The Griffin Surname


It is unknown at this time how, when, or where the name Griffin became the fixed surname of our family.  There are other Irish Griffins, Welsh Griffins, and English Griffins but we do not know of a unique Scottish Griffin family.  Thus, we assume that our ancestors adopted their fixed surname in Ireland as did the Sheehy family -- possibly in association with service to the Lord of Dunkerron.  If our surname was adopted in association with service under service to the Lord of Dunkerron, we are fairly confident that any record of that adoption has been destroyed during or subsequent to the Plantations of Ireland. (1)

Reference books typically claim that the Irish surname Griffin is the Anglicized form of the Irish language name Gríobhtha (modern spelling: Gríofa), because that is the name for the established family associated with County Clare.  This is a separate family from Griffins uniquely associated with County Kerry.  County Kerry Griffins do not have a known historical use of an Irish or Gaelic language name.

Surnames came into use gradually in the Scottish Highlands, around the 13th/14th Centuries.  Our Griffin ancestor left southwest Scotland to subsequently settle in County Kerry, Ireland no later than the 16th Century.  Thus it's conceivable that our ancestor arrived in Ireland without a fixed surname and received his surname there, possibly as an epithet for a particularly strong or brave fighter, or simply as a description of his occupation.

Research by Kevin Griffin has uncovered what we believe to be a suitable Irish or Gaelic language form for our family name:  the Scottish Gaelic word grìbhean, which is pronounced very much like the English word "griffin".  Gribhean and its stem gribh are the Gaelic words for the mythical beast called "griffin" in English.  In late Middle Ages Ireland, the epithet "Gribhean" would have been understood by English speakers, in addition to both Scottish and Irish Gaelic speakers, to mean a griffin - a fierce warrior.(2)(3)  Thus, a suitable Irish or Gaelic language surname for the Griffin paternal relatives of the Griffens listed in the 1601 pardon is Ó Gribhein — a surname, combining Irish, Scottish, and English features, meaning descendant of Griffin.

These are some other translations and spellings of the English name Griffin into Irish Gaelic that have been recorded:

Note that none of these other translations of our Griffin name appear to have historical basis before the 19th century Gaelic Revival and none reflect the actual pronunciation of our name.  The pronunciation of grìbhean is essentially the same as that of griffin and gribhean was common in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic dictionaries before the Irish Gaelic spelling reforms of the 20th century.

The use of the Gaelic name Gribhean for County Kerry Griffins is not without precedent.  Gribhean is the Gaelic form of the name Griffin in the Irish province of Munster as professed by John Rooney in his 1895 book, A genealogical history of Irish families.