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The Origin of Irish Family Names

The 100 Most Popular Surnames in Ireland
Rank Name Gaelic Equivalent Meaning / Origin Coat of Arms
1 MurphyÓ Murchadhasea-battlerMurphy family crest
 2 Kelly  Ó Ceallaighbright-headedView Here
 3 O'Sullivan  Ó Súilleabháin  dark-eyedView Here
 4 Walsh  Breathnach   WelshmanView Here
 5 Smith  Mac Gabhann  son of the smith View Here
 6 O'Brien  Ó Briain   high, nobleO'Brien family crest
 7 Byrne   Ó Broin   a ravenView Here
 8 Ryan   Ó Maoilriain   kingView Here
 9 O'Connor  Ó Conchobhair  patron of warriorsView Here
 10 O'Neill  Ó Néill  from Niall of
the Nine Hostages
View Here
 11 O'Reilly  Ó Raghallaigh View Here
 12 Doyle   Ó Dubhghaill   dark foreignerView Here
 13 McCarthy Mac Carthaigh  loving personView Here
 14 Gallagher Ó Gallchobhair  lover of foreignersView Here
 15 O'Doherty  Ó Dochartaigh   hurtfulView Here
 16 Kennedy  Ó Cinnéide   helmet headedView Here
 17 Lynch   Ó Loinsigh   seafarer, exileView Here
 18 Murray  Ó Muireadhaigh  lord, masterView Here
 19 Quinn   Ó Cuinn   wisdom, chiefView Here
 20 Moore  Ó Mordha   majesticMoore family crest
 21 McLoughlin  Mac Lochlainn vikingView Here
 22 O'Carroll  Ó Cearbhaill   valorous in battleView Here
 23 Connolly  Ó Conghaile   fierce as a houndView Here
 24 Daly   Ó Dálaigh assembles frequentlyView Here
 25 O'Connell  Ó Conaill   strong as a wolfView Here
 26 Wilson  Mac Liam   son of WilliamView Here
 27 Dunne   Ó Duinn  brownView Here
 28 Brennan  Ó Braonáin   sorrow View Here
 29 Burke   de Búrca   from Richard de BurghView Here
 30 Collins  Ó Coileáin   young warrior View Here
 31 Campbell  crooked mouth View Here
 32 Clarke   ÓCléirigh   clergyman View Here
 33 Johnston  Mac Seáin   son of JohnView Here
 34 Hughes  Ó hAodha   fireView Here
 35 O'Farrell  Ó Fearghail   man of valourView Here
 36 Fitzgerald  Mac Gearailt   spear ruleView Here
 37 Brown   Mac an Bhreithiún  son of the brehon (judge)View Here
 38 Martin Mac Giolla Mháirtín  devotee of Saint Martin View Here
 39 Maguire Mag Uidhir   dun-coloured View Here
 40 Nolan   Ó Nualláin   famousView Here
 41 Flynn   Ó Floinn   bright redView Here
 42 Thompson  Mac Tomáis   son of ThomView Here
 43 O'Callaghan Ó Ceallacháin   bright headedView Here
 44 O'Donnell  Ó Domhnaill   world-mighty View Here
 45 Duffy   Ó Dufaigh   dark, blackView Here
 46 O'Mahony  Ó Mathúna  bear-calfView Here
 47 Boyle   Ó Baoill  vain pledgeView Here
 48 Healy   Ó hÉalaighthe   artistic, scientificView Here
 49 O'Shea  Ó Séaghdha   fine, stately View Here
 50 White   Mac Giolla Bháin  of fair complexionView Here
 51 Sweeney  Mac Suibhne   pleasant View Here
 52 Hayes   Ó hAodha   fireView Here
 53 Kavanagh  Caomhánach   comely, mildView Here
 54 Power   de Paor  the poor manView Here
 55 McGrath  Mac Craith  son of graceView Here
 56 Moran   Ó Móráin   greatView Here
 57 Brady   Mac Brádaigh   spiritedView Here
 58 Stewart  Stiobhard   one who superintendsView Here
 59 Casey   Ó Cathasaigh  vigilant in war, watchfulView Here
 60 Foley   Ó Foghladh   a plundererView Here
 61 Fitzpatrick  Mac Giolla Phádraig  devotee of Saint Patrick View Here
 62 O'Leary Ó Laoghaire   calf-herdView Here
 63 McDonnell  Mac Domhnaill  world-mightyView Here
 64 MacMahon  Mac Mathúna  bear-calfView Here
 65 Donnelly  Ó Donnghaile   brown valourView Here
 66 Regan   Ó Riagáin   little kingView Here
 67 Donovan  Ó Donnabháin  brown, blackView Here
 68 Burns  from Scottish BurnessView Here
 69 Flanagan  Ó Flannagáin   red, ruddy View Here
 70 Mullan  Ó Maoláin   baldView Here
 71 Barry   de Barra   Cambro-Norman nameView Here
 72 Kane  Ó Catháin   battlerView Here
 73 Robinson     son of RobertView Here
 74 Cunningham     Scottish nameView Here
 75 Griffin  Ó Gríofa   Welsh: GruffuddView Here
 76 Kenny   Ó Cionaoith   fire sprungView Here
 77 Sheehan  O'Siodhachain   peacefulView Here
 78 Ward   Mac an Bhaird  son of the bardView Here
 79 Whelan  Ó Faoláin   wolfView Here
 80 Lyons   Ó Laighin   greyView Here
 81 Reid     red haired,
ruddy complexion
View Here
 82 Graham     grey homeView Here
 83 Higgins  Ó hUiginn View Here
 84 Cullen   Ó Cuilinn   hollyView Here
 85 Keane   Mac Catháin View Here
 86 King   Ó Cionga View Here
 87 Maher   Meagher   fine, majestic View Here
 88 MacKenna  Mac Cionaoith  fire-sprungView Here
 89 Bell   Mac Giolla Mhaoil View Here
 90 Scott    a Scottish gaelView Here
 91 Hogan   Ó hÓgáin   youngView Here
 92 O'Keeffe  Ó Caoimh   gentleView Here
 93 Magee   Mag Aoidh   fire View Here
 94 MacNamara  Mac Conmara   hound of the sea View Here
 95 MacDonald  Mac Dónaill   world-mightyView Here
 96 MacDermott  Mac Diarmada  free from jealousyView Here
 97 Molony  Ó Maolomhnaigh servant of the Church View Here
 98 O'Rourke  Ó Ruairc  View Here
 99 Buckley  Ó Buachalla   cow herdView Here
 100 O'Dwyer Ó Dubhuir   black View Here

