This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 17th June 1996, 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 HOULIHAN?

People who bear this surname will certainly take pleasure in being assured that it has nothing to do with the word "hooligan." The similarity between the two expressions is remarkable but that is all. There is a misconception that "hooligan" was the name of several rough New York-Irish families which created so many street disturbances that their name has passed into general use as descriptive of noisy trouble-makers.

In fact the word was first associated with London in 1898 and only took hold in America 20 years later. There are also suggestions that the name might have been derived from that of a Liverpool gang whose leader was called "Hooley" - i.e. "the Hooley Gang".

Unfortunately "Hooley" is not an Irish name, although it sounds and looks a bit like it. It is a place-name in Cheshire.

The most likely explanation turns on the word "huly" which is authentic Irish-American. It is found in print as far back as 1877 in New England. It is a corrupt rendering of the Gaelic word "Ceilidh" (pronounced "Kay-lee" but with the "k-" sounding like the gutteral "ch" in "lock".) It describes a lively musical gathering. Sometime during the late 1890's local newspapers covering South- East London carried an article about such a "hulygathering" and which seems to have got out of control and the Police had to be called in. It could very well have been that a family called "Houlihan" were involved. Both the Police and the Press Reporters with an imperfect understanding of the Irish expression "huly" and a mishearing of the surname, concocted the word "hooligan".

It was not a particularly outrageous disturbance by all acounts and it all might have ended there but for the intervention of some minor Music Hall artist. We don't know who he was now, but he seized upon the references to "Hooligan" and took them to be Irish, whereupon he composed a Comic Song about the antics of a disreputable family of the same name. Even after that it might all have faded into oblivion but instead, the fleeting familiarity of the name in the Theatre extended during the next 30 years or so from having been conferred upon a set of characters in a comic strip, and it has now stuck!

There is a place in Scotland called "Houliston" (Lothian) and it is tempting to look there for a connection as well. In fact the unit "Houli-" in this case is not Gaelic but Norman-French!

At this point it is worth noting that Irish surnames are not constructed upon place-names but quite the other way round. Whereas elsewhere in the British Isles people often take the name of a place as an identity, in Ireland places are named after people. Hence the frequency of the prefix "Bally-" which means "the homestead of -" (hence, for example, "Ballypatrick" in Tipperary.) Further, and reduced to very simple terms, Irish surnames identified people as belonging to a Clan and did not refer to their descent. That is why it is still possible to find almost entire communities with the same surname but by no means sharing a common ancestry.

The custom of using Clan names persisted right through Irish History (which is considerably older than English) and many such names can be traced to the fourth century.

Consequently the identity of the Founders of a Clan and its Name is frequently lost in the mists of antiquity and legend. This is especially so since during that country's turbulent history many valuable records have perished. In the case of "Houlihan" we know it is based on the Gaelic word Uallach" which translates as proud" or "dignified".

More in keeping with Irish tradition, its form ought to be "O hUallachan". As in Scottish names, "Mac" would signify "Son Of-" and "O-"- means "the descendant of -". In this case, then, it signifies: "One who is a descendant of the son of Uallachan".

Perhaps experts in the early history of Ireland might have more material on Uallachan, but the only information currently to hand is that he is associated with the Counties of Offaly and Clare.

During some periods of English involvement in Ireland, its culture was suppressed and the use of its language, including surnames, was prohibited. This has now left many people with Irish connections bearing surnames of questionable significance. Sometimes a native name was just translated into English and an adaptation employed. Since "Uallachan" meant "proud" it could possibly have been taken over by such English names as "Pride" or "Proudfoot".

Otherwise the old names seem in many cases to have been manipulated to correspond with an existing name in use in England. In this case, "Houlihan" might lie behind names such as Holyman" or "Holman. Needless to say it rests with the people who are so-called to investigate further.

There do not seem to be any areas where concentrations might have been expected, as Merseyside or Glasgow, with a strong Irish community. Most directories list only one or two names, although more for the London area, about fifty are mentioned.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 17th June 1996.

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