This Irish surname of MacNELIS is also spelt Grealish, the substitution of R for N was not abnormal in early Irish surnames. The G of Grealish comes from the prefix MAG (a form of Mac) and MagRiallghuis (pronounced Magreelish) is a corrupt form of MacNiallghuis, whence MacNelis is the form usual to County Donegal, and Nellis is used in adjacent counties. There are in our time several other variants, for example in Ulster MacGrealish, MacEnealis and Manelis have been recorded. MacNeilus and McNellus were among the more numerous names in the 1659 census for County Donegal. In the latter part of the sixteenth century, an influx of settlers arrived under the patronage of Elizabeth I of England, and colonized the country beyond the 'Pale', the area around Dublin that was the only part firmly under English control. At the same time , groups of Presbyterian settlers were encouraged to migrate from Scotland to Ulster, thus establishing the distinctively Scottish surnames of Ulster. During the long centuries of English domination, Irish surnames were crudely Anglicized either phonetically or by translation. In the 19th century, political repression and famine combined to force many Irish people to seek other countries in which to live. Large numbers emigrated to the United States, where strong emotional ties to Ireland are still preserved in many families, while others found themselves transported, willingly or otherwise, to Australia, often after having first tried to make a living in England. Irish surnames are now very widely dispersed, and are common in England as well as in Ireland, the United States and Australia. In 1609 one Neal MacGnellus was a Lifford Juror and at the same date Bernard MacNellus is among the clergy mentioned. He was curate of Glencolumbkille and it is noted that 'he painted cleverly and speaks Irish, Latin and English well'. The family were associated with that Donegal parish from the year 1530. It has long been a matter of doubt when the bearing of coats of arms first became hereditary and it was not until the Crusades that Heraldry came into general use. Men went into battle heavily armed and were difficult to recognise. It became the custom for them to adorn their helmets with distinctive crests, and to paint their shields with animals and the like. Coats of arms accompanied the development of surnames, becoming hereditary in the same way.
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