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    Tracing Irish Ancestry: Popular Irish Surnames by Region

    By Eimear Quinn
    More by Eimear

    Irish Names

    We are blessed in Ireland to have surnames (last names) steeped in strong traditions and extensive history. Like much of the western world, Irish surnames are hereditary in nature, passed down as each generation takes their father’s name. This patronymic naming convention is still going strong and enables us to trace our roots back generations.

    Although largely anglicised today, Irish family names have derived from Irish and Scottish Gaelic and are a melting pot of Norse, Norman, Palatine and Huguenot influences.

    Do you have Irish ancestry and an Irish surname? Let us take you on a journey of the most popular surnames by region – you might find your own in there!

    Irish Naming Conventions

    Cliffs Of Moher

    We can’t talk about Irish surnames without first mentioning the Mac’s & O’s. In very simple terms, this can be explained as:

    • Mac – Son/descendent of
    • Ó – Grandson/descendent of

    There is no distinction between the genders in English – Niall and Sarah are both O’Neill, Niamh and Sean are both McGinn.

    For women, the convention is a little different when it comes to spelling names in Irish:

    • Nic/Ní – Daughter of descendent of
    • Mhic/Uí – Wife of descendent of

    A tragic phenomenon known as “souperism” arose during the Great Famine of the mid-1800s. And as a result, many Irish dropped the O’s and Macs from their names. A conversion method used by Protestant religious societies during this period was to set up soup kitchens for the starving Catholic Irish populace. For them to avail of their services, though, they were expected to convert to the Protestant faith. This led to bitterness among the Catholic Irish towards those who “took the soup.”

    Clans & Chiefs 

    hiking the Wicklow Way Glendalough

    Hiking along the Wicklow Way in the Glendalough area.

    A clan, meaning family, came about as a way of uniting people of the same surname under one Kinship. Members came together under the belief they all descended from a common ancestor. For example, the O’Neills descended from one man, Niall of the Nine Hostages, who was apparently the man responsible for kidnapping St. Patrick and bringing him to Ireland. For anyone interested in the O’Neill clan, explore the ancient territory of the O’Neill’s on our Hiking the Causeway Coast & Donegal tour.

    The clan’s role was to maintain and defend the native territory of their ancestors, known as a duiche. Some of the most popular clans were the McCarthy, O’Neill, O’Brien and O’Connor’s.

    Each clan had various smaller septs, known as sliocht, in their Kinship. These sliocht acknowledged the supremacy of a larger clan. Examples of this are the O’Donovan’s and O’Mahoney’s, whose chiefs paid tribute to the King of the McCarthy Reagh clan of modern-day Cork. Why not travel to lands once held by the McCarthy clan on our Hiking & Island-Hopping trip?

    This was how ancient Irish society was organised for centuries until Henry VIII declared himself as King of Ireland in 1542, leading to much disruption of the Gaelic social order and the eventual end of the clan system.

    But all was not lost! The legacy of the clan system remains firmly imprinted in Irish life, as Irish people at home and abroad identify strongly with their family names, maintaining an in-built tribalism. So much so that in 1989 the Clans of Ireland was formed in Co. Galway to preserve the cultural history and genealogy of Irish clans. Why not check out the database yourself?

    The Irish Abroad

    Green shamrocks

    Due to countless waves of emigration over the centuries, Irish surnames can be found far and wide – most notably in the US, Canada, Australia, and the UK.

    A lot of surnames were lost in translation on arrival to their new shores as a result of both illiteracy and as well as a concerted desire to assimilate into new communities. Another reason for name changes post-emigration was the phrase “no Irish need apply” appearing in many job advertisements. And so, many emigrants found themselves dropping the Mac & O from their names to sound less Irish and more appealing to prospective employers abroad.

    This variety of new spellings in Irish surnames abroad can be a confusing obstacle for those researching their ancestry. You will likely stumble across a variety of spellings of your ancestor’s surname, so it’s worth considering these when doing your research.

    Clans aside, here are some of the most popular names in Ireland today by region.

    O’Neill 

    The O’Neill dynasty was once at the forefront of Gaelic life in ancient lands that are now Donegal and Tyrone. They were a prominent family up until the Flight of the Earls in 1607.

    This name has travelled far and wide, with variations such as “O’Neal,” “Neill” and “Neil” to name a few, and remains a vastly popular name throughout Ireland. The family seat of the O’Neill’s today is Shane’s Castle, on the shores of Lough Neagh in county Antrim – just one hour from the Giant’s Causeway and 30 mins from Belfast.

    From the Giant’s Causeway to the wilds of Donegal, discover the lands that the mighty O’Neills once ruled on the trip, the Causeway Coast and Donegal.

    View Trip

    Maguire

    The name “Maguire,” derived from the Irish clan Mac Uidhir, first appeared in the Annals of Ulster in 956 and is said to mean “son of the brown one.” Originally a clan in the province of Leinster, the Maguires moved northwards to the beautiful Lakeland county of Fermanagh, in modern-day Northern Ireland, where they sat as kings for over 300 years. In the US, the surname Meguiar is a supposed variation of this name.

