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Origins of the Tormey Name

by Michael Tormey, December 5, 2008

(Since the beginning of the Tormey Family History Website in 1998, I have published several articles outlining different theories as to the origins of the Tormey name. The following is a final update, intended to supercede prior versions and offering a more complete discussion. I offer my thanks to those who have contributed information that has helped in completing this work -- in particular, but not limited to, James Tormey Clare, Robert W. Tormey, John J. Tormey III and Dr. Simon Tormey.)


Modern Versions of the Name

In addition to the "Tormey" family name, it should be noted that there are several similar derivations of the name that share a common heritage. These would include "Tormay", "Torme", "Tormy" and "Tarmey". More historical versions of the name would include the likes of "Tormaigh", "O'Tormaigh", "O'Tormay" and "O'Tormey", as will be expounded upon later in this article. The information contained herein will be of interest to those with any of these surnames. For simplification, however, here on out I will primarily focus on the more common spelling of Tormey when referring to the modern version of the name.


Our Irish Roots

As a result of nineteenth and twentieth century migration patterns, Tormeys can be found in many parts of the world today, though larger numbers are primarily located in Great Britain, the United States, Australia and even Argentina. For the most part, we all consider ourselves Irish in origin, due to the fact that we can trace our roots to an ancestor who, at some point, lived in and emigrated from Ireland.

Tormeys have, in fact, resided in Ireland for centuries. As a definitive example, the earliest recorded collateral ancestor (*1) with our family name was Giolla-Iosa O'Tormaigh, an archbishop of Ardagh who lived during the thirteenth century -- nearly 800 years ago. While Giolla-Iosa O'Tormaigh may be the first Tormey to show up in printed history books, other less-noteworthy Tormeys likely lived in Ireland as early as the eleventh century and perhaps earlier.


Our Not-so-Irish Roots

Despite the centuries-long history of Tormeys in Ireland, many experts believe our family's past actually extends back to Scandinavian Vikings or Norsemen (Norseman being a term meaning "people from the north" and referring to peoples from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark during the period of the late eighth century to the eleventh century.)

Lending credence to the belief that Tormeys extend back to the days of Scandinavian Norsemen, modern-day scholars suggest that the Tormey name itself is a reference to such origins. Patrick Woulfe, for example, in his 1993 book, Irish Names and Surnames, states that the Tormey surname evolved from O'Tormaigh and O'Tormadha, which are derived from a Norse personal name (first name), "Thormodor", which means "Thor's man". (*2) Thus, O'Tormaigh would simply mean "descendant of Thor's man" (an obvious reference to Scandinavians as they were viewed in the Middle Ages-- as pagan peoples who followed the ways of Thor, the Norse god of thunder). A similar reference is made by eminent historian Edward MacLysaght in his work, The Surnames of Ireland (several editions of which were published from 1964 to 1985), in which he, too, states that O'Tormaigh is derived from a Norse personal name. (*3)

That a group of Irish peoples would have descended from Scandinavian Norsemen is entirely consistent with history -- as Norwegian and Danish Vikings, adventurers and traders had a long history of interaction with the Irish from the ninth to the eleventh centuries. Some were plunderers and conquerors. Others were traders. Many remained and made Ireland their permanent home; and many, as would be expected, married Irish women and integrated themselves into Irish/Gaelic culture.


The Evolution of the Tormey Name

As noted above, the Tormey name is believed to have originally evolved from the Norse personal name, Thormodor, meaning "Thor's man". Etymologists believe the early Gaelic version of the name would have been Tormach (also seen spelled as Tormac) (*4, 5), which subsequently evolved into Tormaigh. (*6, 3)

At some point, perhaps in the stage between Tormach and Tormaigh (etymologists don't know exactly when), the name evolved from being simply a personal name (first name) to a family surname. (See my notes below in Addendum 1: The Evolution of Surnames.) It was then that Tormeys came to be known by O'Tormaigh -- a patronymical name, in typical Irish fashion, meaning simply "grandson of" or, perhaps more accurately, "descendant of" Tormaigh.