It is a help when tracing your family history to know something about the origin of and evolution of Irish names and particularly how names have changed over the centuries.

Early times: In ancient Ireland the population was much smaller than today and the mass movement of people was uncommon. It was usual therefore for a person to be known only by one name: Niall, Eoin, Art, etc. Once there was no one else in the locality with the same name then this was not a problem.

The Gaelic Clann system was well established and this gave people a common identity with their people of the tribe and with the commonly shared area. This single name system began to break down during the eleventh century as the population was growing and there was a need for a further means of identification. The solution was to adopt a prefix such as Mac (Mc is an abreviation) or Ó. Mac means 'son of' whilst Ó means 'grandson of'. Mac surnames are generally of a much later date than Ó. The vast majority of Gaelic Irish surnames were created during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

It should be noted that the Scottish Gaels were actually descendants of Gaelic emigrants to Scotland. The word 'Scotus' is Latin for 'Irishman'. Scottish settlers who moved to Ireland (and especially Ulster) may already have been of Gaelic Irish descent.

Septs: The Clans eventually broke up into a number of distinct septs or groups. These groups were headed by an original member of the clan and dominated a particular part of the countryside. It was not uncommon for septs from the same clan to be found in completely different parts of the country (O'Connor for example) so it is important when researching your roots to try to find out the original part of the country that your ancestors came from as this may be a completely different area from that where the 'major' sept was domicile

The sept system was an integral part of Gaelic society and survived and was even propagated by the Norman invaders. The system did not survive the English invasion and colonisation of the seventeenth century however, and it became a disadvantage to have a Gaelic sounding name.

Anglicization: The Penal laws that were enforced by the colonists attempted to completely subjugate the Gaelic way of life. It is about this time then, that many Gaelic names changed to their Anglo equivalent or translation. This can cause confusion as many of the names were misinterpreted or misspelled. The name McEaneny for example has a number of variants including McAneny and Bird (the Irish word for bird is éan). Mac an Thomáis was converted to Holmes, Mac Giolla Íosa to MacAleese, etc. The conversion of names beginning with Mac and Mc was even more difficult because the removal of the M sound from the name often completely changed the sound of the name.

The revival of Gaelic consciousness in the later eighteen hundreds saw many Irish families reassume the Mac, Mc, Ó or other Irish form of their names although this was reduced in a number of cases depending on the sound of the name (Kelly is still much more prevalent than O'Kelly, Murphy more prevalent than O'Murphy, etc.)

Surnames today: There are many different origins for Irish names today but the vast majority can be broken down into either of three categories: Gaelic Irish, Cambro-Norman, and finally Anglo-Irish.

The Table shown here gives a listing of the 100 most commonly names found in Ireland and their meanings. These details were compiled from the Matheson report.

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