Megraw Genealogy and Genetics: Tracing Ancestral Roots

Have you ever wondered about the origins of your family name and how it connects you to your ancestors? The fascinating world of genetic genealogy holds the key to unraveling these mysteries, and the story of the Megraw surname is no exception.

The practice of Anglicization, influenced by England’s historical presence in Ireland, led to modifications of Gaelic names to fit English linguistic conventions. One such name is “Megraw” and its variations, like McGraw and McGrath. These names trace their roots back to the Old Irish personal name Macraith, eventually evolving into the surname Mac Craith.</P

What makes Irish-Gaelic surnames intriguing is their potential to link us to specific clans, which are groups of people sharing a common surname and ancestral origins in the same area. However, the surname “Mac Craith”, because it originated as a first name, appeared independently in various parts of Ireland and at different times.

Consequently, unrelated families in different regions ended up using the same derived surnames, such as Megraw, McGraw, and McGrath.

Now, let’s explore how I used genetic tools to connect my Megraw family with another lineage sharing the same surname.

First Signs of a Family Connection

My patrilineal ancestors have resided in the townland of Magherascouse, County Down, since at least 1710. While researching, I stumbled upon the name Annesley Megraw (1876-1962), son of Arthur J. Megraw (c.1839-1922), from Ballymena, Co. Antrim. I knew nothing about this family, but the recurring occurrence of “Annesley” in every generation of my paternal line caught my attention. It sparked a hunch that a family connection might exist with my Megraws in Magherascouse, even though no evidence from paper records supported it.

In 2015, I decided to take a simple Y-67 DNA test at FamilyTreeDNA (FTDNA), despite my initial skepticism about its scientific validity. A year later, I discovered a genetic match with a direct male descendant of the mysterious Arthur J. Megraw from Ballymena. This provided further evidence of a family connection, although no concrete proof from paper records.

Four years later, I upgraded to a more advanced Y-DNA test called Big Y-700. Surprisingly, I found very few genetic matches. It became apparent that my DNA profile, like my surname, was quite rare. With hopes of finding a genetically related individual, I patiently waited for someone else to test their Y-DNA.

In the meantime, I took the popular autosomal DNA test, which examines both paternal and maternal lines to provide a broader view of our genetic ancestry. Among over 500 matches, only one stood out as relevant to my paternal ancestry: another male direct descendant of Arthur J. Megraw from Ballymena. This convinced me that the Megraws of Ballymena, County Antrim, were indeed related to my Megraws in County. Down. It also made me realize that waiting passively for answers wouldn’t suffice—I needed to take a more proactive approach.

Insights Provided by Big Y-700

Figure 1.

In 2022, I found a male descendant in the patrilineal line of the Ballymena Megraws to take an advanced Y-DNA test. Simultaneously, I tested my son and a fourth cousin. I also recruited and analyzed the results of other testers with variants of the “Mac Craith” surname. This collaborative effort led to a genetic chart (Figure 1), similar to a descendant tree in traditional genealogy, where ancestors are represented by specific mutations known as SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms). Our “Megraw” results formed Group IV(a), displayed in dark purple.

Figure 2.

One significant discovery emerged—the spelling of Mac Craith surname variants (Megraw, McGraw, McGrath, etc.) is irrelevant to genetic family connections. Furthermore, there is a clear genetic distinction between Mac Craith families in Northern (Ulster) and Southern (Munster) Ireland surfaced, as depicted in Figure 2.

Group Time Tree: Unveiling Connections

In early 2023, FTDNA introduced the Group Time Tree, a powerful visual tool to depict genetic relationships among Big Y-testers. Let’s examine our “Megraw” results in Figure 3.

Figure 3.

