirhugh, Co. Donegal.  The principle branch of the sept were seated at Ballyneit and Ballynaglack.  

The ÓGallagher's are consistently mentioned as one of the leading septs of the Tír Chonaill, along with the Ó Baoighill (Boyle), the ÓDochartaigh (Doherty) and Mac Suibhne (MacSweeny).  These families are cited as being the pillars on which the lords of Tír Chonaill built their military strength, in particular the ruling Ó Domhnaill (Donnell) dynasty.

The  O'Gallagher chiefs were notable as marshals of O'Donnell's military forces in the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, and took a prominent part in all the military movements of Cenél Conaill.  Hart lists them as the O'Donnell's  cavalry, and some personal histories refer to them as the gallóglaigh (gallowglass) of the O'Donnells. 

True to the often contradictory nature of Irish history, ÓGallagher's were often mentioned as confidants to kings of the Ó Domhnaill and other leading clans such as the ÓDesmond, but almost as often became bitter enemies of the same  (The O'Donnells were one of the two major clans of northern Ireland, the other being the O'Neils).

hough the Uí Ghallchobhair were originally members of the warrior class in Irish society, they soon gained prominent roles as clergy later on. The sept is most noted in early Irish history for producing a goodly number of Catholic Bishops, more so than any other surname in Ireland.  To this day Gallaghers are often found as clergy for the Catholic church, as well as many other religions.

The breakup of the clann as a cohesive ruling family seems to have begun at least by the 1500s when some factions remained loyal to the Ó Domhnaill and some opposed them, the opposition becoming quite bitter at times, complete with murder and mystique on the part of both families. 
  In an early 1600s plantation census some families were even listed as being members of the Protestant church or Ireland, evidence of a real split in the family. In 1607 five Uí Ghallchobhair left with the earls from Rathmullen (the famous "flight of the earls," I believe) for the Spanish Netherlands. Those that stayed behind during the plantation of Ulster faired rather badly under the ruthless rule of the British crown. 

Surname Meaning and Origin
The surname Gallagher in Old Irish is ÓGallchobhair and is composed, in typical Old Irish naming patterns, of two descriptive words which would describe the bearer's character, personality or physical characteristics.  The name dates as far back as 800 A.D. or earlier during the Viking Era of Irish history, and means "foreign helper."

In the era the name originated, the word gall was used almost exclusively in northern Ireland to reference to the finghall (lit.  "fair foreigners"), or the Norsemen (aka Vikings).  Fr. Walsh says flatly that the surname is descriptive of Norse foreigners in the region, which were quite common during this period.  The word cabhair means help, succor, aid or assist.  In the sense it was being used, it most likely refers to military help.  Thus, a person with the name Ghallcobhar would be a "foreign helper," most likely a warrior in league with the northern chiefs of the era.

During this period in history (ca 750-850 A.D.), the Danes ( dubhghall) were aggressively moving northward in Europe, displacing Norse  land owners and aristocracy.  They also began raiding the coasts of Ireland.  Displaced Norsemen were common in the Hebrides and Ireland, since they had been trading partners for quite some time.  The Viking methods of warring were much more brutal and savage than the insular Celts of Ireland, and the northern chiefs needed skilled warriors to help them defend their lands and cattle from Viking raiders -- i.e., "foreign help," or Gallchobhairs.

About 1,000 A.D. legend has it that King Brian Boru decreed all Irish nobility take surnames. It is written in some accounts that some of the warrior caste of the ÓDomhnaill (O'Donnell) took upon them the surname O'Gallchobhair, or "descendants of Ghallchobar" in honor of their patronymic ancestor.  Prior to this time, a person with the name Ghallcobhar did not necessarily have any blood relation to any other person by that name, as names were descriptive of character or status, and not of lineage.

The connection of the O'Gallchobhair sept to the Clann ÓDomhnaill was very intimate historically.  They served as the clan's military marshals as well as clerics.  They were referred to in later histories as the "gallóglaigh of the O'Donnell's," borrowing the term gallóglaigh from the descriptive name of several mercenary septs imported from Scotland to provide military power to certain chieftains in the region.  The English called them the Gallowglass, which quickly gained a reputation for large, fierce infantry troops.

Some historians have supposed that the O'Gallchobhair surname comes from the gallóglaigh, which literally means "foreign young soldiers."  The O'Gallchobhair surname, however, predates the gallóglaigh by several hundred years at least.   In addition, the O'Gallchobhair were noted as cavalry, while the gallóglaigh were infantry.  And finally, the gallóglaigh were mercenary troops, while the O'Gallchobhair were steadfastly loyal to the ÓDomhnaill. 

In some area the name was shorted to ÓGallchú which became a pet form of the surname. Pronounced "Gall-hew" in Irish, the name actually means foreign hound, which is not inconsistent with the meaning of ÓGallchobhair considering the esteemed role of the hound in Irish history and myth as a defender of property.

Today the surname is generally spelled Gallagher, and pronounced in most of Ireland without the middle g according to the phonetic rules of Irish,  or (roughly)  GAWL-uh-hair or GAWL -uh-hore.  Anglic speaking cultures (England, Australia, Canada, U.S.) mostly insist on pronouncing the middle g, as GALL-a-ger.  


There are a veritable host of variant spellings around the world, including Gallaher, Galliher, Gallaugher, Gollaher, Golliher, Gallihue and even Gollyhoo.

There are several other less plausible theories of the meaning of the name, which include "valiant victor," or "bright (from middle Irish geal) helper," and even "lover of Vikings."  In the Manx language, Gallagh means Gallic, referring to the Gaoidhelic language, and -er translates "on you," rendering the meaning "Gallic on you" or, "speaker of Gallic (language)."  Maybe it is really that simple!



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