One should note that, unlike many other Irish surnames, such as O'Neill or Kelly (O'Caellaigh), the name of O'Tormaigh may not necessarily point back to a single patriarch ancestor. That is to say, all those who bore the name might not have been necessarily related as a single family unit. Rather, it is believed that O'Tormaigh was more descriptive of a group of people who shared a similar heritage (i.e., descendants of Norsemen -- Thor's men -- foreigners of sorts who, although they lived in Ireland, spoke Gaelic and shared Gaelic heritage and values, also valued their Scandinavian past and religious beliefs and likely lived together in groups).

In the centuries that followed, as English influence over Ireland increased, the traditional Gaelic spelling of "O'Tormaigh" became more anglicized and evolved into "O'Tormay" and "O'Tormey". Later yet, particularly in the seventeenth century, as English influence gave way to forced (and often violent) subjugation, the name evolved into simply Tormay and Tormey and, to a lesser degree, Torme, Tormy and Tarmey. In some cases, to be sure, the dropping of the "O" would have been a simple case or survival (wanting to avoid English persecution). In other cases, it would have simply been a desire to better "fit in" (i.e., a belief that having a more English sounding name -- or a less Irish sounding name -- would potentially lead to more privilege and prosperity). In any case, for at least the last two centuries, our forebears have been known simply by the surnames of Tormey, Tormay, Tarmey, etc.

It is interesting to note, too, the evolution of the pronunciation of our name. Certainly, if the Gaelic version of Tormaigh is used as a guide, the modern version of Tormay, pronounced tôr-m?' (with more emphasis on the second syllable), would be more traditionally accurate (and, in fact, many who use the spelling of Tormey still do use the Tormay pronunciation). Interestingly, however, the majority of us throughout the world use the spelling of Tormey and pronounce our name as tôr'-m? (with more emphasis placed on the first syllable). Though lesser used, it is easy to see how Tormy and Tarmey evolved from the Tormey spelling, when pronunciation is taken into account. [See Pronunciation Key.]


Where Tormeys Primarily Lived in Ireland

Referring to the Tormaigh/O'Tormey/Tormey family name, Historian Edward MacLysaght notes that "from the earliest recorded times, it has belonged to County Longford and adjacent parts of Westmeath and Cavan." (*3) Numerous other historians also associate the Tormey name with County Longford and the areas of the Irish Midlands surrounding Lough Ree (Lake Ree). This lends credence to the belief that Tormeys are descendants of Scandinavian Norsemen, if one considers the long history of Vikings in the area and, in particular, the history of the town of Longford, reported to have been originally founded by Vikings.

It was during the tenth century A.D. that Viking explorers extended their reach deeper into the heartland of Ireland, sailing their longboats up the Shannon River (Ireland's longest river, dividing the west of Ireland from the east and south) to Loch Ree. (See map below.) Of course, often simply raiders and pillagers, early Vikings were seen as a threat to the local population. Gradually, however, many Vikings/Norsemen settled and established themselves as a permanent presence in the area, building towns, building a network of trade and, as one would expect, marrying into Irish families.


A map of Ireland, showing the path of the Shannon River (highlighted
in yellow). Norsemen entered the river from the Atlantic Ocean, on the
southwest coast, and navigated the river to Lough Ree, located in the
Irish Midlands. (An enlarged section of the counties surrounding Lough
Ree appears below.) Map source


The town of Longford itself (from which County Longford derives its name) was one of many Viking "longphorts", a term invented by Irish monks from the Latin words longus, meaning boat/ship, and portus, meaning harbor. Such longphorts were typically secure fortresses from where Vikings could easily defend themselves and secure their ships/longboats. (*7)

Referring to the long and profound presence of Vikings/Norsemen in the Irish Midlands, Fellow Researcher James Tormey Clare wrote in an earlier work that "it is easy to understand why the counties abutting Lough Ree, even today, have the highest concentration of Tormey families or their descendants in all of Ireland."


Enlarged section of above map, showing Lough Ree (center) and the
surrounding counties of Longford, Westmeath, Roscommon, Cavan, etc.


Of course, one should note that the Irish Midlands weren't the only area with a Viking/Norse presence. Viking settlements and towns existed throughout Ireland. Indeed, to this very day, there are many Irish citizens who have common Scandinavian family names. It is uniquely in the Irish Midlands area, however, particularly around Lough Ree, that a group of Norsemen came to be identified as descendants of Thor's men: O'Tormaighs, O'Tormeys and, ultimately, Tormeys.


