Cartin, Carton etc; One of the oldest surnames in Ulster?

Origins of the  Surname

The origins of the Cartin surname can be traced back to 446 AD when it was referred to in the Annals of Ulster (1). Cartins, Cartons etc. were part of a race of people known as the Ui Meic Carthainn and they have been around the Foyle river ever since, mostly on it’s east bank.


This text will use the surname Cartin as shorthand for all the names derived from Ui Mhic Carthainn i.e. Carton, Carten, Cartan, Cartin, O’Cartin, O’Carton, O’Carten, O'Cartan, (2) and Carthainn etc. Some MacCartons, MacCartins and a very small number of MacCartans and McCartneys also have their origins in this sept.


The spelling "Ui Mhic Carthainn" is used  here to cover all the various renderings of the name in ancient Irish language and subsequent translations and versions. This includes for example Ui Meic Cairthinn, a common alternative.


Spellings of Cartin Carton Carten etc. have only stabilised in the last hundred years. In the records of the Beresford estate at Learmount (10), for example, the various Cartin tenants have a wide range of spellings of the name even though many are related and live in the one parish i.e. Lower Cumber just south of Claudy. In Griffiths valuation however, all of these names are rendered as Carton.


Let us dispense immediately with the idea that the Cartin surname has any immediate connection with MacCartan, the Co Down sept name. The lack of connection has been well explained by Sean MacCartan (3) and Brian Lacey (7). This means of course that a rendering of the Cartin name in Irish would be more like Mhic Carthainn rather than MacArtaine. A possible relationship with the McCartans is described in the section on the Cruithin. The Annals of Derry do mention the existence of one Mac Cartin probably around 1846 (4). This is no surprise if we bear in mind how often Cartin is rendered as MacCartin today by those transcribing it who are unfamiliar with the name.


Surnames as we know them today only came into use from 1,000 AD (5) and it would be much later before they were universally used in Ireland. It is very possible that one of the last pockets of people to adopt them were the last remaining members of the Ui Mhic Carthainn sept in Tir Mic Carthainn (the land of the Carthainn people). They were given the final versions of the names, Cartin Carton etc. by the English and Scottish settlers arriving at the time of the plantation or by their priests,  pastors and teachers. They would have made an anglicisation from the aural version of Mhic Carthainn. Remember too, that the oral version in Irish would have sounded more like " vic Kartan " to the ears of these people who of course would have spoken the language of Shakespeare. The Anglicisation from Ui Mhic Carthainn to Cartin etc would have begun about 1400 and had many iterations including O'Cartin before the final settlement on Cartin, Carton etc. a settlement which may only have been completed in the 1930's. In the case of the author's family, the final change from Carton to Cartin seems to have happened between 1910 and 1930.

Many Cartins today will be familiar with the routine whereby they say their name, only to have it transcribed or repeated back to them with an added Mac as in McCartin, MacCartan etc. And it was not just the English settlors who were anxiously trying to write down a name that was mostly orally transmitted. The needs of the Church will  have played a part, as the Irish names were translated for the benefit of Rome when Rome communicated with local clergy. Donnelly (6) says of the Roman church officials, who recorded the names of four Banagher priests and dates associated with them, Sean O Cartain 1419, Donal O Cartain 1401 (as Donal O’Carthean 1431), Padraig O Cartean (also recorded Patrick O Korton and O Cartain)1465 and John O Keartean 1419;


In the granting of dispensations we have to make allowances for the spelling of the Roman clerks trying to render Gaelic names, keeping in minds also that until the nineteenth century, spelling, even for the educated was not considered a matter of life and death.


A very good example of how the anglicisation of the surname suffered at  the hands of  administrators  who may have been barely literate at the  time and unfamiliar with the name is the following extract from the story of Gerry McCartney (12) " the original family name was Cartin but that my Grandfather's surname as inadvertently changed from Cartin to McCartney by the parish priest of St Mary's in Limavady, Fr McKenna, on the occasion of his christening in 1872. This was recognised as a mistake by a current parish priest of St Mary's in 2006, Fr Michael Collins, as all the rest of the siblings were baptised 'Cartin' (as well as 'Carten' and also 'Cartan'!) ".



Mac is the Irish word for "son of" and is shortened to Mc in many Irish surnames. Thus McCartin would be the  son of   Artin. The suffix "in" (with a fada on the i ) means the diminutive, when it is attached to a noun, meaning “little Art “in this case. While this is an interesting exercise it seems to have no relevance in the derivation of the Cartin surname .

