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Irish Surname - Smith

The surname Smith is famous for being ordinary! The spelling variations of the name as Smith, Smyth, Smithe, Smythe, is of little historical significance and probably only reflects the writing styles of the day.

It is the fifth most common surname in Ireland, and the most common name in England, Scotland and Wales. It is also a very common last name in Germany, Canada and Australia. Indeed it is not unusual for people in English-speaking countries to adopt the surname Smith in order to maintain a secret identity, if they wish to avoid being found!

In Irish it is Mac an Ghabhain (MacGowan), meaning 'son of the smith' and its translation to Smith became widespread, particularly in County Cavan where the sept originated and were one of the most powerful families. The vast majority of the family in Cavan anglicised their name to Smith. The usual modern gaelic form is MacGabhain. On the borders of Cavan, Leitrim, and to the north west in Counties Donegal and Sligo, the English form, MacGowan, is still often used in preference to Smith.

In Ballygowan, County Down, an O'Gowan sept anglicised its name to Smith, and a distinguished descendant of this family reintroduced the original O'Gowan name, with the full agreement of the Irish Genealogical Office, in 1949. He was Major-General Eric Dorman-Smith, born in Cootehill, County Cavan in 1895, who was a brilliant military tactician. A younger brother, Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, was Governor of Burma at the time of the Japanese invasion during the Second World War. Apart from this family, the O'Gowan surname is rarely encountered in modern times. It is, however, to be found in the census of 1659 as one of the principal Irish names in the counties of Monaghan and Fermanagh.

In medieval Ireland the Ghabhainn clan families of counties Clare and Tipperary were hereditary historians to the O'Loughlins of Burren and the O'Kennedys of Ormond.

Many Smith families of Kilkenny and Tipperary descend from William Smith of Damagh, who was secretary to the Earl of Ormonde. It is recorded that William was brought out of England for the service of the Earl. William's son, Lawrence, was slain in the service of King Charles at the siege of Drogheda. The family line continued through Lawrence's son, Valentine.

There were a number of other Smith families of English origin to be found, particularly in the area around Dublin. In 1646 William Smith started his fifth term as Lord Mayor of Dublin. He was of a Yorkshire family who later settled in Suffolk and was a Colonel in a foot regiment that protected the city of Dublin. Other members of this Yorkshire family also recorded in Ireland include John Smith who was Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1677.

John Prendergast-Smyth from a family who claimed to be descended from the O'Gowans of County Down, was made Baron Kiltartan of Gort in 1810 and Viscount Gort in 1816. This Prendergast-Smyth family included several clerics - Thomas Smyth was bishop of Limerick 1695-1725 and his son, Arthur, bishop of Dublin in 1766. It was the grandson of the bishop of Limerick, John Prendergast-Smyth, who received the titles.

Another notable Smyth family, whose 18th century house in County Westmeath, had such a flamboyant triumphal arch at the entrance to their demesne, became known as 'Smyths of the Gates'. When they became annoyed with this name and sold the arch to a neighbour, they were then re-named 'Smyth without the Gates'!

In Ireland c1890 more than half the Smiths were in Ulster, and more than one quarter were in Leinster. The surname was particularly common in Antrim, Cavan and Dublin at that time.

Famous People

Dr. Edward Smyth (1662-1720) of Lisburn, was a fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, and was expelled by James II in 1689. He was Dean of St Patrick's, Chaplain to William III (of Orange) and, in 1699, Bishop of Down and Connor.

Charles Smith (1715-56) of Waterford, pioneered Irish topography and wrote histories of the countryside. He had a medical degree from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1738, but devoted most of his time to historical and topographical researches. He was the author of county histories of Waterford, Cork, and Kerry, published in 1746, 1750 and 1756, respectively, under the patronage of the Physico-Historical Society of Dublin.

James Smith (c. 1720-1806), was born in Ireland and emigrated to Pennsylvania with his father in his youth and went on to practice law at York. He was a political leader in the American Revolution, signer of the Declaration of Independence. He served in provincial assemblies and conventions and advocated independence early. He was a member of the Continental Congress (1776-78).

Henry John Smith (1826-83) of Dublin was educated at Rugby and Oxford. He lectured at Balliol College until 1861. He was a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and came to be acknowledged as the greatest authority of his day on the theory of numbers.

Vincent Arthur Smith (1848-1920), born in Dublin, entered the Indian Civil Service. He retired early to devote himself to writing and was renowned for his various publications on the history of Fine Art in India and Ceylon.

Alternate Surname Spellings

Smith, Smyth, Smithe, Smythe, McGowan, O'Gowan, Gowan

Researching Irish Surnames

We have researched many sources for the origins of Irish surnames and extracted a fair representation of the origins of each. As there are many variations we have compiled a representative, but by no means exhaustive, selection.

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