Just as there is a genetic distinction between Mac Craiths in the north and south of Ireland, there is also a clear separation between families within Ulster. The yellow-coded testers are associated with Mac Craith na Uladh (“Mac Grath of Ulster”), an officially recognized sept registered with the Clans of Ireland. The lime green-coded testers, including the two Megraw families from counties Down and Antrim, belong to the Cenel Eoghain (“Kindred of Owen”) branch. These two groups diverged over 2000 years ago.

Mac Graths of Termonmagrath

The first group (Mac Craith na Uladh) is linked to the McGraths, occupying ecclesiastical lands known as Termon Magrath (Tearmann Mhic Craith) near the borders of counties Donegal, Fermanagh, and Tyrone (see map). Miler Magrath (ca. 1522-1622), an Irish priest and archbishop, was the most renowned member of this sept.

Megraws of Tir Eoghain

The second group (Cenel Eoghain), which includes my own Megraw family from Magherascouse, Co. Down, and the lineage of Arthur J. Megraw from Ballymena, Co. Antrim, constitutes a branch of the Northern Ui Néill. We are descendants of Eógan mac Néill (died ca. 465 CE), son of Niall Noigiallach (Niall of the Nine Hostages). Our ancestors hailed from the over-kingdom known as Tir Eoghain or the “Land of Owen,” giving rise to the present-day County Tyrone.

Approximately 1000 years ago, just before surnames became common in Ireland, our Ulster ancestors embarked on separate paths from another family that eventually adopted the name McGrath. Evidence suggests that the ancestors of the three testers within this lineage once resided in Co. Tyrone, specifically around Newtownstewart, before migrating to the Americas in the early 18th century.

The family line that embraced the surname Megraw remained in Ireland and settled further east in the counties of Antrim and Down. Based on our current knowledge, we estimate that a common male ancestor, identified by FTDNA as “R-BY170517,” was born between 1700 and 1750 CE. Unfortunately, historical records in Ireland do not provide information about this individual. For now, we can only identify him by his genetic code name.

Unraveling the Tapestry of Megraw Genealogy

The story of the Megraw surname is a testament to the power of genetic genealogy in uncovering family connections. By combining traditional research with cutting-edge DNA analysis, I was able to shed light on my ancestral origins, kinship groups, and migrations throughout history.

Whether your own family name holds similar secrets waiting to be unraveled or you simply find these tales of genetic exploration intriguing, the world of genetic genealogy offers endless opportunities for discovery and connection. Embrace the journey, and you may be surprised by the stories your DNA has to tell.

If you would like to learn more, please contact us.                  

The Story of the Megraw Surname: From Gaelic Origins to Anglicization

Ireland in the 10th century was one of the first countries in Europe to adopt hereditary surnames and the reason is quite simple. Irish society in medieval times was based on clans (or kinship groups descended from a common ancestor) where family ties were an important part of everyday life. What you owned, the type of work you did, your legal rights … these were all determined by who you were related to. In order to better identify allegiance to a particular clan or kinship group, our ancestors began using patronymic surnames.

A patronymic surname is one that has been derived from the personal name of a father or a grandfather. In Ireland, the prefix “Mac” (or Mag) was added to denote son of, and the Irish “Ua” (or O’) was used to indicate grandson of.

By Mac and O you’ll surely know
True Irishmen they say;
But if they lack both ‘O’ and ‘Mac’
No Irishmen are they.

The Origins and Transition of the Megraw Surname

The surname “Megraw” is of Gaelic origin and can be traced back to two forms of the name in ancient Irish—Mac Graith and Mag Raith. It is interesting to note that Mac Graith means ‘son of Craith’ rather than ‘son of Graith’ as one might expect. Therefore, we often see the surname written in many texts as Mac Craith or Meic Craith (collective form), a practice that will be adopted here. This peculiarity could be attributed to the fact that the name did not originate as a surname.

Unlike many other Irish surnames, Megraw was initially used as a first name rather than a last name among the Irish. The name Macraith, meaning ‘son of grace’ or prosperity, was first recorded as a forename used by an individual named “Macraith the wise” in an old Irish poem describing prominent members of St. Patrick’s household in AD 448.

