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Starting with the Desmond rebellions, followed by the Cromwell campaigns then followed by the Williamite Wars and then again followed by the century of the Penal Laws, the population of Munster, by the 18th century, had been sharply decreased.  Between 1720 and 1740 bad harvests continued to cause much hunger and starvation in the land.  In 1740 and 1741, during what came to be called Ireland’s first “Great Hunger,” the Irish population suffered another great loss.  Ireland’s recorded population in 1740 was 3.1 million.  Ten years later the population was only two million.  More bad harvests followed and this, combined with the English trend of turning land to grazing instead of tillage, gave rise to a population always on the verge of starvation.  As pressure increased on the land to feed its laborers more and more farmers began cultivating potatoes.  The potato could flourish on land not suitable for most other crops.  In 1821 the potato crop failed, throwing much of Munster into another period of famine and starvation.  Even in “good years” by the end of May, when the annual stock of potatoes had been eaten, the poor Irish farmer had to subsist on oatmeal, berries, seaweed, and whatever else was “edible” until the new potato crop could be harvested.  By the time of the Great Hunger (Potato Famine) of the 1840’s the Irish were living on small “potato patches” in a state of virtual slavery and subsisting solely on potatoes.  Britain’s willingness to let the Irish people solely depend on an inconsistent crop rendered the Irish weak and poor; conditions which would help prevent insurrection against the crown.  Then between 1846 and 1851 the great potato famine of Ireland took place and it is estimated that by 1851 the population of Ireland had fallen by two million.  One million  people had died from famine or famine related diseases and another million had emigrated.  However even when the famine was over the population decline did not stop.  Emigration between 1841 and 1863 is estimated to have been about three million.  By 1901 the population of Ireland stood at just over four million which was half its pre-famine level.  No other European country so late in its history lost such a high proportion of its population over such a protracted period.  The Ó Ciarṁacáin (Irwin) surname in Munster at the dawn of the 20th century was truly, as mentioned in Father Woulfe’s book “Irish Names and Surnames,” a “rare Munster” surname.  Of note also, Munster people surnamed Irwin were not only rare but, according to a number of 19th century surveys, they were also poor, Catholic and renters.

The “tithe” was a tax on land due to the Protestant Church of Ireland and was often paid in kind as opposed to money.  Catholics and other non-members of the Church of Ireland had to pay tithes, so the tax naturally aroused strong resentment.  There was no standard method of evaluating land for taxation and in some cases, especially in the south of Ireland, the tax seems to have fallen disproportionately on poor landholders.  Town and city dwellers were exempt from tithes.  The tithe appointment books were compiled for each parish generally between the years of the Tithe Acts (1823-1838).  For the entire province of Munster there were only nineteen Irwin households recorded in the tithe records: three in County Cork, five in County Clare, five in County Limerick, three in County Tipperary, two in County Waterford and one in County Kerry.

The first attempt to prepare a uniform valuation of property for the purpose of assessing local taxes on “rates” was under the Poor Law Act of 1838.  The results were unsatisfactory and legislation from 1846 onwards provided for a new uniform valuation of buildings and land in Ireland.  Sir Richard Griffith, a geologist, engineer, and surveyor played such an important role in directing the painstaking valuation of property that the finished work is known as “Griffith’s Primary Valuation,” or “Griffith’s Valuation” for short.  Griffith was called the “father of Irish geology” but he could also be dubbed the “stepfather of Irish genealogy” given how important the Valuation has became as a substitute for lost census records.  This survey commenced in Dublin  in 1848 and concluded in the north of Ireland in 1864.  For the entire province of Munster there were only 100 Irwin landholders recorded in Griffith’s Valuation records: forty three in County Limerick, twelve in County Tipperary, one in County Waterford, twenty six in County Cork, eight in County Kerry and ten in County Clare.


In 1876 the British government conducted a survey in Ireland known as “Land Owners in Ireland.”  The scope of this survey was to record all owners of  land in Ireland of  “one acre and upwards.”  In 1876 it must be remembered that to be poor and landless was to be Irish and Catholic.  Reaching back to 1641 Irish-Catholics owned 58% of the land in Ireland, in 1703 they owned 15% of the land and in 1778 only 5% and this percentage, most likely, had even dwindled further by this survey time (1876).  In searching the index page for County Limerick (where most of the Irwins were clustered) they did not own any land in all of County Limerick of “one acre and upwards.”  Thus it can be noted that the County Limerick Irwins, like their Irish-Catholic counterparts and unlike most Scottish Irwins in Ulster, were landless renters.


