Gay family name

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.

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. The local history page of the Visit Mullingar website says:

The town takes its name from the Gaelic “An Muileann gCearr” meaning the left hand mill and is associated with a miracle that occurred at the mill.The town of Mullingar was founded by the Normans over 800 years ago.

The Norman settlement was a Manor and Borough with a castle, a parish church, Augustinian and Dominican monasteries, a hospital and a Frankhouse. The population of the borough was a mixture of Gaelic Irish and French, English, Welsh, Flemish and Breton immigrants.

To-date there’s been no direct evidence or suggestion that English, Norman or French ancestry played any part in our family history in Ireland – it can’t be ruled out, 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. There is also a Gaelic surname tradition:


James Joseph Gay (1923-2010) recalled that as a school child in Mullingar, he learnt his family name in Gaelic as  Seamus 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 a link.

The meaning of Mac Giolla Dé is “Son of the Servant of God”; the elements being Mac “son of”, Giolla “servant” and Dé “God”.  

James also offered an alternative in that Gay  was Gaelic for “goose” – and indeed they are homophones with the Gaelic for goose being  (gay) but there is no known association to the name.

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 the name 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: GildeaGay (non-Irish).

Therefore this can be derived: (Mac) Giolla Dé = Gildea = Gay

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.

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. It is probably more accurate in this case just to keep the meaning as Giolla Dé – Servant of God.

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