The transition of Macraith from a first name to a last name occurred during the early 11th century. It was primarily adopted by two prominent families—one in the former kingdom of Thomond in the southern province of Munster and another in the northern province of Ulster. The first family, known as the dal gCais tribe (Dalcassians), were descendants of Cormac Cas, whose father Olioll Olum was the King of Munster during the 3rd century. Mac Meicraith, a poet belonging to this family and a grandson of Brian Boru’s brother, was the first to use Macraith as a surname. According to the Annals of the Four Masters, Mac Meicraith, the chief poet of Munster, passed away in 1098 AD.

The other family that adopted Macraith as a surname resided in the western border region of County Donegal in Ulster and were coarbs, or hereditary guardians of the church lands in the area clergymen. Their association with the name dates back to at least the 13th century, and the earliest known member of this family to bear the surname was Gilla Adomhnain Magraith, who died in AD 1290.

Anglicization and the Emergence of Different Spellings

After the English legislation implemented the anglicization of the Irish language in the late 16th century, various spellings of the Mac Craith surname emerged, such as MacGrath, McGrath, Magrath, MacGraw, Magra, Magraw, McGraw, Megraw, Magragh, Megrath, and more.

One of the earliest documented instances of the “Megraw” spelling worldwide can be found in historical records from the state of Maryland. On July 27, 1721, Thomas Megraw submitted a request to the British American colony’s government, seeking payment for guarding one of their prisoners. In Ireland, due to the scarcity of available historical records, the surname does not appear before 1801 when the last will and testament of “Peter Megraw” from Ballyvarley, Co. Down, was probated in Belfast.

However, by the late 19th century, the “McGrath” surname had become the most widely adopted English version of Mac Craith throughout Ireland. It’s worth noting that the ‘th’ in McGrath is typically silent, and the name is pronounced as ma-GRAH or muh-GRAH.

Conversely, “McGraw” is less common and appears to be more regionally concentrated, primarily found in the northern part of the country. The “Megraw” surname’s geographic distribution is even more localized, primarily restricted to the counties of Down and Antrim. It remains a mystery as to why an “e” was adopted for “Megraw” instead of a “c” that is found in the more popular “McGraw” surname.


The Megraw Legacy: A Tale of Language, Culture, and Heritage

The Megraw surname exemplifies the intricate interplay between language, culture, and heritage in Ireland. From its Gaelic origins to the subsequent anglicization, this unique surname reflects the evolution of Irish surnames as a whole. While the “Megraw” spelling is less common compared to other variants, it proudly represents the legacy of Irish ancestors who made significant contributions across various fields and professions worldwide. Today, descendants of Megraw bearers can be found in different corners of the globe, a testament to the enduring diaspora and migration of Irish heritage. The Megraw surname stands as a symbol of the rich tapestry of Irish history, offering a captivating glimpse into the complexities of Irish lineage and its global influence.

Robert Megraw Sr. (c.1782 – 1864)

In the picturesque county of Down, Ireland, amidst the rolling hills and vibrant landscapes, Robert Megraw Sr. was born around 1782. Little did he know that his life would intertwine with the rich history and events of his homeland. From his humble beginnings to his lasting impact on the community, Robert Megraw Sr. embodied the spirit and resilience of the Irish people. This brief biographical narrative delves into the life of a man who lived, loved, and left an indelible mark on the land he called home.

Early Years and Family

Robert Megraw Sr. spent his entire adult life in the charming village of Magherascouse, nestled in the heart of Co. Down. Though details about his early years are scarce, we can gather that he was a man of steadfast character and enduring determination.