In 1901 Sir Robert E. Matheson published a special report “Varieties and Synonyms of Surnames and Christian names in Ireland” and eight years later it was republished under the name of “Special Report on Surnames in Ireland.”  In this special report Matheson endeavored to determine the numerical strength, derivation, ethnology and distribution of surnames in Ireland.  He compiled the following statistics for Erwin and Irwin.  According to the birth statistics of 1890 for all Ireland there were nineteen “Erwin” births throughout Ireland: only one in Leinster, none in Munster, none in Connaught and eighteen in Ulster.  According to the birth statistics of 1890 for all of Ireland there were one hundred and eighteen “Irwin” births throughout Ireland:  three in Leinster, twelve  in Munster, seven in Connaught and ninety six in Ulster.  Combining both, “Irwin” and “Erwin” throughout all of Ireland we arrive at the following statistics:  “Irwin/Erwin” in Leinster totaled four, “Irwin/Erwin” in Ulster totaled one hundred and fourteen, “Irwin/no Erwins” in Connaught totaled seven, “Irwin/no Erwins” in Munster totaled twelve.  Breaking these numbers into percentages and trying to make a general statement as to the origins of people surnamed Irwin in Ireland I would postulate that 85% of the people surnamed Irwin in Ireland (mostly in Ulster and overlapping into Leinster and Connaught) are of British (Scotch-English) planter stock.  I would further postulate that 6% of the people surnamed Irwin in Ireland (mostly in Leinster with some overlap in Connaught and Munster) are of native Irish stock & derive their name from the sept of Ó hEireaṁóin, which originated in County Offaly.  Lastly I would postulate that 9% of the people surnamed Irwin in Ireland (almost entirely in Munster with some overlapping in Connaught and Leinster) are of native Irish stock and derive their name from the sept of Ó Ciarṁacáin which originated in Knockainy in eastern County Limerick.


As a follow up study on the just mentioned birth statistics, I have examined all of the 1901 census returns for the Munster province and have established further evidence as to the separateness of the Munster Irwins (Ó Ciarṁacáin) from the almost exclusively Protestant Ulster Irwins (planter stock).  According to the 1901 census of Ireland there was seventy-eight Irwin households in the Munster province.  Twelve of these households were Protestants and all twelve were not native born Munster families:


  • To be more specific for County Limerick there were four Protestant households all of whom lived in Limerick City (urban dwellers).  One household head was a watchmaker from County Mayo.  One household head was an “R. I. pensioner” from County Tyrone.  One household head was a widow and her deceased husband’s birth data was therefore unlisted.  One household head was a watchmaker from County Donegal.

  • To be more specific for County Cork, there were six Protestant households.  One household head was a clergyman “Clerk in Holy Orders (Vicar)” from County Armagh.  One household head was a “Board of Public Works, Civil Engineer” from County Tyrone.  One household head was a “carpenter” from County Leix.  One household head was an “agricultural laborer” born in County Derry.  One household head was a “shopkeeper” born in County Derry.  One household head (another one) was an “agricultural laborer” born in County Derry.

  • To be more specific for County Clare there was one Protestant household.  He was a “Dist. Irish R. I. C.”  born in England.

  • To be more specific for County Kerry there were no Protestant Irwin households.

  • To be specific for County Tipperary there were no Protestant Irwin households.

  • To be more specific for County Waterford there were three Protestant households.  All three of them were urban dwellers in that they all resided in the City of Waterford.  One household head was a “tailor” born in County Armagh.  One household head was an “engine fitter” born in County Antrim.  One household head was an “R.I.C. Pensioner” born in County Kilkenny.


Thus it can be seen from the 1901 census data that, as far as can be determined, virtually all Munster Irwin Protestants lived in or near urban centers and were British civil servants, tradesmen or merchants.  Also 100% of them were not native to the Munster province but were merely conducting business or retired there.  Conversely sixty-six Irwin households (the balance of Irwin entries recorded in the Munster census of 1901) were all native born Munster families.  They were 100% Catholic families.  And, carrying over data from the 1876 land survey, they were 100% landless renters (in 1876).  The contrast between the Munster Protestant Irwins (planter stock) and the Munster Catholic Irwins (native Irish stock) is as vast as the contrast between Ulster Scottish Irwins and Munster Irish Irwins (Ó Ciarṁacáin).


