Posted By:Raleigh Seay, Jr.
Subject:The Origin of the Seay Name in Ireland
Post Date:April 24, 2002 at 07:57:04
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Forum:Seay Family Genealogy Forum
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Dear Friends,

I'm posting a report sent to me by Ed Kneafsey several years ago, positing that the SEAY family of County Down descends from the Gaelic name of mac SITHIGH. I am virtually positive that the descendants of Mathew SEAY (b. circa. 1660, probably in County Down, was in Virginia in 1685) come from the County Down family. Thus, if Mr. Kneafsey is correct, and if your family discends from this line, this information may be of interest to you. If your SEAY family does not descend from Mathew SEAY, it is still possible that you are related to this family, but that your descendant came to America at a different time. If your SEAY family is not Irish, then this information would not pertain to your line. I welcome comments and discussion. As a matter of information, Mr. Kneafsey has recently pubished a book entitled "The Surnames of Ireland," in which he includes a summary of this report.

The SEAY name as a Derivative of mac SITHIGH.

“This is the reasoning behind my identification of MacSITHIGH as the origin of SEAY. The majority anglicized form of the name is SHEEHY. The Mac prefix has been dropped, a not uncommon feature for well known reasons.

My motive for seeking an origin was that SEAY families in Ireland are too few and too localized to produce a settlement pattern with any useful meaning. I checked Woulfe, MacLysaght, Reaney and Black, but found no reference to SEAY. I therefore rang the Ulster Historical Foundation to see if Bell had a reference to it, this being a source I do not have. I had a call back from the store where the book is on sale. The person said the name was not covered there either. We discussed possible origins and he mentioned SHEEHY.
Looking at MacLysaght’s ‘The Surnames of Ireland,’ the only names beginning with ‘s’ or ‘sh’ plus vowel sounds only are SHEEHY, O’SHEA and SHAW. The others around this part of the alphabet have consonants which rule them out. I shall come to SHAW and O’SHEA later.

I liked SHEEHY immediately. The reason is the use of the letter ‘h’ in Gaelic. It is now used following consonants to indicate that they are aspirated or silent. For example, MacLysaght writes the Irish form of McSHEEHY as MacSITHIGH. This is say mid-20th century. Woulfe, writing half a century earlier, uses the old method, which puts dots over a letter rather than the ‘h’ behind it. He therefore has MacSITIG. So, you get used to mentally deleting ‘h’s’ to compare one form with another. I saw immediately that SEAY was SHEEHY without the ‘h’s.’ (Woulfe does not have a dot over the ‘S’ of MacSITIG, as an ‘sh’ sound before an ‘i’ or ‘e’ is the regular form, but you get the idea.)

SHEEHY therefore was a name to check in Woulfe, Black and the various Maclysaghts, which are books that I have.

MacSITHIGH families were given land in Munster after having seen service as gallowglasses. They were of Scottish origin. People with the name therefore must have passed through the other provinces to get there. Points of entry to Ireland are likely to have been Belfast Lough, Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle. This provides an explanation for a variant in Down and a variant in south Donegal and Fermanagh.

The form the name takes in west Ulster is not surprising. McSHEA evidently started as M’SHEE. Checking the O’SHEA distribution, there are three times as many O’SHEAs where the McSHEAs are than there are McSHEAs. It seems probable that the M’SHEEs were influenced by this presence and adopted McSHEA rather than McSHEE. I do not know whether O’SHEA affected the pronunciation of McSHEA. It may have been done. It is also possible that, had the Mac prefix been dropped at some stage, some M’SHEE families might in error have restored the wrong prefix. Why is the Mac prefix found in the west Ulster cluster and not elsewhere? It may be the strength of of the example of the MAGUIREs, who are 2.5% of the population of Fermanaugh and 1% of Cavan. These are quite high figures. Further, north Fermanaugh had a plantation in the early seventeenth century. A reintroduction of Scottish forms with the Mac might have boosted the confidence of local MacSITHIGHs to restore their prefix. Also, I have found that GERRAGHTY has a Mac only in a few families in Sligo, so it may be the northwest of Ireland is more inclined to have a Mac.

