I know I'm probably going to get into trouble on this one because people can be sensitive, but we have a rich lore and tradition in the family nicknames which must not be lost. As a partial self-protection measure most of the nicknames will not be linked to actual family names except where I am reasonably sure they are all dead or gone or at least not given to taking offence easily.
Family nicknames fall into a number of groups:
This group is the largest by far when an extended family is known by the name of a common ancestor or best-known relative. An example immediately to hand is the Corney Murphys (I feel safe making this exception) descended from or related to the illustrious Cornelius. Patronymics are most needed when there are many families with the same surname. When I was a lad I didn't actually know that Paddy Nicholas, Owney Thomas and Dinny Oiny were all Murphys.
There was a family at the end of the Adavoyle Road called the Paramore Murphys which sounded quite exotic since paramour is a French word for a high-class courtesan. The true explanation is more prosaic - they were descended from Padraig Mor or Big Paddy.
Trades and skills
The Hacklers combed the retted flax fibres with hackles, blocks of wood with six-inch nails driven through. Mickey Fidge Rice from Dromintee was a fiddle-player (fidleor) descended from fiddlers. Paddy the Racker O'Hare, a most peaceful man, was descended from traditional storytellers and reciters (rachtairi). Benny the Go was a blacksmith (gabh) or descended from blacksmiths. The Connas (my mother tells me) were butchers or sellers of meat (original word in Irish needed please) The process of nickname formation continued into modern times. My favourite of all is the man from Ayallogue who worked for a certain insurance company. He was known as Paddy the Pearl.
Who were known as the Plucks, and why? The answer can be found on page 400 of 'A Hidden Ulster' the wonderful book by Padraigin Ni Uallachain of Mullaghbawn.
Here we move into sometimes sensitive territory, but most are straightforward. Duff is black-haired, John the Boy's people were probably fair-haired (bui), the Bugs were small (beag) and the Bucks were poor (bocht) - and they must have been really poor to get a nickname like that when nobody had tuppence. Paddy Easter (pronounced ayster) got his nickname from some ancestor who lived to be aosta (old).
Revision August 2011: Relatives and friends make a convincing case for the nickname coming from a lady named Esther. This is living history
Some we can only guess at. We don't actually know how the original Big Mickey (McNally) on the Adavoyle Road got his name. Did the Jinnits (jennit) share the characteristics of the mule? Were the Cracks in Meigh good company? Why is there a family in Ballynamadda known as Dutch? Who was Biddy the Blow and what did she do for a living? Which Edenappa family has Italianate good looks? What about the Whangs, did they make leather bootlaces?
More rare and much more dangerous are nicknames based on odd or outrageous behaviour. There was a man in Forkhill who was known as 'Dammit-O' because he said that a lot. There was Paddy Go Easy who always tried to calm people down, and Butcher who intervened in every discussion saying "But, sure....". I just want to say to all the descendants of Jemmy the Pisser that their secret is safe with me.
Help is needed to get a good list of examples of nicknames and find explanations for them but in the interests of good community relations please don't post them to the comments box below. Send them to me in confidence at email@example.com so that I can subject them to stress testing first.