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The Meaning Of The Name


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At dusk on a summer’s evening in the year 795AD, a sinister looking high-prowed ship ploughed into the sands at Lambay Island just north of Howth Head on the east coast of Ireland near Dublin. Immediately from the body of the Longboat, the oarsmen rushed to attack the monastery of Saint Columkill. They slaughtered the monks, plundered the monastery for for all the gold and silver vessels they could find, and then disappeared back into the Irish Sea. The Irish Annalists, referring to the incident, describe the unwelcome arrivals as 'dubh-ghaill'.

The first 'Doyles' had arrived in Ireland!

This was the beginning of more than two centuries of attack and invasion which had devastating effect on Ireland, and on the Irish monasteries in particular.

Viking (from the Old Norse Vikingr) means 'sea-rover' or 'pirate', and this precisely what these people were. Ethnically, they were Teutons, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian farmers, fisherman and sea-merchants, who were forced onto the open sea in search of a livelihood by over-population and a shortage of arable land at home. From the eighth century, their plundering raids terrorized much of the known world, reaching as far as America, North Africa and Constantinople.

Members of Clan Doyle /Clann O DubhGhaill ('Dubh-Ghaill' ... pronounced 'Du-Gall') take their family surname from the Irish Gaelic words meaning 'Dark/Evil Foreigner'; and this is just what the indigenous Celts called the Danish Vikings who started settling in Ireland and Scotland more than 1,000 years ago.

In Ireland, the annalists distinguished two groups among the raiding Vikings, the Lochlainn, or Norwegians, and the Danair, or Danes, the Norwegians being described as fair, the Danish as dark (because they wore chain-mail armour). Initially, the Norwegians dominated, and their raids were sporadic and unsystematic. From about 830AD, however a new phase of large-scale attacks, involving the use of fleets of long-ships, began, and the Vikings penetrated deep inland though the use of rivers and lakes. Attracted by the wealth of the monasteries and churches they plundered them steadily. From this period date the first Vikings' fortified settlements. In 852AD, the Danes wrested control of one of these settlements, the military and trading post of Dublin, from the Norwegians under their king Olaf (in Irish Amlaoimh), and founded the Danish Kingdom of Dublin which was to last three hundred years, until the coming of the Anglo-Normans.

For the next 100 years, up to the middle of the tenth century, the Vikings consolidated and extended their power though unremitting aggression. From about 950 on, however, the east Clare Gaelic sept of the Dal Cais began its rise to power, capturing first the Kingship of Munster from the Eoganachta and then, with Brian Boru, taking the high-kingship of Ireland from the Ui Neill in 1002AD. Brian fused the disparate Gaelic forces together with some renegade Vikings into a single confederate army, and stopped the combined might of of the Norwegian and Danish forces in the battle of Clontarf on April 23 1014AD, neutralising the power of the Vikings in Ireland permanently.

Although their political power declined after this, as a people the Vikings were soon thoroughly absorbed into the religious and political life of the country, adopting the Irish language and the Irish customs, intermarrying and intermingling.

To them also we owe all of the earliest towns in the country: Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick all began as Viking settlements, and, even after their absorption into the Gaelic culture, the commercial interests of the newcomers kept them centred in these areas.

As early as 851AD one DubhGilla, son of Broder, is mentioned as king of Idrone in County Carlow. From this time onwards, it is an interesting exercise to trace the development of the name in the calendars of Irish records. We instance the following as examples:- O Dowill, Dowyll, O Dowile, O Doule, O Douell, Duggal, McDuggal, McDowell, Dowell, McDowall and Dowall. All are clearly forms of 'dubh-ghaill' mentioned above.

The McDowell family in Ireland are our 'cousins', and are descended from the Danish Vikings who settled in Argyll and the Western Islands of Scotland. Their great ancestor was Somerled (a Viking word meaning “summer warrior”) , he was the master of Argyll (on the west coast of Scotland) and he was killed in battle against the Scots in 1164AD. (Argyll and the Western Isles were not ceded to Scotland by the King of Norway until 1266AD.) A branch of this family settled in Ireland in the AD1240s. Initially they served as 'galloglass' (professional mercenary soldiers) for the O’Conor Clans in the Province of Connacht. For the next 300 years or so, the McDowells are recorded in various ancient Irish records as professional soldiers, serving a number of different Irish Warlords in various parts of Ireland.

The modern English language version of 'Dubh-Ghaill' in Ireland today is 'Doyle', 'O’Doyle' or 'Dowell', 'McDowell', and in Scotland it is 'Dougall' or 'MacDougall' (the modern Scots-English pronunciation is closer to the original Gaelic). In Ulster and Roscommon, these names now exist as 'McDowell' and 'Dowell', and are carried on by the descendants of the original immigrant Irish/Scots/Norse Galloglass mercenaries. A more complete list of surname varients include all the following: Dougall, Dowell, Doyle, O'Doyle, DubhGhaill, MacDowall, MacDowell, McDougal, McDougall, McDoughall, McDowall, McDowel, McDowell.


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 Last updated 3 December, 2011