In earlier times the name would have been recorded only in Irish and typically as "Uí Meic Cairthinn ". A suitable rendering of the name in Irish today would seem to be Mhic Carthainn. Renderings in Irish of the name such as "Mac Artaine", which confuse the surname Cartin with the surname MacCartan  cannot be correct. 

That there is scope for confusion is well illustrated by the fact that Saint MacCartan, who is today associated with Monaghan, was of the Ui Mhic Carthainn rather than of the county Down MacCartan clan. For further information on  Saint MacCartan see the section on "Cartins in the Public Record".

The histories of the Three Collas add a rich and proud background to the surname Cartin. The Three Collas are major figures in the early history of Ulster. One of them, Colla Uais was the grand father of Cairthend and the gggggrandfather of Dunchad (+677). According to a local tradition all three Colla brothers are said to have been buried on Slieve Gallion in south Derry. A poem in the Book of Leinster genealogies tells us that Colla Uais had two sons Erc o shleib fothuaid and Erc north [recte west]. The genealogies go on to state that Erc had two sons, Cairthend and Fiachrach, who were ancestors respectively of the Ui Meic Cairthinn of Lough Foyle and the Ui Fiachrach Ard Sratha.

Brian Lacey (7) (8) (11) takes up the story:


“In 677 the king of the Ui Meic Cairthinn, Dunchad mac Ultain (table 5.3) was killed by the Cenel nEogain king, Mael Fithrich. Dunchad would have succeeded to the kingship of his own people after the death of his predecessor Fergus son of Colman Mucaid who died in 668. Mael Duin was an ambitious warlord who, as we shall see again, was actively attempting to expand Cenel Eogain influence, across from their homeland in Innishowen, to the eastern side of Lough Foyle. The Chronicon Scottorum, Annals of Tigernach and Annals of the Four Masters all claim that Dunchad was overking of the confederation of the Airgialla at the time of his death. While several modern authors have cast doubt on the reliability of the references to such a position prior to 696, it seems safe, at least, to assume that Dunchad must himself have been a powerful and ambitious king of his tribe, a suitable opponent for Mael Duin. Dunchad was killed at Dun Forgco, a location which may be identifiable with the Dungorkin mentioned above. There are two possible fortifications in this townland: a crannog in the now dry Lough Lohan and a nearby site known locally as the “Doon”, which may have been some kind of inland promontory fort.

Dunchad’s death must have signalled the end of the “independence” of the Ui Meic Cairthinn of Lough Foyle and their subjugation from then on to the Cenel Eogain. However the tribe survived in some form as a puppet kingdom until the end of the eleventh century. In the year 1096 the annals record that “Conchobhor ua hAinniaraidh, king of Cianachta [the neighbouring people] and Ua Cein king of the Ui Meic Cairthinn fell by each other in combat”. The cause of the mutual regicide is not recorded but it may have had something to do with the aftermath of an incident which had occurred twenty years earlier. In 1076 Aed ua Mael Sechlainn, king of Aileach, defeated the Cianachta “co ro ladh ndergar” (and a bloody slaughter was inflicted on them) at the battle of Belat. Belat has been identified as a site in the vicinity of Gorticross a few miles east of Derry and at the time of the battle in the territory of the Ui Meic Cairthinn Locha Febhail. Whatever the reasons for the battle its location would seem to imply that on this occasion it was the Cianachta who were the aggressors.”


The Ui meic Carthainn were one of the tribes of the Airgialla. The Airgialla  name may derive from the Collas stipulation with the king of Ireland for posterity, that if any chiefs of the clan Colla should be demanded as hostages and shackled, then their fetters should be of gold. The Irish for gold is ór and giall is the Irish for hostage. "Airgialla" may also be connected with the name Argyll. a Scotish shire close to Ulster. (9) 

1 5 0 The Annals of Ulster (Author: [unknown]) Year U446 U446.0 Kalends of January third feria, eighteenth of the moon. AD 446. [AM] 4650.

U446.1 The battle of Feimen in which Mac Cairthinn son of Caelub fell. Some say he was of the Cruithin

U1096.2 Mathgamain ua Segdai, king of Corco Duibhne, Conchobor ua hAiniarraid, king of Ciannacht, and Ua Céin, king of Uí Meic Cairthinn, fell by one another in battle.

