For the sake of clarity, we are talking here about the family name Gay, largely centred around Mullingar, County Westmeath, Ireland, and from there around the world. My family traces its roots to these Irish Midlands, documented only as far back as the early 19th century. Like so many other Irish families, it and those families we are joined to are now spread to other countries but are proud of their ancestry.
The surname Gay
The meaning of the family name Gay is a little obscure and might not be conclusive. For many with obvious English or Norman descent then the association is normally made to the derivative from the Old French Gai or from any of the places in Normandy called “Gaye”, such as that in La Manche, where the place-name itself it is said derives from an early owner bearing a Germanic personal name beginning” Wai” or “Gai”.
Of course the Normans and English were in Ireland too and there may be some connection but normally these would be associations to well-heeled families, perhaps relatively easily and obviously connected to the original migrants to the island.
To-date there’s been no evidence or suggestion that English, Norman or French ancestry played any part in our own history in Ireland – it can’t be ruled out I guess, lost in the mists of time or the Bog of Allen. Like so many other families with Irish ancestry, my own family, separated by only one generation, likes to think our Irishness is a large constituent part of who we are. So I prefer the Gaelic surname tradition….
My father, James Joseph Gay (1923-2010) told me that as a school child in Mullingar, he learnt his family name in Gaelic as Mac Giolla Dé, pronounced mac-gilla-day. So far I have found no direct supporting evidence that Gay is a literal for Mac Giolla Dé, however there is an accepted derived inference.
The meaning is Son of the Servant of God (elements being Mac ”son of”, Giolla ”servant” and Dé “God”). I also recall that he said Gay was Gaelic for “goose” – and indeed they are homophones with the Gaelic for goose being gé (gay) but there is no known association to the name. Perhaps we were goose farmers long ago?!
According to Edward MacLysaght, respected for his Irish genealogy and surname research, Gay is an English name (also Norman, French and Catalan) but also a synonym for the Gaelic name Gildea.
Gildea is the Anglicization of Giolla Dé.
This is also supported by www.irishidentity.com where both Gay and Gildea are directly referenced as being equivalent to Giolla Dé, again, servant of God. See also www.surnamedb.com: Gildea, Gay (non-Irish).
So doing the maths A=B=C therefore A=C:
Mac Giolla Dé = Gildea = Gay
Although our branch of the Gay family traces its ancestry to Westmeath, Mac Giolla Dé is said to originate with a monastic family in Donegal in the 11th century.
Surnames in Gaelic vary according to gender/status:
Male: Mac Giolla Dé
Female (Daughter): Nic Giolla Dé
Female (Married name): Mhic Giolla Dé
My own name in Gaelic would then be Caoimhín Mac Giolla Dé.