The Question of a Tormey "clan"

The Irish organization, Clans of Ireland, Ltd., established in 1987, defines a clan as a surname group that "is either authoritatively documented as being of Irish origin, or has a documented presence in Ireland prior to the Great Famine." Clearly, the Tormeys meet this modern definition of an Irish clan; and it is in this spirit that the Tormey Family History Website is affectionately referred to as (If anyone is interested in helping organize a formal structure and coordinate an application to Clans of Ireland, please let me know.)

In the traditional, historical context, however, an Irish clan is defined as a number of families claiming a common ancestor and following a single, hereditary chieftain. By this definition, the Tormeys were not what one would traditionally call a clan. While the O'Tormaighs/O'Tormeys were a number of families claiming a common Scandinavian heritage and did establish a multi-generational presence in the Irish Midlands, they did not follow a single hereditary chieftain. Rather, they allied themselves instead with other clan groups with whom they developed a strong bond -- in particular, the O'Farrells (who were largely concentrated in County Longford) and the O'Reillys (who were largely concentrated in neighboring County Cavan and, to a lesser degree, Counties Longford and Westmeath). Edward MacLysaght, in fact, in his Supplement to Irish Families, suggests that the O'Tormey's were of close enough association to the O'Reillys (specifically in Cavan and Westmeath) to have perhaps even been a sept of the great O'Reilly clan. (*8) This type of association is consistent with Irish history, as Viking/Norse groups were known to ally themselves with certain Irish chieftains -- even to the point of fighting alongside them against rival chieftains or kings. (Perhaps future research will provide greater details as to the exact relationship between the O'Tormaighs, the O'Reillys and the O'Farrells.)

As an interesting aside, when researching the "Tormey family crest", more often than not the actual crest noted for Tormey is indeed that of the O'Reilly clan. Likewise, crests I have seen for Tormey, O'Reilly and O'Ferrel all seem to contain similar elements (in particular, a lion). Of course, the topic of family crests is a controversial one (and one that I will address on this website at a future date).


An Oral History of Particular Interest

In 1998, I was contacted by Fellow Researcher Robert W. Tormey of Salem, Oregon, who provided me with some extensive information on his own Tormey roots as well as some basic historical information of interest to all Tormeys. Of particular interest, he explained to me that his family had a tradition of passing down an oral history of their Tormey roots that extended back many, many generations. He explained that he himself was the most recent to carry on the tradition, having committed to memory the information his great uncle James Tormey (1876-1952) passed on to him. Following are some specific quotes he provided that relate to our Tormey origins:

"The first of our line were the Tormach, grandsons of a fierce Norseman who was drowned. They ruled the lake for a hundred years and fought alongside Brian at his fall."

"My great uncle James said we were few since 1689 when William's English forced the bulk of the O'Reillys, O'Ferrals [O'Farrells] and O'Tormaighs into the lake (Loch Ree) and hung the survivors; ever after, in any scrap, we were to side with the O'Reillys and O'Ferrels as brothers."

"The surname was spelled Tormaigh only when the English eyes are not on ye."


There are many who would argue that oral history cannot be relied upon in the same manner as primary resource materials (as it is often difficult to sort out what is accurate history and what is simply tradition). Nonetheless, the information provided by Robert W. Tormey offers some fascinating insight that cannot be ignored. Following are some talking points to be considered:

  Robert Tormey's information supports the belief that our ancestors descended from Scandinavian Norsemen as opposed to some other indigenous Gaelic group.
  It is interesting to me that Robert Tormey's information specifically mentions "the Tormach". That this knowledge was passed down from generation to generation is particularly significant -- as it has taken etymologists years of research to draw an association between the modern name of Tormey and the historical, Scandinavian name of Tormach.
  It is particularly interesting that Robert Tormey's information mentions a "fierce Norseman who was drowned". Historical chronicles, tell of a Viking chieftain. by the name of Thorgisl (also referred to as Turgeis, Turgisius or Thorgeis) who, in 831 united a large group of vikings in Ireland. One source, Heimskringala (The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway), notes Thorgisl to be a son of King Harald Harfagra of Norway and refers to him as the ruler of Dublin. (*10) Over time, he is known to have conquered and ruled most of the northern half of Ireland. His rule was not long lasting, however, as he was ultimately deposed by resurgent Irish factions. In the year 845, Thorgisl was captured by the forces of King Malachai I (Maelsechlain) of the Meath Ui Naill and was drowned in Loch Uair (now Loch Owel, near Mullingar, County Westmeath). (*11) Is it possible that Tormey history dates back to this Thorgisl who died by drowning in 845?

