Millions of people in the modern-day United States have some degree of Irish ancestry. The surnames they bear or are connected to display a staggering array of spelling variance–some of which seem very far removed from their Transatlantic origins. While it was once traditionally held that such variations resulted from changes implemented at points of entry such as Ellis Island, this is largely a misconception (see here). For Irish families who emigrated in the middle of the nineteenth century, one factor above all others influenced the spelling of their names, and how they changed–their degree of literacy.

In the Northern states, where most Irish emigrants congregated during the middle 1800s, Irish Americans held the dubious distinction of being the least literate white group. Among the numerous aspects of life that illiteracy and semi-literacy touched upon was how your name was spelt–and the degree of investment you had in insuring it was spelt properly. In many respects, pedantry over the spelling of a christian name or surname is a privilege reserved for those who are fully literate. The Civil War pension files upon which I concentrate consistently throw up evidence for semi-literate Irish families who fell foul of this problem, as they sought to prove that their family member and the man in service were one and the same individual. Simply put, the consistent spelling of christian names and surnames was not an issue that working-class Irish emigrants conceived might hold any importance, until they were faced with the rigid bureaucracy that accompanied their claims to the Federal Government. To explore these themes in more detail, I have included three examples where families had to overcome an issue relating to spelling variance in their pension applications. All of them have literacy at their core, and each offers a different insight into the backstories that influenced how Irish people spelt their names.

The first affidavit was made in 1869 by 64-year-old Daniel O’Leary, a native of Knockacappul townland near Rathmore in Co. Kerry. Daniel was living on Richmond Street in Boston, from where he was seeking a pension based on his son Thomas’s war service. Thomas, a member of the 1st United States Cavalry, had been killed in action bear Boonsboro, Maryland on 7th June 1863. When Daniel first applied, his claim was rejected. The Bureau informed him of the reason– he was applying under the name O’Leary, but the man he claimed as his son went by the surname Leary. Here is how Daniel sought to explain the discrepancy:

I Daniel O’Leary Father of Thos O’Leary No.129187 on oath do depose Although I was called on my naturalization papers by the name of Daniel O’Leary I had previously been and have since been known and called by the surname of Leary. I have been in Massachusetts more than (30) thirty years except about one year (1856) in California and was naturalized 18 or 19 years ago. My son, said Thomas, went with me to California and he remained there after I returned and he enlisted there in Co. H 1st Regt U.S. Cav. While he was in California and before he went there he was always known and called by the name of Thomas Leary (leaving off the “O'”) and though in my declaration for pension I styled him by the surname of O’Leary I did so without considering the fact that the “O” may make considerable difference in a name and I did not reflect at the time on the fact that my son always went both in Boston and in California by the name of Leary; while I am some times but not usually called by the name of O’Leary tho’ (as I said before) naturalised as and voting as O’Leary

Daniel’s mistake was the fact that he did not realise it would make any material difference that he and his son sometimes went by “O’Leary”, sometimes simply as “Leary”. He had no reason to believe it would, as it had not been a significant factor in their lives up to that juncture. As Daniel’s affidavit made clear, he was illiterate, and so was not accustomed to signing or even seeing his own name on documentation. This was revealed by how he signed the document– with an “x”.

Daniel O’Leary’s mark on his affidavit, indicating that he was illiterate (NARA)

Language was another factor that could impact how an Irish name was spelt. In 1868, Owen and Mary Curren supplied an affidavit in Philadelphia to support a pension claim on behalf of the minor children of “Farrigle” Gallagher. The 13th Pennsylvania Cavalryman had died in June 1864 while being held as a prisoner of war in Andersonville, Georgia. The problem with this claim arose from the fact that the man recorded as enlisting in 13th was not “Farrigle”, but “Frederick” Gallagher. Owen and Mary, who had known “Farrigle” in both Ireland and Philadelphia, sought to explain the discrepancy:

Owen Curren and Mary Curren…were acquainted [with Farrigle Gallagher] for 25 and 30 years respectively– that Frederick and Farrigle Gallagher are the one and the same person. That in Ireland, where the said soldier was born and raised, he was called Farrigle, which is the same as Frederick. That deceased was born in the County Donegal, Ireland, and that deceased was called by his parents Farrigle. That they were acquainted with the deceased soldier in this country and heard him called Frederick, which (in the language spoken by his parents and inhabitations of the part of Ireland in which he was born) is the same as Farrigle. That deponents know the above facts from personal and intimate acquaintance with the deceased soldier from his infancy- resided in the same neighborhood with him, both in Ireland, and in this Country- saw him at the time of enlistment and saw him after he enlisted in the above Regiment.

