What’s In a Name

Written by . Posted at 11:48 pm on October 2nd, 2011

I recently made a series of discoveries that I’m fairly certain will change my life, my outlook on life, and indeed my outlook on my entire family. Well, at least on my father’s side.

To understand what I mean, indulge me while I give a little background.

I’ve always had an interest in western European medieval history, mainly in technology and architecture, but in my young adult life this branched into a desire to know more about the culture and daily life of those people. I’ve always been told that our family originally came from Ireland, despite the fact that the records we had claimed that our oldest known ancestor lived in Norfolk, England around the 1400’s. Of course, the Ireland theory was based on some bad information from a World Book Encyclopedia and because “Cory” (an older spelling of our last name and how we still pronounce it, despite the fact that it has an “a”) probably just sounded more Irish.

Then in 1998, I was a 19 year old missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) in southern California with rules on my extracurricular activities—no television, no going to the beach, basically nothing that could make you lose focus on while you were there or put you in the hospital. My companions, the other missionaries I was assigned to proselyte with, loved to play basketball on our “Preparation Day,” the day that LDS missionaries use to do laundry, grocery shop, and otherwise unwind. For myself, I loved to read and write. One Preparation Day—dubbed “P-day”—I was at a book store with some other missionaries when I came across a book on teaching yourself Scottish Gaelic. Gaelic is the old language of the Celts in the British Isles, mainly starting in Ireland and has several different dialects including Scottish, but it seems that there are many fundamental similarities. I picked it up and began reading it on my P-days between writing novellas to my friends and family while my fellow missionaries hooped it up.

While studying the Gaelic alphabet, something occurred to me. The Gaelic language contains fewer letters than the English language, and does not include the letter “y.” Now, this is problematic for the theory that our family came from the Emerald Isle, namely due to the fact that our surname had, according to my knowledge at the time, always had a “y” at the end of it.

I figured I had really solved something, probably as much as I might ever know. For a while I believed that the most simple answer was that we were wrong, and our family was actually from England all along. Off the top of my head, I didn’t know enough about the dates of historical events, let alone the exact dates and locations our family had lived in, to come to any more of a conclusion than this.

Five years later, my thoughts turned back to the origins of our family but this time, I had a computer connected to the internet and the ability to find about anything I wanted through Yahoo! search (as far as information finding went, this was the post-Encyclopedia, pre-Google era). Using the basic knowledge that I had, I was able to find a website that talked more about our family. In fact, it is run by members of the family still in the U.K. On the site, there was a picture of the family crest with details on the meaning and some other miscellaneous information. The site had family genealogy data that matched what I had access to, so I knew it was the real deal. As a side note, the crest was awarded to Sir John Cory by King James I in 1612. It is not directly associated with our hereditary line, but is the closest thing to a heraldic device we have.

Using that image and a little more searching, I found a site that claimed that the same family crest was linked to a surname in Ireland known as Clan O’Corraidh. “Of course!”, I thought, “The name doesn’t have a ‘y’ because the Gaelic language didn’t have the letter, but that spelling would be pronounced ‘Cory’!” I thought I’d found the biggest piece of the puzzle to link it all together. The last name has had several spellings and changes over the years—Coray, Cory, Corry, and Corrie to name a few—so the idea that it was O’Corraidh before an emigration to England made sense.

This has been the long-standing belief for a number of years, until last night.

About two months ago, I decided that I wanted to buy a heater shield to paint the old family crest on and hang on a wall. While doing my search, I found a term I was not familiar with: “SCA Battle-ready.” I knew that “Battle-ready” meant you could smack it with a sword and it wouldn’t break, but I had no idea what “SCA” meant. Another quick search revealed the definition “Society for Creative Anachronism.” Essentially, a creative re-construction of time. The SCA is dedicated to researching history for personal benefit through rough re-creations. They don’t just talk about swords, armor, and medieval culture, they actually do it. My wife and my official membership cards arrived in the mail this week.

As a member of the SCA, we are required to pick a “persona”—a specific personality based on a location and time, but not based on an actual, recognizable historical figure. For example, a persona could be a 5th century Roman soldier, a 12th century Japanese Samurai, or any historical archetype with a specific country, time, and role, previous to the 17th century. Since it was my search of family-related information that led me to the SCA, in turn my potential persona for the SCA made sense to come from my family history. Again, my idea was not to re-create an actual family member, but rather to use similar heraldic devices, a name with an alternate spelling, and a time/location similar to theirs.

