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Discover your heritage: a history of Irish surnames

Discover your heritage: a history of Irish surnames

Date: 28th July 2021

As part of our blog series exploring ancestry and heritage, we’ve been exploring common surnames from different parts of the UK, and learning more about the history of these names. Hundreds of years ago, surnames were added on as the population grew to distinguish different people. Now, a surname is a strong tie to our family and blood, and can be traced back generations to build our family trees. 

This week, we’ve put the spotlight on Ireland and will be taking a look at some of the most common surnames in Ireland, and where they originated from.

“Mc” and “O” - Similarly to other UK countries (particularly Wales and Scotland), prior to the 10th Century many Irish surnames originated as patronymic names, which means they came from the name of the father (Mc) or grandfather/notable ancestor (O).

For example:  Brian’s son would be called Connor McBrian (son of Brian). When Connor had a son, his son would be called Sean McConnor (Son of Connor).
If Brian had been a particularly notable or well-known person, it would be very likely that the grandson would have been called Sean O’Brian instead, because this name would have been more recognisable among the other local people. This is how family names worked for a long time in Ireland, and the remnants of this part of history can still be seen very clearly in Ireland.

Speaking of which, here are the top 10 most common surnames in Ireland, with a bit of background.

1. Murphy 

Murphy is the most common Irish surname, with many famous holders, including Peaky Blinders Cillian Murphy! The name is the anglicized version of Ó Murchadha and Mac Murchadha which mean “sea warrior”. 

2. Kelly

Although there are some different origins of the name, from an Irish standpoint Kelly is commonly an anglicised version of the surname Ó Ceallaigh (Son of Ceallaigh). The name Ceallaigh would have originally been a personal name for someone, and translates as “bright-headed”.

3. O’Sullivan 

The exact meaning of O’Sullivan is still up for debate, as the Gaelic word ‘suil’ means eye, but researchers are unsure of the latter part. It could possibly mean “one-eyed, “black-eyed” or “hawk-eyed”. The name, in all its various forms, is most common in Munster and was a notable clan name.

4. Walsh
In the late 1100s many British travelled over to Ireland during the Norman Invasion, and brought with them the surname Walsh - which literally means “from Wales” or “Welsh”, but was often used to refer to anybody from Britain, who were all considered “foreigners”.

5. Smith
Smith takes a place in every top 10 list in the UK, but many consider the Irish version of this name to have its own individual heritage not directly linked with the English version. Many of the Smiths from Ireland were originally from the Gabhann family, which means Smith in Gaelic, but changed their names to the English spelling at the same time all names began to become anglicised. 

6. O’Brien
Another notable Irish clan name, this surname originated from the clan of Brian Boru (941-1014) who was the King of Munster. All of his descendants in the area took the name O’Brien to signify “descendants of Brian”. 

7. Byrne
As with many Irish surnames, there’s a variety of different common spellings for Byrne including Burns and O’Byrne. These all originate from the Irish name Ó Broin, meaning “descendant of Bran”, referring to Bran mac Máelmórda, King of Leinster, in the 1100s.

8. Ryan
First found in Tipperary, it derives from the Gaelic ‘Ó Riagháin’. This means descendant of Rían. Modern day translations of this also suggest that Rian meant ‘little king’, although the exact meaning of this surname is still disputed.
9. O’Connor
Like many of the surnames beginning with O’ - O’Connor simply comes from the traditional Irish for Ó Conchobhair, and means grandson or descendant of Conchobhair (modern day version is Connor). Connor is said to mean “lover of hounds”.

10. O’Neill

Just like the previous name, O’Neill is a simple translation, and means grandson or descendant of Niall. The name Niall itself is linked to meanings such as “champion” and “vehement”. Similar surnames include Neill and Neale. 

We hope our series of surname blogs has helped to uncover some valuable information on your family history and origins. If you want to learn more about how to preserve your family legacy and create lasting documentation of your family tree for the future, take a look at some of our other blogs on the site for more inspiration.