The Walsh Surname - Origins and History
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The Walsh Surname - Origins

Walsh is among the five most numerous surnames in Ireland, found throughout the country. The name Walsh is a semi-translation of the early Irish form Breathnach (click for pronunciation), meaning ‘Welsh’ or ‘Breton’, later anglicised as 'Branagh', 'Walsh', etc. Surname authorities such as Patrick Woulfe (Irish Names) list the name 'Brathnagh' as an older English or Anglicized form of Breathnach. George Black (Surnames of Scotland) gives the name 'Braithnoch' as being from the Irish Breathnach (more anciently Breatnach), meaning a 'Welshman'. From Father Edmund Hogan's Onomasticon Goedelicum (Dublin, 1910) comes the term 'bretanach'; now Breathnach; one of the Welsh families in Ireland, now Walsh. Hogan also cites the term 'brethnaigh'; alias Breathnacha, indicating the Walshes or Welshmen of Iar-Connacht (Annals of Connacht, 19 b). Edward MacLysaght (Irish Families) gives the first of the name in Ireland as "Haylen Brenach, alias Walsh, son of 'Philip the Welshman' who was one of the invaders of 1172."

In Ireland and Great Britain the names Walsh, Walshe, Welsh, Welch, Wallis, Wallace (&c.) have a similar historical origin. They derive from the Anglo-Saxon / Old English term 'wælisc', used in different parts of early Britain to denote the native Welsh or Britons. In medieval records the generic terms 'le waleys' and 'walensis' (among others) were often used to indicate 'a Welshman,' and occurred in various parts of the British Isles from areas of Welsh settlement (also see Walsh of England). In Ireland this included some of the adventurers from Wales who arrived in the wake of the Cambro-Norman campaigns beginning in the period from 1169-1172 CE. In England the surname Walsh is ranked in the top 110, and in Scotland the surname Wallace is ranked in the top 50.

Prior to the emergence of surnames a patronymic form of naming a person was commonly used. Patronyms usually denoted the father or ancestor of the individual, e.g. "Stephen son of Howel", "Stephen fitz Howel", "Stephen ap Howel", or simply "Stephen Howel". Other early naming conventions designated a person's place of origin, e.g. "of Wales", "the Welshmen", or "Welsh", while other forms indicated a person's occupation (e.g. Smith, Cooper, etc). Sometime prior to the emergence of the Walsh surname, as well as the emergence of other surnames, the name appears in early records as Walensis, then as Waleys and le Waleys. In early Irish records the Gaelic form "Breatnach", "Bretnagh", and "Brenagh" were also in use. For the surname Walsh these early naming conventions eventually became anglicized to Walshe, Walsh, Branagh, Brannagh, and so on. Other common spellings also existed, including surnames such as Welch, Welsh, Walch, et al.

There are records of individuals in 13th century Ireland, Wales and England who were referenced as Walensis or le Waleys and whose last name evolved over time into Walsh or into a close variant of that surname. Among the examples included Walsh of Rathronan, in county Tipperary, Ireland; Walshe of Llandough in Glamorgan, Wales (and of Langridge and Hutton in Somerset, England); and Walshe or Welsh of Llanwern and Dinham in Monmouth, Wales (and of Woolstrop in Gloucester, England); as well as Walsh of Sheldesley, in Worcester, England.

In Ireland, unlike many of the early Cambro-Norman and Anglo-Norman families such as the Burkes, the Fitzgeralds, etc, who can trace their ancestry to a small number of known individuals, the Walsh family name arose independently in many different places (also see Walsh in the Early Irish Counties). In 1588 Lawrence Walsh wrote a pedigree of his Irish family, who were centered on the border of counties Kildare and Meath. Lawrence attempted to explain this phenomena by linking the more notable Walsh families of the day to a common ancestor who he referred to as 'Walynus' (note the similarity to Walensis). Lawrence states that Walynus "came with Maurice fitzGerald, the lieutenant, with fifty horsemen and fifty footsoldiers to Ireland in the year 1169" and had progeny which included a son named Howel.

A similar tradition exists for the Walsh of the Mountain families who were centered in south-central County Kilkenny at an early date. Certain pedigrees suggest a common ancestor named 'Philip of Wales', a hero in a naval battle of 1174, who also had a son named Howel. This Howel was the namesake for the main stronghold of the family, i.e. Castle Hoel, (Castlehowel, Castehale, etc). Tradition also suggests this Philip had a brother named 'David Welsh', noted at the battle of Limerick in the year 1175, whose descendants included the Walsh families located south of Dublin at Carrickmines. In both cases the early records of counties Kilkenny and Dublin suggest families using the patronymic Howell, whose lands became those of the Walshes during the 14th century.

