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Some Historical Notes on the Guerin Surname in Co. Clare by Pat Guerin
The Origins of the ‘Guerins of Co. Clare’

This writer’s great-grandfather was born in Killaloe, Co. Clare in or about the year 1820; he first appears on church records in 1840 when he married; the particular entry on the marriage register records his name as ‘Patt Gerin’.

As this shows the Gerins of Killaloe did not always spell their name ‘Guerin’. Indeed Patt Gerin (born 1820), could not spell his name at all. He was illiterate, as were most rural Irish people of his time. The 1901 Census for Co. Clare gives his age as 80 and under the Education heading has the entry “Cannot Read or Write”.[17] All church records against his name must therefore have been entered either by the officiating clergyman or the parish sexton. Presumably, Pat Guerin’s wife, who predeceased him, was also illiterate.

To quote Thomas Guerin (MS GO545): “The sextons who made the church entries spelled the name phonetically as they heard it pronounced”. The officiating clergymen or church sextons (and civil enumerators) in the 18th and 19th decided how most rural dwellers had their names first recorded on official forms. The spelling Guerin is not found on the RC Killaloe Register until quite late, 1841(Baptisms) and 1853 (Marriages).

All subsequent baptismal entries on church records for Patt Gerin’s children have the spelling Guerin. It seems safe to assume that this spelling variant (Guerin) was foisted on him (and his descendants) at this time.

There is no evidence in the case of Patt Gerin to support this - Guerin - variant or indeed the earlier Killaloe register - Gerin - variant. Both spellings were arbitrary mappings from the phonetic to the written and were the parish registrar’s best attempts to record the surname of his illiterate parishioners’ new-born child.

The McNamaras together with the O’Briens and O’Deas are descended from Cas, who was king of North Munster shortly before the time of St. Patrick.[18] From the beginning of the fifth century to early in the fourteenth century the territory of the Clan Culéin (i.e. the McNamaras and their associated branches and septs) was centred on the medieval parishes of Inchicronan, Kilraghtis, Templemaley, Doora, Clooney, Quin, Tulla and Kilmurry-na-nGall; broadly this translates in present–day times into an area of mid-Clare, east of the river Fergus and comprising the towns/villages and surrounding districts of Crusheen, Tulla, Quin and Kilmurry. Kilmurry and Quin marked the southern limit of their territory and Tulla the eastern limit. However all this changed following Murrogh O’Brien’s victory at the battle of Dysert O’Dea in 1318 (See above). As a reward for their help in that battle the Clan Culein were given control over the lands of the defeated i.e. all the territory to the east and south of them stretching as far as the Shannon and Lough Derg; effectively, all of East Co. Clare. It’s possible that the presence of the Guerins in the Killaloe/Scariff area dates from this time.

In his manuscript GS545 Thomas Guerin of Montreal (a copy of his document is attached as an Appendix 3 at the end of this book) raises the possibility of a French (Huguenot) origin for the Guerins (of East Clare and elsewhere). Some of the points, which come to mind when attempting to answer this question, are:

  1. Phonetically the local Clare pronunciation – gar (as in ‘garish’) + an (as in ‘the indefinite article’) – has always been closer to the Gaelic of O Géaráin.

  2. Numerically weak names tend to become extinct.
    All other things being equal it can be shown statistically that in [19] a battle for survival numerically weak names will go to the wall. Undoubtedly many Huguenot refugees survived and thrived – de Blacquerie, Boyer, D’Esterre, Lefroy to mention but a few. Many others, however, disappeared. It may well be that the Guerin name of Huguenot origin (see earlier reference to the name Guerin in Dublin and Charleville) may not have survived in its own right but may have been thrown a life-line by the name being taken up, either knowingly or unknowingly (as possibly, for example, in Templekelly), by native Ó Géaráin under the pressure of anglicisation.

  3. In the anglicisation of Gaelic surnames numerically strong names such as McNamara, Murphy etc. will have the weight of numbers to unite around an agreed phonetic and written English language version of their name. Usage over time and the human desire to conform will militate against multiple spelling variants.

