The mystery of the missing Irish

Recent blogs on this site have uncovered migrants from across the Channel who were living in Cornwall in the early 1500s. But what about migrants from the opposite direction, from across the Celtic Sea?

There were a handful of people called Welshman in the early records, Walter and John Wylsheman at East Looe and another couple, Richard and Alice Wylsheman, at Antony to the east. In addition, there were a few folk named Kembra (Cornish for Wales) at Mousehole and Newlyn on Mount’s Bay in the 1520s and at St Columb Major in 1547. Both Welsh and Welshman became established as hereditary surnames in Cornwall in the 1500s and survived through to the nineteenth century.

However, those with names that imply an origin in Wales were far outnumbered in the early 16th century by people named Irish or Irishman. These latter names were found in most parts of west and mid Cornwall, although being noticeably thinner on the ground east of Bodmin. In addition to the second name Irish we find people named Gothall or Engothall, the Cornish equivalent of Irish or Irishman, in several parishes in the west.

Yet in the Protestation lists of 1641/42 there was not one adult male in Cornwall with the name Irish or Irishman. Parish register data strongly suggest that the name Irish was rarely found after the early 1590s. Moreover, the surname did not re-appear and in 1861 there was just one household (at Constantine) headed by someone named Irish. What had happened to the numerous Irish of the early 1500s?

The second name Irish in the 1500s may not have been fixed or hereditary. First names such as Donal or Teag/Teage (from the Gaelic name Tadhg) in the 1520s and 40s suggest that many of those named Irish at that time were first generation migrants. So had they stayed but changed their names to avoid appearing Irish? Had this switch been forced as a result of the growing religious differences between English/Cornish and Irish as most of the latter stuck with their Catholic faith?

Or had the Irish in Cornwall returned to Ireland as political conflicts mounted and hostility towards them escalated? The disappearance of the surname in the 1590s interestingly coincides with the major Irish rising led by Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone.

Moreover, what’s the relationship between this and the similar disappearance of the Bretons (also Catholic) by the end of the 1500s? It could well be the same process at work.

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