Language can also be another means of identifying ethnicity in Ireland.  Of the sixty six Munster Irwin Catholic families thirty nine listed no Irish speakers enumerated during the 1901 census.  However twenty seven Irwin Catholic families were enumerated as having Irish speakers in their households at census time (1901).  Broken down as a percentage, as far as the 1901 Munster census is concerned, 41% of the Irwin households in Munster had Irish speakers.  I do not have the data for the percentage of Munster households that had Irish speakers during the 1901 census, however I did find governmental statistical data for Irish speakers in Munster during the 1891 census, some ten years earlier.  The percentage of Irish speakers in 1891 in all of the province of Munster was 29.5%.  Given that from 1891 to 1901 the Irish language was on the decline it would seem reasonable to say that the 41% statistic for Munster Irwin (Catholic) Irish speaking families was substantially above average for the 1901 census year.  Coupled together, namely that 100% of Munster born Irwin families were Catholics and 41% of them had Irish speakers present at census time (1901) in a province that had an average of under 29.5% Irish speakers some ten years earlier (1891), it would seem to be further proof of the disconnection between the British Planter Ulster Irwins and the native Irish Munster Irwins.


The fact that, according to my calculation, Irwins (Ó Ciarṁacáin) of Munster make up only 9% of the all Ireland Irwin population needs some sort of explanation.  I hold that no historian is doing his job if he tells his readers, “I simply don’t know” and leaves it at that.  Those who want to read about their past are entitled to some interpretation of the unknown no matter how unorthodox some may feel it to be.  I have already mentioned that wars, rebellions, famine, transportation and emigration have all contributed to the reduction of Munster Irwins (Ó Ciarṁacáin).  But in addition to the preceding  I consider it important to include several other contributing factors:


  • Irwin (Ó Ciarṁacáin) is a “monogenetic” surname (single origin from one family from one area) as opposed to a “polygenetic” surname (multiple origins from multiple families and multiple places).

  • Irwin (Ó Ciarṁacáin), as a branch off of a parent surname (Ó Ciarṁaic), had a three or four hundred year late start.

  • Irwin (Ó Ciarṁacáin), has been anglicized and mis-anglicized to be split into a number of other surnames (i.e. Irwin, Irvine, Irvin and Carey).


It seems also worth mentioning that Ó Ciarṁacáin, pronounced oftentimes as O’ Kerywokyn, was also anglicized to Carey (removal of “O”…removal of “wokyn”…retaining of “Kery” spelt  “Carey”).  Below is documentation consisting of top half (cover page of Fr. Woulfe’s book “Irish Names and Surnames”) and Page 463 of his book (bottom half) showing “Carey” as one of the anglicized forms of Ó Ciarṁacáin.

Thus the Munster Irwin (Ó Ciarṁacáin) surname at the dawn of the 20th century was truly, as mentioned in Fr. Woulfe’s book (Irish Names and Surnames),  a  “rare Munster surname.”


Lastly and finally I have written a great many words discussing the rareness of the Munster surname.  Likewise I have written a great many words discussing the separateness of the Munster Irwins to the Ulster Scots Irwins.  It must be realized however that the surname of Irwin in Ireland is a shared surname to Irish people of both great traditions (Irish and Scottish alike).  In researching Sir Robert Matheson’s, “Special Report on Surnames in Ireland”, in chapter one and paragraph one he states:


“The history of our country lies enshrined in the surnames; and on our shop fronts and in our graveyards may be found side by side the names of the descendants of the Milesian Prince, of the Scandinavian Viking, and the Norman Knight.”  This sentiment certainly applies to Irwin people of all persuasions (politically, religious and otherwise) as our shared surname collectively continues to make its way honorably onto the pages of Irish history for now and forevermore. ****



Munster Born Irwin Catholic Families

(Census of 1901)


Irish Speaking and Non-Irish Speaking


Parish data in the census of 1901 recorded for each resident household its surname, religion,  area  of origin and  whether or not it had  one  or more  Irish  speakers.


The map shows the  distribution of 66 Roman Catholic households  called Irwin  who were living in Munster. All of them were Munster born. The blue dots on the map represent the 27 Catholic families (41%)  which  had Irish  speakers. The red dots represent the 39 Catholic families (59%) which did not have Irish speakers.


There were in addition 12 Protestant  families  called Irwin. In contrast to the Catholics, all the Protestants were born outside Munster. Most of them were from Ulster.