In due course, Robert married Martha Bowman, a woman whose story remains elusive, save for her passing before 1864. Together, Robert and Martha raised a family of six known children, each born within the embrace of their beloved Co. Down. Their names echoed through the generations.

i. Sarah Ann Megraw (born ca. 1818)
ii. John Megraw (born ca. 1819)
iii. James Megraw Sr. (born ca. 1825)
iv. Agnes Megraw (born ca. 1827)
v. Robert Megraw Jr. (born ca. 1830)
vi. Annesley Megraw (born ca. 1833)

Freemasonry and Connections

Beyond his familial responsibilities, Robert Megraw Sr. was an active participant in the social fabric of Co. Down. His involvement with the Freemasonry organization offers a glimpse into his affiliations and commitments. On 22nd June 1815, Robert joined Lodge No. 136 in Ballygowan, Co. Down, fostering connections within the community.

Through the years, Robert’s dedication to Freemasonry manifested in his roles and responsibilities within the organization. On 15th December 1817, he served as a foreman on a committee at Masonic Lodge 136, showcasing his leadership qualities. The following year, Robert was elected as the High Priest of the same lodge on 27th December 1818, signifying his esteemed position within the Masonic community.

Land and Livelihood

Robert’s connection to the land and its management is evident through various records and transactions. In 1827, he signed a lease with Lord Dufferin, also known as James Blackwood, Esq., for a property in Magherascouse measuring 25 acres, 3 roods, and 39 perches. This property, known as “Fort Hill,” held a significant place in Robert’s life. Located in the middle of Magherascouse, it offered a sweeping view of the rolling countryside towards Strangford Lough.

Interestingly, historical records show that a farmer named John Megraw registered his freehold property on January 25, 1790, in Magherascouse. This registration carried particular significance as it was an election year in County Down. During that time, between 1727 and 1793, only Protestants with a freehold property meeting specific rent requirements, with a minimum of 40 shillings, had the right to vote. John Megraw’s registration suggests that he worked a sizable farm, thus meeting the criteria and earning his right to vote in this democratic process.

Like father, like son? While the exact familial connection between John Megraw and Robert Megraw Sr. remains uncertain, the presence of John Megraw in Magherascouse as early as 1790, about 8 years after the birth of Robert, adds intrigue to the story. It was not uncommon for lands to be passed on to sons, and considering the proximity and timing, John Megraw might have been the father of Robert Megraw Sr. Further research and analysis may shed light on this potential connection.

Trials and Testimonies

In February 1842, Robert Megraw Sr. found himself embroiled in a legal dispute when he accused James Longridge of stealing his potatoes. The trial took place at the Down assizes, and according to the “Downpatrick Recorder” newspaper, Robert’s son, John Megraw, testified that he discovered tracks leading from their house to the prisoner’s house and found similar potatoes in the prisoner’s possession. Another witness, John Scott, confirmed the similitaries between the stolen potatoes and the ones found in the prisoner’s house.

Thomas Gourley, the landlord of James Longridge, also played a crucial role in the case. He came down to the scene when called upon and witnessed the search for the missing potatoes. It was Thomas Gourley who suggested examining under some hay and sticks, leading to the discovery of the concealed prisoner. James Longridge’s attempt to explain his possession of the potatoes did not provide a satisfactory answer to the witnesses.

In light of the compelling evidence presented, the court reached a verdict of guilty, sentencing James Longridge to three months of hard labor.

Legacy and Final Days

As the years unfolded, Robert continued his connection with the land, as evidenced by the Griffiths Valuation of 1863. Leasing two properties from Lord Dufferin and Claneboye, Robert’s commitment to his ancestral home remained steadfast. These properties, spanning from a small house and offices to extensive acres of land, bore witness to his dedication and resilience.

In the spring of 1864, Robert Sr. became ill and died of pneumonia six months later on a Monday. His remains lie beneath a weathered headstone standing on the grounds of St. Mary’s Church of Ireland in Comber, Co. Down. The inscription etched into the pitted face of the stone’s surface reads simply: “Erected by Robert and Hugh M(eg)raw of Magherascouse, A.D. 1848.” It is believed that Hugh is a brother of Robert.

