Ward – Bards of Connacht and Ulster

History of the Irish name Ward. Image copyright Ireland Calling

Ward is an ancient surname that has origins in both Ireland and England. They were once one of the most learned families in Ireland.

There are numerous variations to the name including Macanward, MacAward, MacEvard, MacEward, McWard and M’Ward.

In Ireland, the name is popular in counties Galway and Donegal. It comes from the old Gaelic name Mac an Bhaird. The prefix ‘Mac’ means ‘son of’, while ‘Bhaird’ was a Gaelic word meaning ‘bard’. A bard was a poet or who would typically tell epic and heroic tales.

So the surname meant ‘son of the bard’. Irish families used to take their surname from the leader or chief of their clan and the Wards descended from a bard.

They became one of the most learned clans in medieval Ireland, excelling in law, medicine and history.

Originated in Ulster

The clan originated in Ulster and are said to have descended from Fiacha Araidhe who was King of Ulster in the 3rd century AD. Fiacha’s son Eocha later led the clan into Connacht. They were one of the tribes of the Six Soghin, who were a race of people in Ireland at the time.

They settled in the kingdom of Tír Sogháin, which is the area now known as Co Galway. The village of Ballymacward is named after them. They were hereditary bards to the O’Kellys and the O’Connors.

Keepers of the horse

The family were well respected for centuries. In the 11th century they were not only bards but also held the positions of ‘Keepers of the horse’. It was a highly honourable and important role because of the amount of fighting for power amongst the tribes meant soldiers often needed to mobilise as quickly as possible.

As the centuries passed the Wards spread from Galway and headed back to ulster, settling in Co Donegal, where the name is still popular. Other spets went to places such as Sligo and Monaghan.

English Wards

There are two possible origins in England. Firstly it could have been given as a name for anybody who came from a ‘werd’, which was a marsh. Secondly the name could have come from the Saxon word ‘weard’. This would have been a person’s job as a civil guard or keeper of the watch.

The name became anglicised in the 17th century after Oliver Cromwell’s men had taken control of Ireland. The English wanted to anglicise Irish culture and many Irish names were spelt with phonetic English spellings by English clerks.

Many Irish people also dropped the Gaelic prefixes to their names as it helped their chances of finding work to have a more English sounding name.

The name spreads across the world

Sir Joseph Ward. Photo copyright Herman John Schmidt CC3
Sir Joseph Ward

The surname spread to all corners of the world following the potato famine in the mid-19th century. People in Ireland were starving and vulnerable to disease. Millions left the country in search of better prospects.

They headed in greatest numbers to Australia, Britain, Canada and the USA.

Famous Wards

Sir Joseph Ward was the Prime Minister of New Zealand in the early 20th century. He served two terms, firstly from 1906-1912 and later from 1928-1930.

Andre Ward is an American boxer. He was a world super middleweight champion and recognised as one of the best pound for pound boxers of his era.

Hines Ward was an American football player. He played as wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers and was the first ever Korean American to win the Super bowl MVP.

Zack Ward is a Canadian actor. He has appeared in several popular TV series and movies such as A Christmas Story, Resident Evil, Freddie vs Jason and CSI: Miami.

History of the Irish name Ward. Image copyright Ireland Calling

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