Robert Tormey's information states that our ancestors "fought alongside Brian at his fall". In conversations with Robert, he further explained that this was referring to Brian Boru (941-1014), who reigned as high king of Ireland from 1002 to 1014. Historical sources note that Brian Boru was killed in on April 23, 1014, during the Battle of Clontarf (a large battle between the forces of Brian Boru and the forces of the King of Leinster, Máel Mórda mac Murchada). Interestingly, history notes that Danish Viking mercenaries fought alongside the King of Leinster. If indeed our Tormey ancestors, they themselves descendants of Vikings, fought alongside Brian Boru, then they would have been fighting against other Viking factions. (This is interesting in that it would indicate that our Tormey ancestors, despite their Norse/Viking roots, had by the eleventh century considered them sufficiently Irish to fight at the side of an Irish king in defense of their new "homeland".)


Moving ahead 600 years in his account, Robert Tormey states that "we were few since 1689 when William's English forced the bulk of the O'Reillys, O'Ferrals and O'Tormaighs into the lake (Loch Ree) and hung the survivors..."

It is unclear to me what specific battle or skirmish this statement might be referring to, but 1689 was a big year in English and Irish history and was marked with heavy fighting between Catholic and Protestant forces. It was in 1689 that William III, Prince of Orange, a Protestant nephew of Catholic King James II, deposed his uncle and, with the blessings of Parliament, became King of England, Scotland and Ireland in his uncle's stead. James II fled to the largely Catholic Ireland, where he gathered supporting forces and unsuccessfully attempted to defend his claim to the throne by battle.

If it is true that our Tormey ancestors were involved in the fight against William III, then it can be supposed that they were fighting in support of the Catholic King James II. One must assume, therefore, that Tormeys (or O'Tormaighs, as they would have been known at the time) identified themselves not only as Irish, but as Roman Catholic as well.

  It is interesting, too, that Robert Tormey's information makes specific reference to O'Tormaighs fighting alongside O'Ferrals [O'Farrells] and O'Reillys (supporting other references made to the close association between the Tormeys and the two clan groups).
  Referring to the legend passed down in his family -- that the O'Tormaighs were forced into Loch Ree in 1689 -- Robert Tormey has wondered if this might explain why Tormeys appeared afterwards in numerous areas of the counties surrounding Loch Ree. Most clans or family groups, after all, tended to remain concentrated in one particular area. James Tormey Clare offers an alternative theory that the migration of Tormeys westward from Longford to Roscommon and Galway might have been the result of Oliver Cromwell's edicts for re-settlements in 1856 (a specific assault against Irish Catholic peoples who were forcibly removed from their lands and forced west of the Shannon River in to the Connacht region -- a campaign referred to by Cromwell himself as "to Connacht or hell"). (*12)
  The English oppression of Ireland that occurred from the seventeenth century onward was largely a Protestant versus Catholic struggle -- a struggle that has continued, in varying degrees, until modern times. And the statement passed on by Robert Tormey, that "the [Tormey] surname was spelled Tormaigh only when the English eyes are not on ye" would certainly indicate that Tormeys were caught up in this struggle. Interestingly, our ancestors, descendants of pagan Vikings, had over the course of the centuries come to be strongly Catholic and strongly Irish -- sufficiently so to fight in defense of both their faith and their country. (Another chapter on this website, Tormeys of Historical Note in Ireland, makes mention of some specific Tormeys who were, as James Tormey Clare referred to them, "torchbearers of Irish freedom".


Closing Comments

If Robert Tormey's reference to Tormeys as being descendants of the Tormach is valid, if we truly are descendants of the Norwegian Viking chieftain, Thorgisl, who was drowned in 845 A.D., then our roots extend back nearly 1,200 years in Irish history. Clearly, reconstructing a complete record of our past over such a long period of time is a daunting task. I have done my best to assemble various sources of information to paint a picture of our past and to explain the evolution of our Tormey name, but I know I have barely scratched the surface. Furthermore, I know that there may be some who disagree with the theories I have put forth (perhaps believing in opposing theories that we are of indigenous, Gaelic roots instead of Viking/Norse descent). I encourage others to continue where I have left off -- to help fill in more of the blanks of our far-reaching Tormey past. And I welcome any comments you may have and, in particular, any research material that may prove or disprove any of the theories I have published. »Contact Michael


Addendum 1: The Evolution of Surnames

(The following is from a related article I originally wrote for this website in 1998.)

