Saturday, August 30, 2014

Yeah, Yeah, Another “Great Chief”

Could it be that the Irish all descend from Niall of the Nine Hostages just as everyone is supposed to be descended from Adam?

In researching the history of the surname Molloy—and all the requisite spelling variations I must keep in mind as well—it doesn’t appear there are many helpful clues emerging. The original Irish name was evidently Ó Maolmhuaidh, and the breakdown goes as follows:
            Maolmhuadh: Proud Chieftain or Great Chief
            Maol: Chieftain
            Muadh: Noble, grand, or big.

Of course, that is the explanation for just one of “a number of distinct Irish names” which eventually were anglicized to become Molloy. Or Malloy. Or…well, you get the idea.

The surname’s purported history makes for a great story. Coming from the southern branch of the large Uí Neill, claiming descent from—yes, you guessed it—Niall of the Nine Hostages, the family was part of a powerful group prominent up through the English “administration” of Ireland. Reviewing the map of medieval Ireland, it’s easy to see the family’s stomping ground would be around County Offaly.

On the other hand, the surname Molloy could have come from a second family, known as Ó Maoil Aodha—“descendant of the devotee of Aodh.” These people claimed the area around County Roscommon and the eastern portion of County Galway. Aodh was apparently known as a saint, and the “maol” root of the name may have referred to the tonsure of the early Irish monks. At any rate, if you are not familiar with what a tonsure is, a clue might be the meaning that has been handed down through the ages: bald.

I assure you, from what I know of current members of this branch of the family, “bald” was not a feature shared with the holders of this surname’s origin.

Then again, perhaps our Molloys came from a third group. Originally called Ó Maolmhaodhóg (try saying that one fast, three times), the name meant “descendant of the devotee of Maodhóg.” Yes, another saint. However, I noticed that name had also been anglicized as Mulvogue—a far cry from Molloy—and traces its roots to the region around Ulster.

With these various regions and counties of Ireland, I became concerned about locating just which county, specifically, from which our Stephen Molloy might have originated. After all, he wasn’t showing up in the County Limerick townland where he had sent that last-minute letter to his wife. It was not helpful to notice the list, in the “Irish Ancestors” section of The Irish Times, indicating each of the counties in which the surname—and its many variants—had appeared. Bottom line: there were no Molloys listed from County Limerick. Nor—just in case he had decided to jump the county line—in County Cork. The closest possibility for a Molloy at the time of the Griffith’s Valuation—just about the time Stephen Molloy fled the country—was in County Tipperary or County Waterford.

Just as Stephen Molloy found it compelling to flee his homeland in 1849 for a city an ocean journey’s distance, he may have, in like manner, arrived a few years earlier in whatever town the family of Ann Flanagan claimed. And, having gained her hand in marriage, once again moved on.

Not very noble of him, despite the surname he carried. Of course, there might have been another side to his story, but it’s one we’ll likely never learn.

Above: James Brenan, "On the Way to Market," oil on canvas; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. Uffda..that Irish History sounds challenging to me! :)

    1. I know it would take me a lot more studying before I could get it right! And there's more to come...

  2. I like the painting of the girl heading to the market. She doesn't seem to care about "big chiefs" and such. :)

    When I was at Clonmacnoise - I was spooked. The place is so ancient - and then I took a ride on this:

    Which came to mind when you mentioned peat.

    1. Hmmm..."will not be operating for the foreseeable future." I wonder why? Must have been quite a ride.


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