Two days prior to his death, on 17th September 1864, Robert Megraw Sr. penned his final testament in Belfast. Ensuring the legacy of his hard work and devotion, he named his son Robert Jr. and nephew John Bowman as executors of his estate. The indomitable spirit that guided his life now flowed through the veins of his descendants, forever entwined with the history of Co. Down.

Funeral and Masonic Traditions

On the day of Robert Megraw Sr.’s funeral, Masonic traditions would have been observed. Neighboring lodges received invitations, and the brethren gathered at Robert’s house for a brief service before accompanying the coffin to the cemetery.

Following 19th-century Masonic customs, the funeral corteges were led by the “musik,” with muffled drums, pipes, or fifes. Knights Templars and other orders, possibly on horseback and wearing regalia, participated. Deacons ensured order, keeping non-Masons at a distance.

At the graveside, after the burial service, the Masters and High Priests formed the inner circle, while the rank and file formed the outer circle. The general public stood behind. The brethren clasped hands, offering a “sign of distress” thrice. They then reverently placed sprays of “yew” or “palm” on the coffin, paying their final respects to Robert.

As the funeral concluded, a hushed solemnity fell over the gathering, with echoes of respect and gratitude lingering in the air, honoring their departed fellow lodge member.

Final Reflections

Robert Megraw Sr. was a man deeply rooted in the land of Co. Down, Ireland. From his involvement in Freemasonry to his connection to the land and his enduring resilience, Robert’s life reflected the spirit of the Irish people. Through his trials and testimonies, he demonstrated his determination to protect his property and seek justice. His legacy lives on through his descendants, who carry his name and the indomitable spirit of their ancestor.

As the sun sets over the verdant fields of Magherascouse, Robert’s story remains etched in the annals of Co. Down’s history, a testament to the strength of character and the enduring legacy of those who shaped the land they called home.

John Megraw (1819 – 1906)

Born on November 15th, 1819, in Ballygowan, Co. Down, Ireland, John Megraw’s early years were marked by the tumultuous events of his time. As a young farmer in Ireland, he witnessed the devastating effects of the potato famine, which ravaged the country from 1845 to 1852. The suffering and hardships endured by his fellow countrymen left a profound impact on him, motivating him to seek a better life. In 1846, amidst the challenges of the famine, John made a courageous decision that would shape his destiny: he married Isabella Wallace at the Ballygowan Presbyterian Church on February 17th. The ceremony, officiated by Rev. John Gamble and witnessed by James Gibson and Alexander McMorran, marked the beginning of a shared journey of love, resilience, and determination for the couple.

The Journey from Ireland to Canada West

In 1849, with the devastating effects of the potato famine still weighing heavily on Ireland, John and Isabella made a life-altering decision. Driven by their desire for a brighter future, they embarked on an arduous and potentially dangerous voyage to a foreign land then known as Canada West. Leaving behind their homeland, relatives, and friends, they set sail for the promise of new opportunities. This momentous journey marked the start of a new chapter in their lives, as they left behind the struggles of famine-stricken Ireland and set their sights on building a prosperous future in Canada.

After landing in Toronto, John, his wife, and two young children resided near Richmond on Yonge St. for a short period before he set out to locate a homestead in the untamed wilderness of the Queen’s Bush, an area in the Bruce Peninsula, Ontario, characterized by dense forests and promising opportunities for pioneering settlers. It was within this rugged and untamed landscape that John Megraw would forge a new path for himself and his family, carving out a homestead and leaving a lasting legacy in the heart of Canada’s wilderness.

Carving a Life in the Untamed Wilderness

In October 1851, accompanied by James Legge and his nephews, Moses and Aaron, John ventured through the untamed wilderness from Richmond Hill to Owen Sound, led by an Indian guide. From there, he continued along the Saugeen River, eventually arriving at the Gowanlock settlement, named after William Gowanlock, a Scottish immigrant who established a thriving farm in the area. Inspired by the remarkable progress made by the Gowanlock family, John found himself drawn to the town of Paisley, then known as Mud River, where the first pioneer settlers, Simon Orchard and Samuel T. Rowe, had arrived earlier that year.

