genealogies of the families
MacALISTER MacEllistrum The MacAlisters are usually regarded as a branch of the Scottish MacDonalds, and it is true that in historical times they did come to Ireland from Scotland. Nevertheless they are Irish Gaels by origin since they descend from Colla Uais, eldest of the famous three Collas of Oriel. The name does occur in Ireland occasionally in the early middle ages-a Mac Alister, for instance, was a witness to a deed of King Roderic O'Connor in 1176-but it was not until the fourteenth century that they became established as an Irish sept in north-east Ulster, having come over first as gallóglaigh (galloglasses), chiefly in the service of the MacDonnells.In 1578 a MacDonnell known as Turlogh óg MacAlexander appears as a leading galloglass captain in Leinster and in the previous decade MacAlister Gallda was similarly prominent in Ulster. The well known martial air "MacAllistrum's March" is believed to have derived its name from one of these.
In the 1659 "census" MacAlister is very numerous in Co. Antrim, and it also appears as a principal Irish surname in Co. Derry. In our own time over ninety per cent of the name come from that part of the country.
In County Down variants like MacCallister, MacLester and even Lester are found. The Kerry surname MacEllistrum has been sometimes recorded in the birth registers as MacAlister: these two surnames have a common origin etymologically, the Gaelic Mac Alastair and Mac Alastruim both meaning son of Alexander. The Munster branch has long been settled in Co. Kerry where in 1579 and subsequent years of Elizabeth 1's reign several members of the family are included in the pardons of that period. The seat of the head of the family was Castle MacEfistrum, near Tralee.
Neither name is prominent in the disturbed years of the seventeenth century. One Archibald MacAlister was quarter-master in Tyrconnell's Regiment of Horse in King James II's army and two of the names are among the forfeiting proprietors of Co. Antrim after 1691. In the next century two are noteworthy: Oliver MacAlister, who was born in Co. Louth about 1715, ocupied the unusual position of secret agent both for France and England at the same time; while Sam MacAlister, a deserter from the Antrim militia who was killed at the battle of Derrynamuch, took a heroic part in the 1798 Insurrection. In more modern times George MacAlister (1786-1812) church decorator, Alexander MacAlister (1844-1919), anatomist and Egyptologist, and his son, Professor Robert Alexander MacAlister (1871-1950) the archaeologist, all born in Dublin but of Scottish ancestry, were men of outstanding attainments.
Source: More Irish Families by Edward MacLysaght MA, D Litt, MRIA - Irish Academic Press 1996