Martin – Irish and Roman origins

History of the Irish name Martin. Image copyright Ireland Calling

Martin is a very common surname in Ireland and all across the world. It is also very popular as a given name for boys.

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While the name has independent origins in Ireland, it first originated in Roman times. It spread across Europe during the Roman crusades which took place from the 11th to the 15th centuries.

Roman god of war

It came from the Latin name Martinus, which in turn came from the Roman god Mars. Mars was the god of fertility and vegetation, and later the god of war.

Throughout the world the name has developed to fit in with each country’s language. In Italy, the common derivations are Martini or Martinelli, in France it becomes Martineau, the Spanish version is Martinez while in Sweden it is Martenssen. Many other countries also have their own version of the name.

France and England

Martin is one of the most common surnames in France thanks to the popularity of St Martin of Tours.

The name came to England from France during the Norman invasions of 1066. The name was rare in England apart from in Cornwall where the Celtic name Martyn was popular.

In the 12th century the name travelled across the Irish Sea as the Normans invaded Leinster in 1169 and Munster in 1171.

The Martins owned 200,000 acres in Connemara. They were one of the 14 Tribes of Galway, who held considerable power in the county for hundreds of years.

Irish origins

A different form of the name already existed in Ireland. It came from the Mairtine who were a people that once held considerable power in prehistoric Munster.

The Mairtine are said to be descendants of King Milesius, the mythical soldier of Spain and father of the Irish Gaels. The MacCarthy and O’Connor clans are also said to have descended from Milesius.

However, some historians argue that the Mairtine were part of the Fir Bolg which was a race that pre-dated the Gaels.

It is likely that the Mairtine people ruled over territory in Tipperary and that their capital was the town of Emly. Descendents of the Mairtine had surnames such as Mac Giolla Mhártain and Ó Maol Mhartain.

The name develops

The names had the prefixes ‘Mac’ and ‘O’, which means ‘son of’ or ‘grandson/descendent of’, so the names meant descendent of the Mairtine.

In the 16th century the name became anglicised after Oliver Cromwell’s forces had secured control of Ireland. British rule meant it was hard for people with Irish sounding names to find work.

Families dropped their Mac and O prefixes and changed the spelling of the name. Thanks to the Gaels and the Normans, the name ‘Martin’ had become common all over Ireland.

Notable Martins

Dean Martin
Dean Martin

John Martin was an English sailor who was the navigator to Sir Francis Drake for his 1577 ‘round-the-world’ voyage.

Richard Martin was an Irish politician born in 1754. His father had turned protestant so that Richard would be able to sit in Parliament and fight for Catholic Emancipation. He did promote Catholic Emancipation but is best remembered for his campaigning against animal cruelty. He helped to found the RSPCA along with William Wilberforce.

Dean Martin was a huge star in the mid-20th century. He was a big band/swing singer and a member of the famous ‘Rat Pack’ He was nicknamed the ‘King of Cool’ and was also an actor, TV star and film producer.

Steve Martin is an American actor, comedian and writer. His film career spans the decades from the 1970s to the present day.

Ricky Martin is a popular Latino singer while Chris Martin is famous around the world as lead singer of English band Coldplay.

There are countless other famous people called Martin or with a variation of the name.

Video histories of popular Irish names

Irish names and their meanings