The name McCARTHY ranks amongst the twenty most common surnames in all Ireland, where over half the families live in County Cork. The MacCarthaigh sept from which they descend was a prominent one in Munster, anciently known as the Eoghannacht. When the sparse Irish population began to increase it became necessary to broaden the base of personal identification by moving from single names to a more definite nomenclature. The prefix MAC was given to the father's christian name, or O to that of a grandfather or even earlier ancestor. At first the coat of arms was a practical matter which served a function on the battlefield and in tournaments. With his helmet covering his face and armour encasing the knight from head to foot, the only means of identification for his followers, was the insignia painted on his shield and embroidered on his surcoat, the draped and flowing garment worn over the armour. One eminent branch of the McCarthys was located in the baronies of East and West Muskerry, another in the baronies of East and West Carbery in County Cork, and another near Killarney in County Kerry. The name was derived from the Gaelic MacCarthaigh, meaning 'loving'. The surnames in Ireland originally signified membership of a clan, but with the passage of time, the clan system became less distinct, and surnames came to identify membership of what is called a 'sept'; a group of people all living in the same locality, all bearing the same surname, but not necessarily descended from a common ancestor. Adoption of the name by people who did not otherwise have a surname and by dependents was not uncommon. Just over one hundred years after the Norman Conquest of England, the first Normans arrived in Ireland. Richard de Clare, Second Earl of Pembroke (died 1176), was known as Strongbow. He was invited to Ireland by Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster, whose daughter he married, to help him in his wars with his neighbours. He was accompanied by several retainers whose name, like his own, have become well established as surnames in Ireland. The Normans established themselves in Leinster and paid homage to Henry II of England. Some of the Norman settlers acquired surnames derived from the Irish.
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