As noted by J. C. Walsh in his book "Walsh 1170-1690", popular forenames in the Walsh Family during the first five centuries they lived in Ireland included Howell or Hoyle, David, Richard, Walter, Henry, Theobald, Pierce, Thomas, Edmund, Oliver, Maurice, Simon, Nicholas, Gilbert, Philip, and Robert. The origin of these forenames likely relates back to the early days following the Cambro-Norman incursion into Ireland (1169-1172). David and Howel were Welsh names, as were some of the very early Walsh forenames of Griffin, Meredith, Eynon and Owen. The forename Richard was derived from Richard de Clare (Strongbow), Walter from Gerald FitzWalter, and Henry from Henry II. Theobald, Pierce and Thomas were names of the Butler family, and also used by the Walshes. Edmund came through the Butlers from the Burkes. Oliver seems to have come from the Graces, and Maurice from the Fitzgeralds. The forename Simon was peculiar to the Kildare Walshes.

Early Walshes in Ireland included the names of Henry and Adam Walsh who settled near Dublin. Later the names Theobald and Richard, of Carrickmines, ran in succession over a period of almost three centuries. The names Walter, Edmund and Robert, of Castlehale, also ran in a series for about three centuries. The Philips were most numerous in Kilkenny, but most prominent, perhaps, in Kildare. The Richards were always in evidence in Dublin and Kildare, and for a time, in Tipperary. The Henrys seem to have stuck to Dublin and Wicklow. The Howels, or Hoyles, were in Kilkenny, in Dublin, and in Wexford. Nicholas appears to have been a characteristic Waterford name, and is also found in Kildare. Gilbert appeared in Dublin and Cork in the thirteenth century. It was a de Clare name which in this instance came through the Desmond Fitzgeralds.

As previously suggested, the Walsh surname in Ireland had its Irish roots in the Welsh and Welsh-Norman families who arrived in the wake of the Cambro-Norman invasion of Ireland. As cited by J. C. Walsh (Walsh 1170-1690), "they more than likely came from some of the leading houses of Wales." Some have placed their relation and descendancy from Owen Gwynned, Prince of North Wales, and his sons Ririd and David. Others propose a probable relationship to some of the early leaders of the Norman invasion, including Robert FitzStephen (see possible Walsh Pedigrees), Raymond le Gros de Carew, Maurice FitzGerald, and Richard FitzGilbert de Clare. Other possible connections to Wales include Philip FitzRhys, son of Rhys, as well as Meyler FitzHenry. See also Descendants of Nesta.

Over the centuries, the Walshes in Ireland built and inhabited many strongholds (for further reference see the article on Walsh history). They married with their 'Norman' neighbors, the Butlers, Powers, Fitzgeralds, Graces, Purcells, Cantwells, Shortalls, Archers, Comerfords, Denns, Walls, Furlongs, Devereuxs and others who came into the country with their ancestors. They often married into alliance with families of Irish origin, including the Kavanaghs, McCarthys, Brennans, Sheas, O'Donnells, O'Connors, O'Rourkes and others. Of the first to enter into marriage alliances were said to be David and Philip 'Walsh', both to McCarthy's, late in the 12th Century. For more information on the tradition of David and Philip, see Exploring Walsh Connections in Wales.

The preceding article was compiled by Dennis J. Walsh, © 2009

Further Reference:
  • Irish Counties - Walsh in the Early Irish Counties.
  • England - Early Walshs in England.
  • France - The French Connection.
  • Timeline - A record of History in Ireland and Britain.
  • Possible Pedigrees - of the early Walshs of Ireland.
  • Walsh Arms - Variations on Walsh Coats of Arms.
  • Biographies - Short Bio's on notable Walshs, plus links to online Bios.
  • Place Names - Historical place-names of the family of Walsh.
  • Walsh of Kilkenny - Historical Perspective
  • Confiscations - of Walsh land holdings in Ireland at the time of Cromwell.
  • Lament of John MacWalter - Irish caoine about Walsh of the Mountain.

  • Share some your Walsh Facts, send information to Dennis Walsh

    Walsh Surname Origins Page

    Wednesday, 28-Oct-2009 15:05:34 MDT