In European history, it was not until 900 to 1,000 years ago that people began to distinguish themselves by family surnames. Until then, most people had been known only by a single personal name. But, as towns and villages grew and became more populated, it became increasingly difficult to relate to the likes of three Johns, four Roberts, and six Williams, etc. Ireland is actually noted to have been one of the first countries to adopt hereditary surnames (at the behest of Brian Boru, High King of Ireland who died in 1014 A.D.)

For the most part, the use of surnames was not an organized process or event, but rather it developed over time, drawing on miscellaneous cultural and lingual influences. Typically, names evolved from four general sources: a man's occupation (i.e., Hunger, Carpenter, Smyth), where he lived or had come from (i.e., Brook, Field, Overhill), his father's name (i.e., Robertson, Johnson, Jackson), or from a personal characteristic or physical feature (i.e., Redman, Longfellow, Lytle).

In Irish history, most names or patronymical in origin -- meaning that they make reference to one's ancestors. This is best evidenced by the prolific use of prefixes such as "Mac" and "O". The prefix "Mac" (also seen as Mc, M' and M.) bears the literal meaning of "son of". It appears not only in Irish names, but in Scottish names as well. The literal meaning of the prefix "O" (said to have been taken from the old Gaelic form of "Uá") is "grandson of". In a more general sense, it could also mean "a part of" or "attached to". Unlike "Mac", it is considered to be a purely Irish prefix. As time has passed, both "Mac" and "O" have come to mean "descendant of". (*9)



(*1) A collateral ancestor is an ancestor who is not in the direct line of ascent, but who is of the same ancestral family. For example, while a father is a direct line ancestor of a son or daughter, an uncle is a collateral ancestor (non-direct line ancestor) of a nephew or niece. That is to say, he is related, but he is not a direct link to a grandparent or a great-grandparent.

(*2) Woulfe, Patrick, Irish Names and Surnames (Slointe Gaedel Is Gail) (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1993), pages 158, 653.

(*3) MacLysaght, Edward, Surnames of Ireland, Sixth Edition (Irish Academic Press, Ltd., Dublin, Ireland, 1985), page 299. [Note: MacLysaght served as Chief Herald and Genealogical Officer of the Irish Office of Arms as well as the Keeper of Manuscripts at the National Library of Ireland.]

(*4) The Historical Research Center, Inc., Deerfield Beach, Florida, 1993.

(*5) Hanks, Patrick, Dictionary of American Family Names (Oxford University Press, 2003)

(*6) The Book of Irish Families (Irish Genealogical Foundation, Kansas City, Missouri, 1992), page 257.

(*7) Connolly, S. J., The Oxford Companion to Irish History (Oxford University Press, 1998), page 580

(*8) MacLysaght, Edward, Supplement to Irish Families (Helicon, Ltd., 1964), page 148.

(*9) O'Laughlin, Michael C., The Master Book of Irish Surnames: Locations, Ethnic Origins, Variant Spellings & Sources (Irish Genealogical Foundation, Kansas City, Missouri, 1993).

(*10) Sturluson, Snorri, Heimskringla (The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway), c. 1179-1241.

(*11) The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill (The Invasions of Ireland by the Danes and other Norsemen), an original Irish text translated into English by James Henthorn Todd, D.D., M.R.I.A., F.S.A. (London, 1867), pages xliii, 227.

(*12) Pendergast, John P., The Cromwellian Settlement of Ireland (1870), page 162.

Related Links of Interest...




Archbishop Giolla-Iosa O'Tormaigh


Archbishop of Ardagh during the period of 1232-1237, Giolla-Iosa O'Tormaigh is the earliest known Tormey to have been recorded in written texts, some eight centuries ago ...

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Tormeys of Historical Note in Ireland


Over the past 400 years, various members of Tormey families have been recorded, primarily for their political activities against English rule of their homeland...

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Father Michael Tormey: Priest and Patriot


Arguably, the greatest and most prominent anti-English voice in the post-Famine years in Ireland belonged to a young priest, Fr. Michael Tormey, a native of County Westmeath...

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