This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 20th December 1999, 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 HEALEY?

Families of this name can look either to Ireland or Lancashire for their origins. In the case of Ireland, the source lies in the Gaelic O hEilidhe or O hEaliaghthe. There are several variations in the spelling following attempts to transmute them into English, of which "Healey", "Hely" and "Heilihy" are frequently encountered.

Note that the spelling "Heely" usually indicates an English origin. Nowadays genuine Irish descendants like to restore the characteristic prefix "O" and sometimes to revert to a modified Gaelic rendering: "O hEili" and "O hEalaithe".

Historically "Healey" belongs to Munster, particularly around Donoughmore (Cork) while "Hely" is associated with Connacht, especially in Sligo around Lough Arrow.

The meaning of "O hEildhe" is given as "A person who is a descendant of the Claimant". One would need to be better-informed as to the history of the particular clan to venture any further suggestion other than it may be presumed that there must have been a dispute over the succession to the status of Chieftain. The English equivalent is "Pretender" and "Bonnie Prince Charlie" or the "Young Pretender" comes readily to mind.

The alternative derivation from "O hEaliaghthe" is based on a Gaelic personal name "Ealathach" which is understood to signify "intelligent" or "gifted". It could possibly be related to a Welsh name "Elaeth" which can be interpreted in similar fashion. The surname can therefore be taken as meaning "A person who is a descendant of the Clever One".

There is no Scots counterpart. Otherwise families who have no Irish connections may look to a place-name in Lancashire for their ancestry. This is a district now in Greater Manchester but formerly within Rochdale until 1974: It is located along the Oldham-Burnley Highway (A671) about 3 miles, beyond Rochdale.

The first unit of the name, "Hea-" is based on an Old English word which means "high" or "elevated". The form "Hea-" with variations occurs in countless place-names in the north, as, for example "Heanor" (High Ridge). The second unit, "-ley" is just as common and has several interpretations. However in the case of "Healey" it means "woodland". So families bearing this surname can interpret it as "The folk who came from the place where the hills are well- wooded". On the map, the "ley" (originally "leah") which gives the place its name, can easily be discerned, rising to 1042 feet.

It is interesting to note that the notion of "High Woodland" is echoed in two other place-names in the vicinity. Both are called "Heywood" and one is mid-way between Middle Healey and Syke and the other is some 3 miles south-west of Rochdale.

About 20 miles to the west, near Chorley, there is another neighbourhood name, "Healey Nab". This latter expression is a dialect term and refers to prominent projections or peaks. In this case the "Nab" achieves 682 feet. In addition there are at least another half-dozen sites of much the same name distributed across the north of England. To what extent, if any, they contributed to this surname is problematical.

All the records tend to show a concentration upon the north-west; which strongly indicates that the "Rochdale Connection" prevails. In fact the earliest mention is to a "John de Hely" in Lancaster for 1284 and later, in 1379 to "Ellota de Helagh" just across in York. By 1439 the name had travelled to Nottingham where was to be found "William Healy".

It should be noted that the inclusion of "de" in these old records does not point to any aristocratic ancestry. It is merely Old English for "living at". Claims to Norman descent are spurious. There is certainly a French family of title called "Hely de Oissel". This place is in Normandy and just south of Rouen. It has no connection with William the Conqueror and the Invasion. The original "Hely" was a Jacobite exile who throw in his lot with the French and the association began about 1700.

An uncommon spelling is "Healaugh". It has identical meaning with "Healey" and occurs in two sites: 3½ miles north of Tadcaster and 2 miles from Reeth in the North Riding. There was once a belief that the name is a modification of the personal name "Eli" but it is now discounted.

The name is pretty well evenly distributed across the British islands, with a noticeable weighting in the north Lancashire. Otherwise, local directories, even in Ireland, muster about 30 to 70 entries.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 20th December 1999.

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