Culture Spotlight

Do some Pinoy surnames really have Irish provenance — or is that just the beer talking?

Did Manahan come from Moynihan, Umali from O’Malley?
Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta | Mar 17 2019

International beer day is upon us once more. If you’re Irish, it’s time to bring out the green garb and get riotously smashed. In the Philippines, it’s a good excuse for a pint or two, and to bring out all the Irish lore you’ve got stored in your mental Celtic file. 

When I was a kid, this meant the Boston Celtics and Scarlett O’Hara. It meant an impish midget would lead you to a pot of gold. It meant a vague story about St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, who used three-leafed clovers to teach pagans about the Holy Trinity. Presumably these could be found everywhere, unlike the four-leaf clover, which took luck and a saint’s patience to find. 

St. Patrick’s Day also meant that on his second Guinness, my father would tell us all about the Irish in the Philippines. According to him, some of the prominent names we know in the country have an Irish provenance. Think Umali is a local name? Think again—it’s actually a Filipinized version of O’Malley, which sounds like a great pub name and a perfect place to have a drink on St. Patrick’s Day. Soliven, my dad used to say, actually came from Sullivan, which has a kind of old Hollywood glamour to it. Last, but not least, were the Manahans, descendants of the Moynihans, a rebel brood from the Irish province of Munster (incidentally, another good name for a pub or a Hollywood star). 

Of course, this story seemed like gospel truth when I was a kid, but time has turned me wise (or at least less stupid). The Manahans in my life swear that they were descended from the Spanish; no shamrocks growing in their backyards, just bougainvilleas and damas de noche. 

Historically, though, it kind of checks out. There was a British conquest of Manila in the 1700s, the great age of discovery and annexation. France did wage a war against Britain and Northern Ireland, and Spain sided with France. The British took this out on Manila, which they intended to use as a trading port with China. After defeating Spanish forces, the British occupied the country for two years—enough time for an Irish contingent to go forth, multiply, and sire strangely-named descendants. 

Whether or not this is fake history, I can’t really say, and I don’t want to know. I prefer to keep this tidbit shrouded in a little bit of mystery—the way I never explain why I find a joke funny or why I like a certain work of art. Besides, it makes for a good story to tell on St. Paddy’s day—itself an international day of mystery (beer in the middle of Lent? Leprechauns and Catholicism? Green?). 

If you’re trying to chat an Irishman up in the Philippines, this might make for nice small talk. At any rate, it was always a story my dad told whenever he was making any kind of talk with his kids who were growing older and maybe a little more remote each year. When he told it, he always had a beer in hand, and a bit of Guinness froth on his moustache. And however many times he told that story, and however unsure we were of how true it was, we always gave him back our wonder. Next time I see him, I’ll maybe add to the story and say that Duterte is Filipino for Doherty. We all like a little blarney.