John returned to Richmond Hill that winter, and in the following spring, he went back to Mud River, where he cleared a piece of land and planted potatoes. Tragically, a devastating fire destroyed his shanty, prompting him to strike a deal with John Valentine, who was traveling down the river at the time. Mr. Valentine was putting up a grist mill on the Tees River, and he agreed to hire John. So he sold the rights and improvements of his cleared land to Archie Pollock and his potatoes to Timothy Craig and went to work for Mr. Valentine.

Subsequently, John acquired the property where the Paisley station stands today, securing it in 1852. On October 11th of that year, he erected a shanty on the exact spot where the former Grand Trunk Railroad ticket office once stood. In January 1853, the family moved into this new dwelling. The following year, they settled on a farm located at Lot 1, Concession 22 in Greenock, which became their beloved homestead.

Building a Strong Family Foundation

John and Isabella Megraw were blessed with a large family, and their children became a testament to their enduring love and dedication. Their children were:

i. Robert John Megraw (b.1846)
ii. Hugh Megraw (b.1851)
iii. Grace Megraw (b. ca.1852)
iv. Elizabeth Megraw (b.1853)
v. James Alexander Megraw (b. ca.1856)
vi. Ainsley Megraw (b.1857)
vii. Martha Ann Megraw (b.1859)
viii. Agnes Jane Megraw (b.1862)
ix. Wallace Megraw (b.1865)
x. Hugh Megraw (b.1866)
xi. Isabella Megraw (b. ca.1868)
xii. Sara Megraw (b. 1870)

John’s commitment to his family was unwavering, and he raised his children with the values of hard work, perseverance, and resilience. They, in their own unique ways, contributed to their community and carried on the Megraw legacy. As the years passed, the Megraw family grew and spread their roots across different parts of Canada, leaving an enduring mark on the nation’s history.

A Lifelong Dedication to Masonic Values

John took an active but ostentatious interest in public affairs, being all his life a supporter of the Liberal-Conservative cause. In religion, he was of the Presbyterian faith. But the organization that claimed his longest fealty was the Masonic Order, and he was perhaps one of the oldest Masons in Canada. He was initiated in Lodge No. 136 Ballygowan, Ireland, during the 1840s, and was a charter member of Aldworth Lodge, Paisley. Before leaving Ireland, John had advanced into the higher orders of masonry, and in his dealings with his fellow man, the almost child-like faith in masonry in which he evinced, and the manner in which it dominated his life, showed that masonry was with him a vital principle of conduct and action.

A Life Remembered and a Legacy Preserved

Always of a rugged constitution, John enjoyed good health throughout his life. Four years before his death, he met with an accident resulting in a fracture of a hip joint, which, although crippling him for his remaining years, did not impair his general health. To those of his family who had not seen him for years, it seemed difficult to think of him ailing.

On March 14th, with deep sadness but profound respect, John’s remains were buried in the Paisley cemetery with Masonic honors. The Masonic Order, an organization that held immense significance in his life, honored him with a burial ceremony befitting his lifelong commitment. The afternoon of March 14th became a solemn occasion as family, friends, and members of the Masonic Order gathered to pay their final respects to John Megraw, the pioneer, the family man, and the steadfast Mason whose life touched so many.

With his passing, John Megraw leaves behind a proud lineage and a family tree that branches out to numerous descendants, each of whom can trace their roots back to this courageous pioneer. His unwavering faith, dedication to his family and community, and his enduring legacy continue to resonate through generations, serving as a testament to his character and the lasting impact he made. Although his surname may not be carried by his descendants today, the spirit of John Megraw lives on, inspiring future generations to embody the same values of resilience, determination, and love for family.