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Stone rubbing of a Celtic Dog Knot

On the Trail of The Fierce One:
Gaelic precursors of the surname "Larkin"

Long before there were were surnames, people were called by descriptive names. These names described where they lived or what their occupation was or what they looked like or how they behaved--just like nicknames or streetnames still do today.

Ancient Ireland was populated by the Celts, a warrior race organized into family clans, and known for their lack of fear in battle. In the gaelic language they spoke, the word lorc meant "fierce". Some pre-Norman Celtic warrior must have so impressed his peers with his ferocity in combat that they started calling him "The Fierce One". When the name stuck, his immediate progeny would have been called sons or grandsons of  Lorc. Later, a family clan named Olorcan would have arisen, made up of people descended from the original warrior. Finally, sometime in the 14th century, O'Larkin would have become a conventional surname.

The CELT Project, at University College, Cork, Ireland has a searchable online archive of early gaelic texts. A number of them contain long genealogical lists that take the form: Duncan, son of Donald, son of Lorcan, son of Connor...and so on, and on. I do not read Gaelic, but I did a complete search of all their documents for Lorc and its variants and found numerous cases where it appears as a name. Here are a couple of brief examples:
729. Úgaine Mór & Badbchad dá m. Echach Buadaig m. Ladcrai m. Fiachach Tolgraich. Úgaine Már dá m. ar fichit leis & ní fárgaib nech díb clainn acht duo tantum .i. Láegaire Lorc senathair Laigen & Cobthach Cáel Breg senathair Óengusa Tuirmich Temra.

1004. Máel Domnaich m. Anbítha m. Dub Thíre m. Cuangusa m. Dotchada m. Guasachtaich m. Máel Ruain m. Dadaill m. Sinill m. Lorcáin m. Dalláin m. Trechuirne m. Tréin m. Sige m. Andiled m. Beccáin m. Delbaíth m. Tháil m. Conaill Echluaith m. Lugdach Mind. [The "m." stands for mac or "son of".]
As one might expect for a time when most people could not write or spell their own names, there are many variations of the same generic name. I have arranged them below in what I presume to be a rough developmental order, starting with the oldest:
Lorc > Lorcc > Luircc > Lorccain > Lorcain >
Lorccan > Lorcan > Olorcan

The post-gaelic continuation would be:
> O'Larkin > Larkin > Larkins
Surname derivations are always to be taken with a grain of salt, but several sources give this one and it is consistent with the geographical distribution of the current surname.

Before the time of Cromwell the Olorcan or O Lorcain clan was prominent in County Wexford in the south of Ireland and had smaller branches in Counties Tyrone and Armagh in the north. Then Cromwell drove those who refused to declare allegiance to the British Crown and the Protestant Church into Connaught, the unsettled western part of Ireland. (This policy was summed up in the contemporary slogan "Connaught or die!".) So the Larkin surname came to be clustered in the western county of Galway as well.

And it is was from Galway that my ancestors came to America after the Great Potato Famine of 1846-49.

Celtic shield knot

I am painfully aware of my linguistic limitations in dealing with this early gaelic material. If anybody can translate these passages or shed further light on Laegaire Lorc, who seems to crop up in a number of old Irish ballads, I would be delighted to hear from you.

Go here to see The Irish O Lorcain Heraldic Shield.

If you would like to do your own gaelic name search in the CELT Project archives, here is a link to go there: CELT Project Index

If you would like to read more about Irish history (including some detailed accounts and illustrations of the Potato Famine), check out the sub-section on Irish History in my Irish Links.

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© John Larkins 1999 Last updated: 30 Nov 1998 Email: (John Larkins)