The grave of Fanigle/Farrigle/Fearghal/Frederick Gallagher at Andersonville National Cemetery (Kevin Frye via Find A Grave)

These Donegal emigrants were native Irish speakers, and sought to explain that “Farrigle” was effectively the Irish version of Frederick. This is not the case, but affidavits such as this sought to take the path of least resistance in explaining away naming discrepancies. Added to the mix was the demonstrable illiteracy and semi-literacy of many of the parties involved– the affidavit suggests that while Owen was probably semi-literate, Mary was illiterate. The case is further complicated by the fact that “Farrigle” is not a christian name in Ireland (at least not one I have ever come across). Having given it considerable thought, I am now convinced that this man’s actual name was Fearghal Gallagher. The first name Fearghal, when pronounced in a strong Donegal accent, is phonetically similar to “Farrigle”. Where nearly all parties were illiterate, they would not have been aware of how to properly spell the name. The phonetic spelling of a name based on how it sounds when rendered in an Irish accent is frequently behind variant name spellings in mid-nineteenth century Irish America. Whether Fearghal/Farrigle ever actually went by the name Frederick in America is unknown. He may well have done so to avoid complications, but when he was buried at Andersonville he was interred under yet another variant of his Irish name (above), where his headstone records him as “Fanigle”.

The signature and mark of Owen and Mary Curren (NARA)

The final example relates to an 1865 affidavit provided by 40-year-old Irish emigrant Mary O’Haran. Mary’s husband Patrick had died in July 1864 of wounds he had received outside Petersburg, Virginia. Mary encountered difficulties because their surname had been rendered in three significantly different ways on three separate pieces of official documentation. While Mary–who was illiterate–applied for a pension under the name “O’Haran”, the marriage evidence she supplied listed her and Patrick’s name as “Ahern”. Further complicating matters were the records of the 52nd New York, her husband’s regiment, which had listed Patrick as “O’Hara”. In her affidavit, Mary came straight to the point:

Mary O’Haran “is the widow of Patrick O’Haran late a Private of Co “A” 52d Regt New York Vols. That though the name of “Ahern” appears on the record of her marriage it is in error, and should read O’Haran. That at the time of her marriage neither this deponent or her husband the said Patrick O’Haran could read or write and the name was placed on the records according to its pronunciation and that the true name is “O’Haran”.

Mary was effectively stating that she was unaware when her name was incorrectly recorded, as she could not know the difference due to her illiteracy. What was their real surname? Was it O’Haran? As Mary and her agent were undoubtedly seeking the most expeditious (and positive) resolution to her claim, the reliability of her statement is open to question. The surname “Ahern”, when communicated in an Irish accent, often sounds like “O’Harran”. Yet “O’Harran” is also an Irish surname, albeit a less common one– perhaps the record keeper at the Church, who was likely familiar with Irish pronunciation, had assumed it was Ahern when making his entry. We will likely never know. Neither is it particularly important. What each of these cases demonstrates is the important role that literacy levels played in creating variant spellings of Irish emigrant names. They also reveal that, by and large, Irish emigrants were not precious about how their names were spelt, or even pronounced. They were generally willing to amend–even to change–those names if they thought it would prove beneficial. This lack of literacy and willingness to adapt identity for personal improvement are important factors to consider when seeking the origins of some of the many variants that populate the Irish American surname landscape today.

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* None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online. A team of archivists from NARA supported by volunteers have enabled access to this treasure trove of historical information. To learn more about their work you can watch a video by clicking here.


Thomas O’Leary Pension File

Farrigle Gallagher Pension File

Patrick O’Haran Pension File