    The converse applies for a numerically weak name, especially where the holders are geographically dispersed as the name was in Clare. Add illiteracy to this isolation and the holders are at the mercy of each and every enumerator /official/ scribe /registrar (literate but not necessarily educated). These enumerators were not members of the Gaelic preservation society. They did not see their job as that of preserving the name in its original Gaelic form. Instead they saw their job as one of recording events/transactions in the English language and any Gaelic names they encountered in the course of that work, then they merely mapped these across to their nearest phonetically ‘equivalent’ English names. In this way Ó Dorchaidhe of Mayo became Darkie, Dorsey, Darcy, (and finally for those having pretensions to French or Norman ancestry) D’Arcy and O Géaran became Gerin, Guerin.

    There might also be some psychological pressure on both donor and recipient to apire to some of the more aristocratic or successful names of the then ruling English establishment. The Protestant Guerin and D’Arcy names of 18th and 19th century Ireland were two such names.

    “Most of the Huguenots in Ireland during this period (1790s) had become so identified with the life of their adopted country that their French origin had been almost forgotten. ...... In some cases they changed (translated) their names into English, .... or misspelt them in order to facilitate their pronunciation. Thus Le Fevre became Smith (translation), or Jacques, Jack or Jaikes, and the de Foy or de Foix family called itself Defoe.”[20]

    “This surname (Duclos) affords a good example of the changes in spelling which the Huguenot names suffered at the pens of parish clerks; it is recorded in the registers as Deu Clos, Dewclose and Ducros and the writer has been informed that the corrupted form of Dukelow is still existing in the west of Cork.”

    Here the French and not the native Irish were at the receiving end of anglicisation. If we exchange Gaelic for French then the point made previously is equally valid: “These enumerators were not members of the French (language) preservation society. They did not see their job as that of preserving the name in its original French form. Instead they saw their job as one of recording events/transactions in the English language and any French names they encountered in the course of that work, then they merely mapped these across to their nearest phonetically ‘equivalent’ English names”.

    From this point-of-view any present-day Guerin (sic), whose ancestors used any of the almost thirty other known spelling variations, has, by adopting the Guerin spelling, merely corrected the tyranny of anglicisation imposed on his/her French Huguenot forebears.

  4. To take the case of other Protestant immigrants to Co. Clare.
    The Hargroves of Sixmilebridge came to that part of Clare at the start of the 1700s. Presumably directly from England but that has yet to be confirmed. They were a Protestant family and are recorded as such in 1756. However towards the end of that century and certainly by the early 1800s most of them had married into the local people and become Catholic. The small number of co-religionists available as potential partners, the much larger numbers of Catholics amongst whom they lived and the easing of the anti-Catholic Penal Laws from 1766 onwards probably contributed to this development.
    Going on that precedent it is conceivable that the descendents of some one of the Huguenot Guerins who settled in Munster (Clonmel, Cork) at the end of 1600s or early 1700s could have moved to Co. Clare, married into native families, become Catholic and given rise to the names Gerin, Geran, Gerane, Gearyn etc. at different locations in the county (Killaloe, Scariff and Ennis).

    In the case of the Huguenots the wealth and education of the earlier (pre- 1750) refugees might militate against or delay their descent and absorption into the Catholic underclass.

  5. The existence of an O Géaráin sept in pre-Huguenot times in Co. Clare is evident from the earlier documentary evidence given under Chapter 6 above. Over a period of 200 years the sept name seems to have been transformed from Ó Géaráin through a number of intermediate names (O’Guerane, Geran, Gerin, Geerin etc.) into Guerin. The name Geran occurs pre-Norman: see reference to Abbot of Saghair in The Thomas Guerin Ms. GO545 above.

  6. The name Geran existed amongst the (French speaking) Normans (Ms GO545). The name Guerin only appears with the influx of Huguenot refugees.

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