This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 11st April 1994, reproduced by kind permission of the author, the late Desmond Holden.

The “What's in a Name” series was a regular feature in the Advertiser over the period 1993‑2004, taking a refreshing look at the derivation of some typically Derbyshire surnames.

Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames, and do not indicate any particular interest on Desmond's part in the genealogy, descent, or family history of individuals bearing the surnames featured.

Editor's Note: Articles are provided for general interest and background only. They are not intended to provide an exhaustive treatise for any individual family history - investigations of which may yield quite different results. Or, in Desmond's own words:

“In the end it must remain with individual bearers of the names to draw upon family traditions and to seek out such documentary evidence as is available to decide the matter for themselves.”

WHAT'S IN A NAME … Are you called DRISCOLL?

This is an Irish name. Along with most English surnames, the meaning can be explained once it has been separated into units. But, unlike English names, the units of Irish ones are of Gaelic origin. Thus it follows that unless one has some familiarity with the Irish Language, much interesting information lying behind an Irish name is rendered difficult of access.

The analysis of English surnames is comparatively simple because any Anglo-Saxon elements can be related to modern English. As it is, on this side of the water, Irish Gaelic is unknown and, in fact, very few Irish words have passed into current English. Most are deliberate borrowings, such as "leprechaun", "shamrock" and "Tory" (an old Irish word for a robber or outlaw - it is, honest!) Among the few in which the Irish element is not discernible are: bog (marsh), brogue (shoe) and smithereens (fragments).

This means that interpreting Irish surnames tends to become something like using a "Phrase Book" when coping with a language on foreign holidays. The first thing to mention is that "Driscoll" should, properly, be written "O'Driscoll" which immediately indicates that the bearer of the name is "a descendant of Driscoll". Contrary to a widely held belief the "O'-" appearing as a prefix in innumerable Irish names does not necessarilly mean "son of -". It is "Mac-" which has that significance and it is not exclusive to Scotland. Like the Scots, the Irish were extremely clan-conscious and tended to identify themselves as having a common ancestor. Hence "O'Driscoll" would indicate that the original bearers of the name were all "descendants of a man called Driscoll".

Why did the prefix "O'-" drop out of use? No really convincing reason can be offered. It is tentatively suggested that this may have something to do with the policy pursued by successive English adminstrations which tended to force "Englishness" on the Irish at the expense of their own culture and traditions. It is often forgotten that a flourishing and civilised society existed in Ireland at a time when all the rest of Europe was in chaos, and that Christianity had all but perished until it was brought to life again by missionaries from Ireland in the 5th century. The English discouraged the use of distinctively Irish surnames - even to the extent of forbidding their use in some parts of the country. So the records (the few that have survived) indicate that "O'Driscoll" had almost vanished by the turn of this century, but, since independence, has steadily been re-appearing.

Next we must ask: Who was this ancestor from whom those called "Driscoll" are descended? The original Gaelic rendering is "OhEidirsceoil" and those who understand Classical Old Irish would interpret it as: "One who is descendant of the Messenger". The word "Eidirsceoil", means "a go-between" or "an intermediary". It is made up of two units: the first, "eidir" signifies "between" and the second, "-sceol" translates as "story" or "news". Most people of the name have claimed descent from an ancestor who seems to have been prominent in the 10th century. Whatever it was he did in the way of carrying a message must have been very important but details are not available. No doubt it may be recorded in highly specialised chronicles or survive in local legends.

If there are any such traditions, they will be circulating around Baltimore in County Cork where the name originated. To the west of Baltimore is an island which on older maps appears either as "Horse Island" or "Hare Island" but on modern charts, where the old names are being restored, it is now called "Inis Ui Drisceoil" or "Driscoll Island". This is a lead which people called "Driscoll" might think worth following up. Note that the similarity of the word "Schull" - a town in the vicinity - is misleading. There is no association. It refers to a "School" or some centre of learning.

Having originated in Ireland, the name is associated with no particular district elsewhere in Scotland or England and there are few entries in the local directories. The only person of this surname who attained something of celebrity status was the champion boxer, James Driscoll - now forgotten except, perhaps, by very old readers.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 11st April 1994.

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