In doing this research, I’ve uncovered some very interesting things. For starters, the genealogical records we’ve had could be wrong. Not hugely, off-the-wall, holy-crap-we’ve-been-using-the-wrong-last-name-for-ten-generations wrong, just a confusion on dates and who’s child went with who’s father. The other thing I noticed was that the Cory Family Society has information on the personalities and occupations on even the older ancestors. One was the Mayor of Launceston in the 1300’s; his son founded Bramerton Hall around 1398, and their descendents were Alderman (land owners) and Sheriffs around Norwich, Norfolk, England for many generations. One of the older-known Thomas Corys (there were many in the family line with this name) donated money to a lot of chapels and churches in the area, some of which are still standing (follow this link for pictures of St. Peter’s Chapel in Brammerton where many of the Corys are buried on the grounds).

Land owners, positions of clout in the community—this was not something common for Irish immigrants. While there is evidence suggesting that the Cory family started their life in England on the west coast (including a farm which I found record of on the U.K. government’s website dating back 1000 years that still bears the family name, not to mention Launceston being on the western side), it seems odd that they would have rowed a boat over the channel and been told “you seem decent, want to help run things?”

This all brings me back to last night. I was laying in bed with my Xoom open, doing research on the Corraidh family name. I figured that it was as good of a place as any to start on tracing the transition from Ireland to England. I was reading the Wikipedia article on the roots of the name and stumbled across what I can only describe as an interesting set of facts and information that totally changed my view.

In summary, there are two places that the Corraidh/Curry name originated from, the majority being the area that is now known as County Clare on the western side of the island, formerly the Kingdom of Thomond. The second is not far from there. From the article, “…for migration from Thomond to Ormond [the south-eastern part of the island] was unusual, though not unknown, before the fourteenth century. However in the mid 17th century at the time of Oliver Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland, one of the major landowners in south Tipperary (Clonmel) was a John Corr of Toberhanny. He is said to be descended from a Norman family Corre, that came to Ireland in 1171 at Crooke, Co. Waterford…“. So if Irish from Thomond were highly unlikely to have migrated to the Waterford area before the 1300’s, and the Cory family was in England and going strong by then, then it stands to reason that the name “Cory” doesn’t actually come from “Corraidh.”

Something else about those words stuck out at me though—the part about the “Norman family Corre.” In modern English, we would pronounce this as “core”, but in Norman French was probably pronounced “core-ay”, similarly to how you would pronounce our last name phonetically today. In addition, the oldest believed ancestor was Robert Corie, which bears much more resemblance than “Corraidh” or even “Curry,” and I have seen it spelled as “Corrie” as well around that same time period. Corre is a name probably of French origin that became part of the Norman heritage. In doing some digging around, I found two villages in France of interest: “Corre,” and “Coray.” Interesting.

While definitively inconclusive, it makes the absolute most sense of any of the theories given the family history, and at the least it has given me a lot to think about. The Normans were the Norse vikings that descended upon France around 800 A.D. and threatened to invade Paris around 990 A.D., until the King of France agreed to sign over the northern part of France so the Normans could have their own nation: Normandy. Unlike the Roman conquerors from Italy, the Normans actually adopted many of the cultural traditions and customs of the lands they invaded and worked to keep the best of both societies, rather than total domination (one of the reasons the history of the British Isles is a mystery is thanks to the Roman soldiers who burned almost 99% of the written records that were made previous to their invasion). The Normans invaded England in 1066 and conquered the whole of the country, then spread into Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, but also ranged as far east as Italy, Sicily, and Antioche.

Picturing my father or uncles as fierce invaders wielding iron swords and bucklers and pillaging the quaint farmlands of France or England is laughable to say the least. However, knowing what I know about the cultural and intellectual contributions of this society—including our modern day concepts of written music, fortification architecture, and the birth of the modern English language (which is primarily a combination of Norman-French and Anglo-Saxon), it makes the comparison much more easy to wrap my head around. I guess that means I’ll have to watch what I say about the French and their craptastic airlines in the future. As far as family history goes, I hope that this is only the start.

One comment.

  1. Wow Chris! You have done a ton of research. This is really cool. I don’t know a lot of the Coray history, but I love the linguistic history of English. Everything you have researched makes a lot of sense.


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