40+ Most Popular Irish Last Names [2020]

To quote the wonderful Irish music artist Niall Horan, “Ireland is the best country in the world.” But what’s the deal with it? What’s the history of the Irish language and dialect and why do they have such a funny, yet fascinating accent?  Let’s get into it:

Irish History: In General

Ireland was once a country of divided kingdoms. Pope IV gave King Henry II of England the authority to raid Ireland to cleanse the Church and claim areas, one being Dublin, as a royal City. Other territories were also given to Henry II with the pope’s blessing. In other words, Ireland was under the English crown.

The many kings of Ireland happily acknowledged him and wanted to use him as a chance for their escape from the Normans. Unfortunately for them, the Normans captured and claimed their land, all the way from Dublin to Galway. With this English power, the Lord of Ireland gave up his throne to King John of England. This was evidently the start of the Norman Invasion.

During the 12th and 13th centuries, Gaelic rebels attacked English lordships, but Normans fought back and acquired the Irish language and customs. To this day, many Irish people have Norman surnames. It wasn’t until the 12th century that, as the population in Ireland grew, the upper class people started taking hereditary surnames.

Irish History: The Language

Scottish Gaels were descendants of Gaelic immigrants in Scotland. “Scotus” is actually Latin for “Irishman.”

Irish surnames were once based on someone’s father’s name. For example, it would be “a person’s given name” + “mac” (or Mc) meaning “son of” + his father’s first name. There was also “given name” + “O” which means “grandson of.” This identifier derived from the Gaelic Clann System. The majority of Gaelic surnames were created during the 11th and 12th centuries. The Clans eventually broke up into groups and over time, having a Gaelic-sound name was a disadvantage.

Irish Family Names

Now, Irish names have very different origins and roots and are broken down into 3 categories: Gaelic Irish, Cambro-Norman, and Anglo-Irish. If you’re searching your Irish family or ancestry, try and find the part of the country where your ancestors came from. How can you do that? Well, first it’s important to understand that Ireland is one thing and Northern Ireland is another, and both have provinces in which you can do your ancestry research.

After all the fighting, Ireland got its freedom back from Britain—mostly. Northern Ireland is actually still in union with England, Scotland, and Wales, and so Northern Ireland is actually separate from (the Republic of) Ireland. Today you can find 4 provinces: Connacht, Leinster, Munster, and Ulster.

Connacht

“Connacht” services from a mythological figure inspired by Ruairi O’Connor, the High King of Ireland before the Anglo-Norman settlement. Here you’ll find popular locations like Galway and Mayo. Mayo is home to some of the most breathtaking views of Ireland.

Common Irish surnames you can find in Mayo:

  • Gallagher
  • McHale
  • Doyle
  • Doherty
  • Murphy
  • O’Malley
  • Duffy

The most well-known county in Connacht, however, is Galway. Along with being in a song title, “Galway Girl”, by the legendary Irish singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, Galway is also a popular tourist spot and home to a university.

Some of the Irish surnames you can find in Galway:

  • Fallon
  • Connelly
  • Reilly
  • Shaughnessy
  • Flynn
  • Connor

Ulster

Ulster is located in Northern Ireland. A famous county in Ulster is the County of Donegal, which was one of the Royal Sites of Gaelic Ireland. The County of Donegal is also known for its Irish name, Grianan Ailigh, which means “Stone Forts of the Sun.”

Some surnames you can find in Donegal:

  • Sweeney
  • McGill
  • Brennan
  • O’Donnell
  • McGinley

Munster

In Munster, you’ll find the counties Clare, Tipperary, Limerick, and a few others.

In the 18th century and going into the 19th century, a nationalist leader, known as Daniel O’Connell, aka The Liberator, won an election in Clare, making it emancipated of Catholics in Ireland.

Some common names you can find in Clare:

  • O’Brien
  • Kelly
  • McMahon
  • Moloney
  • O’Connor

In Munster, you’ll also find county Tipperary. Before the Norman invasion, Tipperary was divided between North and South kingdoms and was dominated by Irish people with the names O’Brien and McCarthy. It wasn’t until 2014 that these two ridings—the north and the south—reunified.

