The Griffin Surname


It is unknown at this time how, when, or where the name Griffin became the fixed surname of our family. We are fairly confident that, if a historical record of the name Griffin being adopted by our family was under service to O'Sullivan Mor, that record has been destroyed. (1) Since the earliest records of variants of the English word Griffin being used as our family name are associated to O'Sullivan Mor, we will likely never have a record of how it came to be our family surname and we will likely never have a record of Scottish clan membership for our family [cf, the (Mac / O') Sheehy family who are members of Clan Donald].

Reference books usually claim that the Irish surname "Griffin" comes from "Gríobhtha" (modern spelling: Gríofa), probably because that is the modern Irish word for the mythical beast. But the surname Ó Gríobhtha was anglicized as "Griffy", not Griffin, and applied only to a small clan in County Clare. The name "Griffy" or "O'Griffy" still exists but is quite rare.

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 and presumably received his surname there, either 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 fitting origin of 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. During the Middle Ages, griffin, or gribhean, also meant a fierce warrior. For reference see the Dictionarium Scoto-Celticum of 1828 or Edward O'Reilly's Irish dictionary of 1864. 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. A suitable Gaelic surname for the Griffin descendants 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:

  1. Ó Gríobhtha / Ó Gríofa / Ó Gríomhtha

  2. Mac Grífín

  3. Ó Grífín / Ó Gríbhthín

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.

  1. "The last 0' Sullivan Mor died at Tomies in 1762. He left an illegitimate son, whose grandson is a fisherman at Killarney. This grandson told me that when a gossoon some thirty years ago, he went to see his grandfather lying dead at Tomies. He saw not only his departed ancestor, but also a great pile of old papers, " maybe three feet high, mostly written on skins in Latin and Irish ; and faith I was in dread they might fall into the hands of the Mahonys or some other new people in the country, and they might get more of the old 0' Sullivan estates, so I burned them all myself!" - O'Connell, Mrs Morgan John, The Last Colonel of the Irish Brigade, 53.