Irwin * All Origins * All Ireland * Name Distribution

MacLysaght found Irwin to be almost entirely of British planter stock and interchangeable in spelling over the years with Irvine and with Erwin and Ervine.  In fact, the surname Irwin in Ireland could be from any one four origins.  Two were from Britain.  The Anglo-Saxon ‘Eforwine’ had a meaning of ‘boar-friend’.  The Scottish place-name Irvine, pronounced to rhyme with Irwin, is thought to be  from old Celtic words equivalent to the modern Welsh ‘ir’, fresh, green, and ‘afon’, river.  From Irish Gaelic, Woulfe has two family names, which he describes as rare:  Ó hEireaṁóin, O’Hervan; a south of Ireland name; and Ó Ciarṁacáin, O’Kerywokyn, a Munster name, which produced Irwin as well as Carey.


The map shows the distribution of some 2,100 families in 1992.  Each dot represents 0.1% of the total.  There are about 800 Irvine families, about 38% of the joint total.  Only 8% of them live in the Republic, and most of those live in Dublin.  This suggests a Northern origin with movement south in relatively modern times.  The names Ervine and Erwin, with some spelling variations, each have about 130 families.  They are virtually unknown in the Replublic.


Irwin differs from the other spellings in its strength and distribution in the Republic.  There were 1,300 Irwin families in 1992.  As would be expected from the planter element, Northern Ireland stands out by the density of Irwin settlement.  Two thirds of all the families live there.  A fifth of the total live in the area around Belfast, Lisburn and Antrim, which is twice the national average and points to Scottish and English ancestry.  However, fully a third of Irwin families live in the Republic, and only about a fifth of these live in Greater Dublin. This indicates a longstanding settlement pattern.


Irwin is virtually the sole form in the Republic outside Dublin.  Therefore MacLysaght’s interchangeable planter spelling theory applies only to the North.  In the South, the Gaelic origin appears to be more significant than he recognized.


(The above is taken from page one hundred eleven of “Surnames of Ireland” by Edward Neafsey).

The name Kirby may be of either English or Irish extraction.  Some Kirby families in Ireland will be descendants of settlers from the north of England where this name is fairly common but most, however, are of Irish origin, being lineally descended from forbearers named Ó Ciarṁaic.


Ó Ciarṁaic (originally pronounced O’ Kirwick) came to be corrupted in the spoken language of Limerick and Kerry to O’ Ciarba (pronounced O’Kirba) and thereafter Kirby became the anglicized form of their surname.  Ó Ciarṁaic, the older surname and parent surname of Kerwick and Irwin, is still numerous in its province of origin (Munster).  The above map shows the distribution of Kirby families in Munster during Griffith’s Valuation of the 1850s.

It was during the Norman era that people surnamed Ó Ciarṁaic of Knockainy, County Limerick relocated to County Kilkenny in the Leinster province.  It was there that their name became reasonably anglicized to “Kerwick.”  In Kilkenny the family remained “Kerwick” and in the County Waterford it became “Kervick.”  The above map, taken from Griffith’s Valuation of the 1890s, does not show the distribution of Kerwick families in the Leinster province but only in the Munster province.  People surnamed Kerwick seemed to be smally clustered in counties Kerry, Tipperary and Waterford.  As a cadet and newer branch of Ó Ciarṁaic (Kirby) they are understandably less numerous and widespread.



Evolutionary Path of the Surname Ó Ciarṁacáin

Irwin (Zones of Distribution)

Munster Catholics (1861-1891)

The above census data pertains to the Catholic Province of Cashel which roughly corresponds to the Munster province.  For census years 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891 the Catholic population of Munster remained pretty much static at 93%.


It is a belief held by many that to be Catholic in Ireland is an indication of one’s “Irishness” and conversely to be Protestant in Ireland indicates one’s “English/Scottishness.”  If this is true then 93% of Munster during these census years was “Irish” and only 7% was therefore “non-Irish.”


I have heard Irwin referred to as a “Protestant name.”  In Ulster this is truly the case but in Munster quite the opposite is true.  As discussed in earlier paragraphs on the 1901 census there were seventy eight Irwin families in Munster of which only twelve were Protestant.  But as already noted all twelve Protestant families were not Munster born whereas 100% of the Munster born Irwin families (all sixty six) were Catholic.  Therefore even though Irwin is justifiably labeled a “Protestant name” in Ulster it is equally justifiable to label Irwin a “Catholic name” in Munster.

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