The SEAY form in east Ulster shares the long ‘ee’ sound of SHEEHY, (and also the Scottish forms of McHEATH and McKEITH). What it does not now have is the initial ‘sh’ sound, which would be the regular form. It may be that it did have it, but Mathew SEAY did not think he needed a ‘sh’ to represent it, any more than he would have in such words as sure and mission. Also, the ‘sh’ in the Gaelic form of my name is not ‘sh’ in any modern spelling form, and cnaimseag has a slender ‘s’ in Argyll. I am inclined to think that SEAY did have a slender ‘s,’ because the few surviving families in Ulster spell it the way they do, and the way you do.

Why not O’SHEA? My first reaction was to think it might be, because I assumed you would pronounce the name SHAY, erroneously perhaps, but President Reagan erroneously uses RAYGAN. I dismissed this for two reasons. First, the distribution is wrong. I have already plotted the distribution of this name. It is heavily clustered in Kerry and Cork. It is scarce in east Ulster today and may well have been unknown there in the seventeenth century. Second, I did this distribution map for a man called SHAY in Maryland. As I remember, there is a commercial enterprise in Ireland called SHAY, but otherwise, this spelling is unknown in Ireland. If SHAY is unknown and SEAY is a variant of SHAY, then SEAY ought to be unknown as well, but it exists in Ireland. A third reason may now be added that in fact you pronounce your vowels as ‘ee.’

SHEEHY then is clear favorite. However, etymologically, SHEEHY brings in SHAW. There is a Scottish version of SHAW, in the Aberdeen area which comes from the same source as SHEEHY, the Middle Irish sidheach, wolf. In Black, the best place to find his coverage of the sidheach origin is from SHAW, then pick up the other references.

SHAW came to Ireland essentially as part of the plantation of Ulster. It came already evolved, so that it is distinct from it remote cousins SHEEHY, SEAY and McSHEA. Also, MacSITHIGH is neither the only nor necessarily the main origin of SHAW in Ireland. Aberdeen is about as far away from Ireland as you can get in Scotland. Placenames of SHAW occur in northern England and have produced surnames. Territorial origin SHAWs also emerged in the Scottish lowlands, mainly in Kirkcudbrightshire, Stirlingshire, and Ayrshire around Breenock. This latter area in particular is just a boatride away from Ireland.

SHAW then is a separate settlement story. This name is too English, too simple and too well known for anybody to have tried spelling it in different ways once it had become established in Ireland. It arrived in Ireland centuries later than the gallowglasses. Its pronunciation has deviated too far for this name to be in the frame.

Coming then to the scale of 1—10, how confident am I about this? Documentary evidence of progression would produce a full result. We do not have that, but a MacSITHIGH origin checks out on the other tests one can use on it. Some of them would have settled with local families in the north and would have chosen to stay there rather than continue south to seek their fortunes in Munster. The orthography – the spelling conventions checks out and the pronunciation. A further thought occurs to me. Belfast is an industrial revolution city and a major destination for people to find jobs. The SEAY families are two-thirds outside Belfast, two in Comber and two in the Whiteabbey/Glengormley area. It suggests they were in the vicinity before the growth of Belfast. This fits with the early native or gallowglass era settlement. I would therefore give in 9.

You get a feeling when you are on the right track. The ‘h’ factor did it for me for SEAY. I knew the other tests would check out. You just have to do the work to confirm the hunch. I had read a lot of inadequate or nonsensical stuff about my own name. When I found that the Scottish Gaelic for bearberry was cnaimhseag, I knew that was it, that this plant bout which I knew nothing would be growing where the O CNAIMHSIGHE cluster was, and that it would have medical properties to explain the fuzzy association with the practice of midwifery that I had sometimes seen. I just had to check the botany books and the medical books to confirm it.

Yours sincerely,

Ed Kneafsey”