2 Email   Date: 2001-02-23 from P A MagLOCHLAINN “Our clan of Carten (which is also sometimes spelled Cartin, etc) has nothing to do with any of the other clans. Ours is originally O'Carten, and is clearly from Co Derry / Londonderry. “

3 re  Email to Edward Cartin from Sean McCartan April 2002

"My interest in your surname was due to the similarity to 'McCartan'. This has caused confusion to many genealogists. Due to this, I became interested in the Dungiven, Claudy and Park area where the Cartin/en/an surname has a cluster. This needed lots more work but I found enough to conclude there was no connection with the Co. Down surname McCartan. "

4 The Annals of Derry Robert Simpson North West Books ISNB0907528090. The extract Chapter IX Page 55 is slightly confusing as the author Simpson is dealing with the history of Derry around 1640 but refers to 1846 as the date in which he analyses the community of Derry as follows:

The names of Irish descent most frequently to be met with amongst us, and such as belong particularly to the north-west of Ireland only, are those of the Os and Macs:- O’Neill, O’Cahan, (or O’Kane,) O’Louglin (or Loughlin,) O’Dougherty,) O’Donnell, O’Kelly (or Kelly,) O’Deery,) (or Derry,) O’Brollaghan or O’Brallaghan (Bradley or Brolley,) O’Gaollogher (or Gallagher,) O’Gormly (or Gormly,) O’Firghil (Or Freel,) O’Caireallain (or Carolan or Carlan,) O’Cawell (or Cawfield and Campbell,*)(* Sampson’s Statistical Survey, and Ordnance Survey.) O’Moore (or Moore or More, big,) O’Du-Yearma (or M’Dermot,) O’Flanagan (or Flanagan,) O’Branian (or Branan,) O’Dunne (or Dunn) &c.

The Macs are both of Irish and Scotch origin, in consequence of the close conection between the Gaelic and Irish languages, being from the same Celtic root:- Mac Dermot, Mac Daid 9or Mac Devit, Mac Cartin (or Cartin,)M’Cartney (or Mac Carthey) Mac Rory (or M’Rory,) Mac Arthur (or M’Arthur,) Mac Neill (or M’Neill,) Maclachlan (or M’Laughlin,) Mac Crea (or M’Crea,) Mac Clelland (or M’Clelland,&c):- McClintock is English, O’Kennedy (or Kenedy,) is Irish &c. &c.

5 The Surnames of Ireland sixth edition Edward MacLysaght ISBN 0-7165-2364-7

In the Introduction he says, “Ireland was one of the earliest countries to evolve a system of hereditary surnames: they came into being fairly generally in the eleventh century, and indeed a few were formed before the year 1000.” “ The prefixes Mac and O were very widely dropped during the period of the submergence of Catholic and Gaelic Ireland which began in the early seventeenth century, when English rule and influence in Ireland, little more than nominal prior to that outside the Pale, became really effective.”

6 The Parish of Banagher Philip Donnelly ISBN 0948154 993

7 Derry and Londonderry History & Society Eds O’Brien & Nolan Geography Publications

 ISBN 0 906602 85 8

8 Brian Lacey ( Lacy )

Brian Lacey was born in Dublin in 1949. He did various jobs in Ireland, Belgium, France and Greece for four years after finishing secondary education. He then studied Celtic Archaeology and Early including Medieval Irish History at University College Dublin (BA 1st class Hons, 1974; also awarded the Eugene O’Curry memorial medal for Early Irish History), and obtained a D. Phil. from the University of Ulster in 1999 for interdisciplinary work relating to the heritage of St Colum Cille. From 1974 to 1986 he was a lecturer in Local Studies (archaeology and history) at Magee University College in Derry, and from 1986 until 1998 was Programme Organiser of Derry City Council’s Heritage and Museum Service. During that time he set up, among other things, four award-winning museums and a municipal archive service. In the mid 1970’s he directed a series of salvage excavations at sites in the centre of bomb-damaged Derry and from 1980 to 1983 directed the pioneering archaeological survey of County Donegal. He has been CEO of the Discovery Programme since May 1998. He has lectured and taught widely - both at home and abroad, and has written extensively - at both serious and popular levels - on various topics but mainly on the history and archaeology of the northwest of Ireland.






11 The Ui Meic Cairthinn of Lough Foyle, Derriana, 1979 3-24.


12 email from Gerry McCartney 20 02 2012