Name Variations


The Name : Breheny is my maiden name.  It’s origin is from Ireland derived from the Gaelic ‘Mac an Bhreitheamhnaigh’, meaning son of the judge. The name was first phonetically Anglicized as Mac Evrehoona, Mac Vrehonne and Mac Brehon, but today it has generally become Judge. The surname is common is Counties Sligo and North Roscommon and many examples occur in the birth registers of a family using Breheny and Judge indifferently

OLLAVE – the English spelling version of the Gaelic Ollamh and other variants.

The Judges were often listed as ollaves to the McDermot family. The McDermot was the King of Connaught. Ollave is a bit hard to pin down. Essentially they were the highest rank of the learned professions.  They could be a poet or perhaps writer.  The Ollave was considered to be the equal of kings and bishops in social standing and importance.  The king was permitted, for example, to wear more colors in his clothing than others were allowed, but the Ollave was allowed to wear the same number of colors. At the dining table he sat next to the king. Where the name Brehon is included, the Ollave Brehon was equivalent to what these days would be a High Court Judge. Presumably the Judge family held such positions for the Kings of Connaught. 

GAELIC JUDGES –  The “Brehon” or “Vrehon” were the old Gaelic judges, usually hereditary , and were also experts in the Ancient Brehon Laws, which are indeed said to be Europe’s oldest law system, believed to date back as far as 700 B.C. These laws stayed in use through the centuries, until banned by the English rulers in the 17th century.

JUDGE is the English language translation of the original Gaelic surnames.   Where names have Mac or O as a prefix, Mac means son of…and O means grandson of.    O’Riley thus means grandson of Riley. MacDermott means son of Dermott.  This is the same as English names like Johnson and Wilson meaning son of John and son of Will.

So, going back many centuries, we had Gaelic names such as Mac an Bhreitheamhan, Mac an Bhreithiunaigh (meaning  a Judge) and similar spellings. Eventually these assorted Gaelic names were more anglicised to spellings like MacBrehon, MacBrehoney,MacVrehonne,MacEvrehonne, and various  related spellings. These names then evolved into spellings like Breheney, Breheny (one of the most common of this type) Brehaney, Breheny, Brehony, Brehon, Brihony, Brahany, Brahney, Brehany and other similar spellings.   Others translated the name directly into what was the closest English meaning…JUDGE, and this became the most common of the spellings which all derived from that original Gaelic.

NOTE: When an Irish person stated their name or even wrote it, an English scribe would often assume it should be what it sounded like to English ears. So an Irish person saying their name was Brehon or similar, could well sound like Browne to English ears.  Another such example is the surname Abraham, as that’s what it sounded like to  an English listener. For example, even without going back to the longer Gaelic spelling, if you say Mac an Brehan smoothly and quickly,   it is easily mistaken for Mac Abraham,  and another old version, A’Brehan, sounds like Abraham without even trying.  But once again, these were Judge family. Still another example is Breen…try saying Brehon quickly. Not all Breens were Judges, but many were. (Of course when I sat “were Judges”, I mean descended from the same basic Gaelic surname).

These days, Judge is most common, followed by Breheny /Breheney.

NOTE : Even in the mid-1800s (and maybe some people still do it) it was common for Judge/Breheny families to use both surnames interchangeably, depending on what they were doing at the time, or, in some cases, whenever the mood struck them. A common situation though, would be to use Breheny for what they considered “more Irish” things, like their names on church documents, marriages, baptisms, etc., while using the English  translation Judge, for legal documents, as these would be according to English law.

Irish people being referred to as “Micks”…has nothing to do with the name Michael being common, but rather the fact that traditionally Irish names started with Mac or MC (both the exact same thing, no different meaning), and of course therefore the English heard all Irish surnames being mc-this or mc-that…so referred to all Irish as Mc’s, pronounced, to the English ear, as Mic/Mick. Hence all Irish they thought of as Micks. It was not always meant as neutral, of course, but often as at least a slight insult,which really makes no sense.

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