Why aren’t all McFaddens related?

One of the first conclusions our DNA study has reached is that there are numerous unrelated Mac Pháidín lineages. Of the 33 Mc- results that have been processed so far, there are a minimum of 10 completely separate lines. Given the common assumption that most people who share a surname are related, this would seem to be a surprisingly high number. But is it? Should everyone with the same last name expect to be related? It turns out the answer is actually no. Here are some reasons why most McFaddens are probably not related:

1. Gaelic Clans Weren’t Just One Big Family

A common myth is that ancient Irish and Scottish clans were primarily composed of the descendants of one man. A powerful warrior or king would produce a large family and, after several generations, the numerous offspring would have formed a clan. But of course that doesn’t really make much sense. Clans were not started by individuals, but by groups of families. They would band together not necessarily because they were related, but for protection and the sharing of resources. Large clans would include numerous families stretched throughout a fairly significant geographic area. It would have been common for families to join an existing clan, and for clans to merge. So while the namesake of a clan may have been one particular man, and a line of chiefs may have been descended from that one man, it’s unlikely that most men in your average clan were of the same lineage. This is especially true in older clans that were formed before hereditary surnames even existed.

Evidence of this can be found in the Clan Donald DNA project. The MacDonalds were one of the most prominent clans in Scottish history and today there are several men who can trace their descent back to the clan’s namesake. These living chiefs have successfully proven their relation through DNA testing. But what also came to light through DNA testing is that a majority of MacDonald men are not of the same lineage as the chiefs.

In terms of the McFadden project, this means that we would actually expect there to be multiple McFadden lineages. It also means that while we have a number of genetically unrelated lineages, they could all still have theoretically originated with the same ancient clan.

2. Illiteracy, Accents, and Anglicization Mixups

Illiteracy was prevalent in both Scotland and Ireland during the time that surnames began to emerge and continued to be common in some areas well into the 19th century. If a person was illiterate, the spelling of their name would be irrelevant. It could even be said that their name had no spelling at all and only existed orally. A few centuries of names being passed down by word-of-mouth alone meant that when government records began in the mid-1800s and the spelling of names became more stable, many people of the same lineage ended up with differently spelled surnames. This is where you get McFadden and MacFadyen and McFadien, etc.. But more importantly, some similar surnames became confused with each other as the distinction between them was blurred or eliminated entirely. An Ó Peatáin and a Mac Pháidín may have both ended up as Pattons or Padens or McFaddens.

Another issue was the forced anglicization of Gaelic names. A good example of this can be found by looking at the surname Lee in Ireland. The reason Lee is such a common Irish name is because it actually represents a number of different Gaelic names. Distinct surnames like Ó Laoidhigh, Mac Laoidhigh, Mac an Leagha, and Mac an Giolla Eachaidh are all sources for Irish people who today are all called Lee.

We haven’t yet seen evidence of these mixups in our project, but we should expect them to eventually emerge.

3. Adoption and Infidelity

The first thing that comes to mind when people find that lineages don’t match is that there must have been an adoption or infidelity somewhere along the line. While these things aren’t quite as prevalent as people assume, they are certainly not rare. We already have in our small project men with the surnames Hogan and Holmes that we strongly believe to be descended from McFadden lineages. It would make sense that some McFaddens would in turn be descended from other lines.

4. There May Have Been More Than One “Little Patrick”

The name Mac Pháidín or Mac Páidín means “son of little Patrick.” Everyone loves to ask themselves who the original Patrick might have been, but maybe instead we should be asking ourselves about the original Patricks! Patrick is a very old name and wouldn’t have been that unique in the late Middle Ages. It could easily be the case that there were multiple clans with the same name. This is something that will be difficult to prove or disprove, but it may be possible to provide some evidence either way as our project grows.

4. Not Everyone Took On a Surname in the Middle Ages

Some of the earliest hereditary surnames in Europe originated with the Gaels of Ireland and Scotland, but not every Irish or Scottish family adopted them at the same time. A few Scottish families were still using patronyms as late as the early 19th century. This means there’s a fair chance that some of today’s Mac Phaidins only settled on their name relatively recently, which would significantly lower the chances that they were of another, older lineage.

A more sobering example of surnames being adopted in modern times can be found in America, where there are numerous McFadden families that acquired their surnames during or after the time that they were enslaved. We have at least one documented example where freed slaves took on the surname McFadden because it was the name of the family that owned them. It is unclear how many black McFaddens might be descended from the Irish and Scottish lineages, but it is certainly common for black Americans in general to carry significant European DNA. Our project is open to any and all McFaddens and we hope additional participants will help us tackle this issue.

5. Miscellaneous (Names Change!)

One of the better known McFaddens around the turn of the century was boxer George “Elbows” McFadden. Elbows was known for, you guessed it, using his elbows (fairly or otherwise). George was an accomplished fighter who defeated several men that had been or would later be lightweight champions of the world. Are you proud to share a name with Elbows? You should be! But here’s the thing – George’s name at birth was actually Michael J. Crotty. George McFadden was a stage name.

The simple truth is that people have changed their names for any number of reasons throughout history and some of them may have changed to McFadden.


There have inevitably been countless sources for any particular surname. This means that for most surnames, including McFadden, most people bearing the same name today should not expect to be related. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean there is no connection whatsoever. The goal of this project is to sort out all the various lineages and figure out where they come from. It should make for a fascinating journey.

For discussion of this post, head on over the the McFadden Project message board.

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Posted in American McFaddens, DNA Testing, Donegal McFaddens, MacFadyens of Mull, Paddens of Mayo