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The Origin of the SEAY surname in Ireland
Posted by: Raleigh Seay, Jr. (ID *****7091) Date: September 26, 2010 at 15:36:32
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I speak only for the descendants of Mathew SEAY, the Irish immigrant.

For those descendants, there is abundant evidence that the Seay Surname Comes from Ireland

This précis is a summary of over 30 years of research. Several years ago, I asked myself the question, “Where is the SEAY surname found?,” and the answer turned out to be this — the only place in the western world where you find the surname SEAY, spelled this way, over a long period of time, from the 1600’s up to today, is the north of Ireland. On that basis, I concluded that my surname must have come from there. Digging into that possibility, I found Gerald and Louise SEAYE in the north of Ireland, just outside of Belfast, whom we met and with whom we visited. We felt we must be distant cousins but could not prove it for sure. Then, as we continued our research in America and Ireland, using a variety of sources in both countries, we found over 50 persons with the SEAY surname in County Down dating from 1721 to today, and we found significant evidence that the family had been in Ireland for many centuries. We also found persons by the surname SAWEY, which may or may not be cognate with SEAY but some seem to think it is. We found instances where a person’s name was spelled both SEAY and SAWEY. We also found a citation for a Hugh and Donel SAHE in the north of Ireland on the Inishowen peninsula in Donegal in 1544. During this time, researcher Ed Kneafsey of York, England, concluded that the SEAY surname must have evolved from SHEAHY or SHEEHY and he has included the surname in his book, The Surnames of Ireland. We found both Catholics and Church of Ireland adherents among the SEAYs of the north of Ireland, and we found Finnebrogue, the manor house where many of the SEAYs worked in the late 18th and 19th centuries. My wife Linda and I have visited Finnebrogue and have corresponded with the current owner. In fact, the current owner's college roommate is a friend of mine here in Orlando. There are numerous citations for SEAYs in County Down during this time period, so much so that on the Inch Parish Records, 1788-1872, is recorded these words, next to the entry for James Seay, 1793, “This name was once numerous in Inch.” Inch is a parish in County Down, just outside Downpatrick, and the home of a famous ancient abbey.

Moving forward on a second front, I became interested in the early records in America of Mathew SEAY and found, though the records were few, what I thought were significant examples of the SEE spelling of our surname, particularly in the 1685/86 court records and the 1704 quit rent record. Then, in The Irish Fiants of the Tudor Sovereigns, I found the surname O’SEE in Ireland in the 1500’s and 1600’s (2 citations) and O’SEEYE in the 1550’s (1 citation), and found a list of persons with the SEE spelling on the IGI records, persons that that seem to be in the area of County Clare in the 1800’s. These spellings were all variants of O’SHEE/O’SHEA, raising the possibility that Mathew may have come to America with his name spelled SEE and then the name evolved to the SEAY spelling over a period of time.

Then, in 2007, we found a citation that was a turning point for the understanding of our SEAY surname in Ireland. This event was the discovery of the name of Teige O’SEAY on the 1669 Hearth Money Rolls in the Parish of Rasharkin, County Antrim. Here on this list is an early example of the SEAY surname with the Irish “O” prefix, in the north of Ireland, in an area that was thoroughly Catholic, very close to the County Down SEAYs that we had earlier found, and at a time that predates the earliest County Down citation (the marriage of Jane SEAY to John WEST in Downpatrick in 1721) by some 52 years. This citation brings us right back to the north of Ireland. Researcher and professional genealogist Paul Reed has recently re-examined all of the available evidence, both DNA and documentary evidence, and has confirmed that (1) Mathew SEAY is the immigrant to this country, arriving in Virginia sometime prior to 1685 (the dates suggest that Mathew SEAY was about a generation younger than Teige O’SEAY, the perfect age to be Teige’s son), and (2) it is virtually impossible that Mathew spelled his name SEE when he arrived. For a host of reasons, Paul is confident that he spelled his surname SEAY and that the several SEE spellings we see are the mistaken spellings of the English recorder.

All of this information moves us away from the SEE spelling for our surname and brings us back to SEAY. While there is no way that we can know for sure, Sherlock Holmes, through the author Conan Doyle, said that once you have eliminated all the other possibilities, the remaining possibility must be true, no matter how unlikely. Occam’s Razor says, in essence, that the simplest and most obvious answer is usually the right one. That being the case, the conclusions must be the following:

•       For as early as we can find records in Ireland, the spelling of our surname has been SEAY, and the only place you find this surname, consistently spelled this way over a period of many generations, from the 17th century up to today, is the north of Ireland.
•       On this account, our surname must come from somewhere in the north of Ireland, Counties Down and Antrim and perhaps east Donegal on the Inishowen peninsula.
•       Our surname is an ancient native Irish surname of indeterminate origin. It is not Norman, English or Scot. The “O” patronymic proves this point.
•       In Ireland, the earliest spelling of our surname that we can find is O’SEAY in County Antrim in 1669.
•       It was pronounced something like O’SHAY, O’SAY, O’SHEE or O’SEE, or something in between, taking into consideration the Ulster accent. There is no way we can know the original pronunciation for sure.
•       This is one of many rare Irish names for which the origin is indeterminate (see the introduction to The Irish Fiants of the Tudor Sovereigns – see also MacLysaght’s essay entitled, “The Distortion of Irish Surnames”).
•       In the 1600’s and earlier the SEAY/O’SEAY family was Catholic and in later years many became Church of Ireland (Anglican). I can find no SEAYs who were Scots Presbyterian, although there may have been the occasional one or two here and there.
•       For the descendants of Mathew SEAY, the SEAY surname in America is very likely connected with the SEAY surname in Down and Antrim in the 1700’s and following and it is possible that it is connected with SAHE on the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal. I do not see, at this point, where it is connected to SHEEHY or SHEAHY, although I would not discount this completely. It is also possible that it is connected with O’SHEA/O’SHEE, a surname that is mostly found in the south of Ireland, but occasionally in the north.

For those who wish absolute certainty about the origin of our name, this information is unlikely to provide that assurance and it may be that the skeptic will discount it. We have no document signed by Mathew that says, “My name is Mathew SEAY and I am from County Down, Ireland” and we have no document placing Mathew in Ireland or in any other place in Europe. What we do have is (1) a sampling of DNA evidence from certain SEAY ancestors, (2) a limited collection of real estate, tax and other similar documents in Virginia, (3) a family tradition of Irish ancestry from a name very similar to O’SHEA, (4) the presence of the SEAY surname in the north of Ireland since the 17th century, (5) the presence of the SEAY name rendered as O’SEAY at an early date, (6) the testimony of SEAYs in America, New Zealand and Ireland to an origin of something like O’SHEA/O’SHAY, and (7) the opinion of professional genealogists and researchers in Ireland, England and America. Thus, in context of the history of the times, based on the preponderance of the evidence we have, these conclusions are the ones that most likely explain the origin of our SEAY surname. From my chair, I think this explanation makes very good sense, that it ties up all of the loose ends of our SEAY family, and I am content with it. If you are a descendant of Mathew SEAY, I offer this explanation for your consideration.

Very truly yours,

Raleigh F. (Sandy) O’Seay, Jr.
Orlando, Florida

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