The Source of Mathghamhain



The first person to adopt the name as a surname was Niall Mac Mathghamhna.  See Niall Mac Mathgamhna  The first mention of Niall in the literature is in 1181 AD.

The prefix Mac simply means 'son of' as do the prefixes Mc or O' as in McMahon or O'Neill.

Niall adopted the surname as a means of both distinguishing himself from other members of his clann and to ally himself with Mathghamhain, Lord of Fermanagh who was killed at Clones in 1022 AD.

Mathghamhain is an ancient Irish name said to mean 'bear'.  Keating in his book The History of Ireland doubts this meaning and says he's never seen the word used in this way.  And so, once again, that started Jeff and I on a search ... for the source of the word.

Jeff came up with the following from various sources:

In Celtic cultures, the bear was an emblem of the warrior caste. The common Celtic word for bear is echoed in the Irish male name Mathgen (matugenos, "son of a bear")."

In Gaelic tradition it is said that the Kean mathon ['head of the bear'] was one of the seven signs or names of star clusters engraved on the shield of Arthur."

Now, mathon does look a lot like mahon, doesn't it? So in Old Celtic it may look a lot like "mathghama."

According to this passage, "mathon" means "of the bear." So it seems that the first m might be some kind of prefix, followed by "ath" which comes from the Old Celtic word for bear, arth.


Clearly, there's more going on here than just the word "bear". Now we have to figure out the ending: "-ghamna."

And we should note that "the bear" might not be a reference to the animal. It might be a reference to King Arthur. Or to the tradition even before Arthur of referring to a leader as an arth, a bear.

"The Celtic word for bear was arth or arthe, Latinsed as Artos, which can be found in place names and gives rise to the name of 'Arthur'. In the Pyranees, in the Valley of the Bear, there is a 6th century BC inscription to a Celtic god Arthe, and it reads 'Our Holy Father Arthe'. The constellation of the Great Bear is known in Wales as 'Arthur's Wain'. King Arthur is sleeping in an underground cave until Britain needs him recalls a bear in hibernation. It seems likely that Arthur was originally a sun god, and Yule was called Alban Arthur or 'Arthur's Time' by the Celts. The bear rising from his underground sleep represented the rebirth of the sun from the underworld at midwinter.

Of course it is unlikely that the name Mathghamhain has anything to do with the British King Arthur.  It is more likely to stem from the Celtic myths that also spawned the Arthur legend.  These myths would have existed in Ireland just as they did throughout the lands influenced by the Celts.

Looking then into the night sky we find Ursus Major, the Great Bear:

as well as Bo÷tes also known as the 'Herdsman' or the 'Bear Watcher'.  Arcturus is the brightest star in this constellation.  Arcturus in Greek means "bear watcher" or "guardian of the bears."

"Connections have been made between the bear, Arthur, and the constellation of Arcturus, the Great Bear of the north. Artio and Andarta were Celtic bear goddesses, and there is the Greek goddess Artemis, who could take the form of a bear. Stone figures of bears from the pagan Celtic period were found during the rebuilding of Armagh Cathedral in 1840. "  These are them:

        Photo provided by the Cathedral of Armagh

Armagh of course is in the heart of Airghialla. 

The other factor affecting the word is how gaelic has changed over time, all during the course of our own history.  Just as Mathghamhain has changed to Mathghamhna to Math˙na in modern Irish to Mahon in English, other words have undergone a similar transition.  So what we see today may have little resemblance to the words used long ago.  To see another example, look at this:

We are not done with our work on the source of the name, but it would appear that, rather than being named after bear, the animal, the source of the name may lie in the celtic myth of the bear or the guardian of the bear as depicted in the constellations of Ursus Major, Ursus Minor and Arcturus.

~ Jeff McMahon

~ Jim McMahon

May 2003


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