MacAleese – devotees of Jesus from County Derry

History of the Irish name MacAleese. Image copyright Ireland Calling

MacAleese is a popular name in Ireland, Britain, America and Australia. Its origins can be traced back to the ancient Celtic name Mac Giolla Iosa.

Back to Irish surnames

This was made up of three Gaelic words; ‘mac’ which meant the ‘son of’, ‘giolla’ which meant ‘attendant’ or ‘devotee’, and ‘Iosa’ which was a name for Jesus. So put together, the name ‘Mac Giolla Iosa’ meant ‘the son of the devotee of Jesus’.
History of the Irish name MacAleese. Image copyright Ireland CallingThe Church was an important part of Irish tradition, and a high ranking man of God would have been a powerful figure. The Mac Giolla Iosa clan was a prominent family in the north of Ireland. They held large territory in the area that is now known as County Derry.
In the period from the 11th century up until about the 16th century, Ireland was invaded several times. Celtic families from Scotland often travelled the Irish Sea to claim new territory and ended up settling in the north of Ireland.
The Normans also invaded on several occasions. Generally, these invasions from the Normans and the Scots didn’t affect the Mac Giolla Iosa clan. They held their territory throughout, and formed alliances with many of their new neighbours to strengthen their position.
With the integration of the Normans and the Scots, a few variations of the name Mac Giolla Iosa emerged.

Name became anglicised after Cromwell’s invasion

The name eventually evolved into MacAleese in the 17th century after Oliver Cromwell’s troops had swept across Ireland. Land was confiscated and handed to British settlers, who would be more likely to give you a job if you had an English sounding name.
Also, around this time, records of people’s names and addresses were taken for taxation purposes. These records were taken by English officials who would write down the name with a spelling they understood. This meant that English versions MacAleese and McAleese generally replaced the Irish Mac Giolla Iosa. MacLise, MacLese, MacLeish were other variations that emerged at this point.
The name travelled to America, Canada and Australia in the second half of the 19th century. Millions of Irish people faced starvation after a series of failed potato crops. There were hundreds, or even thousands, of people named MacAleese that left Ireland because of the ‘Great Famine’. These people settled and thrived in their new homes of America and Australia.

Famous MacAleeses around the world

There have been many people named MacAleese who have achieved success in their field throughout history.
Mary McAleese. Photo copyright - Yarl under GNU Free Documentation License Version 1.2
Mary McAleese was the 8th President of Ireland. She held the position for 14 years from 1997 until 2011. She was praised in 2012 after it was revealed she had voluntarily returned more than €500,000 in unused expense allowance during her time in office, an act that was not in line with the many of her fellow politicians.
John McAleese was a British SAS soldier who in 1980 led the storm on the Iranian Embassy in London after terrorists had seized the building and taken 26 people hostage. He later retold his story on British television.

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