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The Carroll Surname

‘Carroll’ is an anglicisation of an Irish Gaelic patronymic surname, i.e. it denotes that the father (or a more distant male ancestor) of the original user was named Carroll, and in fact boys in Ireland have been named Carroll from the earliest historical period right up to the present day. In its Gaelic form the name was anciently spelt ‘Cerball’ which has evolved into the modern ‘Cearbhall’, roughly pronounced ‘kyarrool’.

As to the meaning of the name, that has been lost in the mists of time, but there are a couple of theories the most prevalent of which states that it denoted a fierce warrior or butcher in battle based on the fact that the Old Irish word ‘cerb’ meant ‘cut up’ or ‘carve’. (The existence of a similar name ‘Cearbheoil’, possibly a combination of the words ‘cerb’ [carve] and ‘feol’ [meat], lends some support to this theory.) The other theory is that it meant ‘stag’, presumably related to the Latin word ‘cervus’ and possibly brought back to Ireland from one of the Irish kingdoms established along the west coast of Wales after the Roman withdrawal (the Welsh word for ‘stag’ is ‘carw’). However, the greatest Irish genealogist of modern times, Edward MacLysaght, does not give any origin at all due to its uncertainty.

As a surname Carroll occurred originally as O’Carroll (Ua Cearbhaill – descendant of Cearbhall) or, less frequently, MacCarroll/MacCarvill (Mac Cearbhaill – son of Cearbhall). There are known to have been two MacCarroll septs, one in Ulster, before the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland, and six distinct O’Carroll ones, as follows:

  1. O’Carroll – Co. Offaly and Co. Tipperary – Lords of Eile (Ely)

    Lords to whom the nut-trees bend, Are the Muintir-Cearbhaill of Biorra's plain, King of Eile to sweet Bladhma, The most hospitable mansion in Erin

    The name of this sept is now anglicised to O’Carroll or, more commonly, Carroll without the O prefix. Their traditional territory was the level district around Birr in County Offaly (Biorra’s plain) bounded to the East by the Slieve Boom Mountains (Bladhma). The surname was first used by Monach who adopted it, before his death in 1022, in honour or his father, Cearbhall, who led the Cianachta tribe against the Vikings at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.

  2. O’Carroll – Co. Monaghan and Co. Louth – Chiefs of Oriel

    O'Cearbhaill, O'Duibhdara, Chief kings without fratricide, Men who have attended on each poet, Are over the Oirghialla without reproach.

    Still numerous in County Monaghan under the name Carroll, this family disappeared from history around 1193, supplanted by the MacMahons and Maguires who were of the same tribe. The name Oriel (Oirghialla) comes from the sept whose territory this was and refers to their supposed practice of detaining their hostages in golden chains.

  3. O’Carroll – Co. Leitrim and Co. Sligo – Chiefs of Calraighe

    The three chiefs of Dartraighe, I shall name, And of Calraighe of the tribes, Their acquisitions have injured the slopes, O'Finn the brave and O'Cearbhaill. They do not go among the rabble at the feast, And the majestic Mag Flannchadhas.

    The name of this territory, in present-day County Sligo, is still retained in the name of the parish of Calry. The O’Carrolls, or Carrolls, however, are now unknown there, although the O’Finns are still quite numerous under the name Finn, without the O prefix.

  4. O’Carroll – Co. Kilkenny – Chief of Northern Gowran

    Let us advance into Osraighe, She has found with choice of every division, The honour and nobility of Erin. Three tribes are in its assembly, The Clann Cearbhaill to excite her ...

    This territory probably consisted of the plains between Kilkenny and the Mountains of Fasaghdineen where the present-day diocese of Ossory is located. O'Cearbhaill, now Carroll, was a descendant of the celebrated Cearbhall, chief lord of Ossory from 845 to 885. This sept should be distinguished from the O'Carrolls of Ely O'Carroll on the other side of the Slieve Bloom Mountains who were of a different tribe.

  5. O’Carroll – Co. Kerry – Chief of Locha Lein

    O'Donnchadha of Loch Lein, King of Eochanacht is he, O'Cearbhaill who is our friend, Hawk of the sept of the white strand

    There was a family by the name of Carroll in Magunihy before the O'Donoghues came to prominence there, but they sank into poverty and obscurity many centuries ago and are now unknown.

  6. O’Carroll – County Meath – Chief Lord of Tara

    O hAedha over East Tir Teathfa, O'Cearbhail over the south of Teamhair; The land of the men has gone under bondage, These people have not clung to their birthright.

    This O’Carroll family cannot now be distinguished from those of Ely or Oriel. Their history is unknown, as they sank into obscurity at an early period.

The shortened form of the surname, Carroll, emerged during the seventeenth century as part of a general and widespread dropping from surnames of the characteristic O and Mac prefixes. This came about principally as a result of the collapse of the old Gaelic order following the defeat by the English of the Earl of Tyrone, Hugh O’Neill, at the battle of Kinsale on Christmas Eve 1601. Edward MacLysaght in his book ‘Irish Families (Their Names, Arms and Origins)’ explains why this happened:

...Nor was this confined to the downtrodden peasantry. The few Catholic gentry who managed to maintain to some extent their social position, while keeping their O’s and Macs within the ambit of their own entourage… were so deeply conscious of belonging to a conquered nation that they frequently omitted the prefixes when dealing with Protestants.

...pressure was exerted…to bring about the degaelicisation of surnames. For example, even two generations before the Penal Code was in full force we find O’Conor Roe entering into a composition in which he binds the Irish chiefs under his influence to “forego the customs and usages of their Brehon Law…and to give up prefixes to their surnames” (5 Jan. 1637). We may be sure that this undertaking was made by O’Conor with his tongue in his cheek and that it was ignored, but it serves to indicate the official outlook in this respect.

This situation would, to a certain extent, be reversed from the late 19th Century onwards thanks to the efforts of the Gaelic League and its Gaelic Revival. This saw a large number of families in Ireland re-adopting previously-dropped prefixes. However, those that had dropped a prefix from their surnames and had left the country before then were not influenced by this, and so continued using the shortened form.

  • Irish Families – Their Names, Arms & Origins (Edward MacLysaght)
  • Ordnance Survey Letters for Offaly in 1838 from the Offaly Historical and Archealogical Society website
  • Ireland’s History in Maps website
  • The Topographical Poems of John O'Dubhagain and Giolla Na Naomh O'Huidhrin; Edited by John O'Donovan 1862; Printed for the Irish Archaeological and Celtic Society Dublin