Common names found in North Tipperary:

  • O’Brien
  • Burke
  • Kennedy
  • Carroll
  • O’Meara

Common names found in South Tipperary:

  • McCarthy
  • Quirke
  • Hayes
  • Maher
  • Dwyer

Leinster

Leinster is the most populated province out of the 4; along with the 10+ counties in it, it also has Ireland’s capital, Dublin. Leinster is also a popular tourist attraction with the top 10 sights of Ireland, including Dublin City, the stone passageways, the castles, Trinity College, and so much more.

One of the most common names found in the province is Byrne. Byrne came from “O’Broin”, meaning “descended from Bran”, an 11th-century king of Leinster. The O’Brynes were driven out of their lands during the Norman Invasion.

Now, you can see Byrnes, or ravens, flying around in the county of Dublin and the county of Wicklow in Leinster.

What are the origins of some of these names?

Most, if not all, names originated from occupations. For example, O Cleirigh was someone descended from a clerk. Or the name Mac/McGowan derived from “Mac Gabhann” which meant “son of a smith.” Some areas kept the surname McGowan, while others changed it to Smith.

Common family names like Smith and Collins are because of the Norman Invasion. The surname Collins has been variously changed to other Irish family names like Cullen, Cullane, and Cullinan.

Common Family Surnames in Ireland

Murphy

This is one of the most common family names—about 50,000 people in Ireland have this name! Its Irish origin comes from 2 Gaelic clans and it means “sea warrior.”

Kelly

This is another very common family name and amazingly enough, it can be a first name too! It derives from the Gaelic “O’Ceallaigh” meaning “fighter” or “warrior.”

Bryne

As mentioned briefly before, Bryne means “raven” and derives from the Gaelic version of O’Broin and O’Beirne.

Ryan

There are over 30,000 people in Ireland with this family name. It’s also a first name! It’s not totally clear where it came from, though there are ideas that it was from the Gaelic “Ri” meaning “king.”

O’Sullivan

This family name descends from royalty! Specifically, one king and a bunch of princes. It can be translated to “the steady hand to victory.”

Doyle

Doyle, or “Dubhghall” translates to “black stranger.” This term was used to differentiate between the Danish Vikings and the fair-haired Norwegians.

Walsh

Derived from the British when they took over during the Norman Invasion, this family name translates to “foreigner.” I mean, that makes sense.

O’Connor

Another popular family name is O’Connor. It has various spellings, like O’Connor or O’Conner. It can be translated to “Every help from God.”

McCarthy

This family name has several variants and 60% of Irish people with this name live in the same area in Ireland. “McCarthy” means “loving.” How sweet!

Other surnames and their meanings:

Kennedy – “helmet headed”

Quinn – “wisdom”

Murray – “lord”

Lynch – “exile”

O’Doherty – “hurtful”

Gallagher – “lover of foreigners”

Duffy – “dark”

Connolly – “fierce as a hound”

Flynn – “bright red”

Sweeney – “pleasant”

Hayes – “fire”

Brennan – “sorrow”

O’Dwyer – “black

McCarthy – “loving person”

Along with common baby names like Kelly, Patrick, Cara, Connor (or Conner or Conor), here are some other common Irish names and their meanings:

Aoife (ee-fa)  “beautiful”

Caoimhe (kee-va)  “gentle” or “precious”

Saoirse (ser-sha) “freedom”

Ciara (kee-ra)  “dark”

Niamh (neev) “radiance”

Siobhan (shiv-on) “God’s grace”

Cillian or Killian (kill-ee-an) “war”

Niall (Nye-all)  “champion” or “passionate”

Fionn (finn or fee-in) “white” or “clear”

Rian (ree-ah) “little king”

Tadhg (tige) “poet”

Ruairi (rory) “red”

And just for laughs, here’s a video of Saoirse Ronan trying to teach Stephen Colbert how to do an Irish accent and pronounce some of the names listed above:

About the author
January Nelson is a writer, editor, and dreamer. She writes about astrology, games, love, relationships, and entertainment. January graduated with an English and Literature degree from Columbia University. Read more articles from January on Thought Catalog.

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