    Book a private adventure through Northern Ireland’s coasts and glens to discover the beauty of the north.

    View Trip

    Hughes

    Originally “Ap Huw” and attributed to a tribe of Welsh Celts, this name migrated with them when they came to Ireland, becoming a form of the Irish name Ó hAodha, meaning fire.

    So, if you know someone with the surname “Hughes” and they have a temper, this might be why! The name “Hughes” is now most commonly found in the lesser-travelled County Monaghan and is largely still very popular in Anglesey, an island off the north coast of Wales.

    O’Donnell

    This name is mostly found in the treasured county of Donegal and roughly translates as “mighty rulers.” It’s an anglicised form of the surname “Ó Donnghaile,” meaning those with this surname are descendants of the clan namesake, “Dónal.” Other variations of the name are “Donnelly,” “O’Donnelly,” and “Donnelie,” to name a few.

    The Rock of Doon near Glenveagh National Park in Donegal is the site where the O’Donnells of ancient Ireland chose to inaugurate their chieftains.

    Interested in visiting the region? Explore the wilds of Donegal on a bike trip, whisking you away to the ancient seat of the O’Donnells.

    View Trip

    Brennan

    The surname “Brennan” is abundant in counties Sligo and Roscommon. It was first recorded in 1159 in the Annals of the Four Masters, referencing the chief of Roscommon, MacBranain. The name is said to mean ‘son of the dark one,’ a nod to the raven hair of the chief. A famous Brennan is the Irish folk-singer Enya, born Eithne Pádraigín Ní Bhraonáin in the Irish-speaking community of Gweedore, Donegal.

    Meander the stunning but overlooked County Sligo, once home to the Brennan clan, on a self drive adventure from Sligo to Westport.

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    Walsh

    Overall, “Walsh” is the 4th most common surname in Ireland and is most plentiful in the mountainous wilds of Mayo. It was brought to Ireland by Norman/Welsh soldiers sometime during the Norman invasion of Ireland in the 12th century.

    The Irish for the surname is “Breathnach,” meaning “Welshman”, and would indicate some Welsh lineage for those possessing this surname. Other variants are “Welsh,” “Welch,” “Wallis,” or “Brannagh.”

    Discover the remote corners and peaks of Mayo while hiking the mountains of Connemara and Mayo.

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    McMahon

    Morgan McMahon, one of the earliest recorded US settlers from Ireland, landed in Philadelphia in 1746. The name “McMahon” carries great power in that those with this surname are descendants of the famed Brian Ború – once the High King of Ireland whose legendary deeds ended Viking power in Ireland at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. The greatest number of McMahons in the country are found in the Munster counties of Limerick and Clare.

    Explore the region of Munster, once home to the McMahons, on our trip, hiking Kerry and Clare.

    View Trip

    Cleary

    Supposedly the oldest recorded surname in Ireland, it derives from the Irish surname “Ó Cléirigh” – with Cleirigh meaning “clerk” or “cleric”, hinting that the Clearys of today are descendants of a learned scribe or religious man.

    Today, the largest number of Clearys found outside of Ireland are located in the US state of California. A notable variation of “Cleary” is the name “Clarke.”

    Bike through Galway and traditional Cleary country while cycling Ireland’s West Coast.

    View Trip

    Murphy

    “Murphy” lends its name to the finest Irish stout in the country (though be careful, don’t tell Guinness lovers this). Not only is it the most popular name in Cork, but it’s also the most common name in Ireland as a whole. Deriving from the Irish O’Murchadh, the name Murchadh loosely translates as “sea battler” in English.

    Other variations of the name “Murphy” are “Morrow,” “McMorrow,” and “McMurrough.” At the time of writing, it is the 58th most common surname in the US.

    Island hop through the land of the Murphys on hiking and island hopping in Cork and Kerry.

    View Trip

    O’Sullivan 

    Outside of Ireland, the name “O’Sullivan” is most common in England and Australia. Within Ireland, it is the third most frequently found name in the country – most popular in Kerry. There are two distinct clans: the O’Sullivan Mór of Kerry and the O’Sullivan Beara of Cork (Beara peninsula).

    Both clans are known to have fought fiercely against English troops in the early 1600s alongside their allies. The name comes from the Irish O’Suileabhain and is said to mean “one-eyed” or “hawk-eyed”.

    Climb to new heights and explore the region associated with the O’Sullivans on our Kerry Mountains trip.

    View Trip

    O’Brien 

    A wildly popular surname in the counties of Limerick, Tipperary, Waterford and Wexford, it was first used by Donogh Cairbre O’Brien in the 13th century. Meaning “descendent of Brian”, those with this surname can also claim lineage from the once High King of Ireland, Brian Ború.

    The US city you’re most likely to encounter an “O’Brien” is in Boston, Massachusetts – Conan O’Brien is a notable resident that springs to mind!

    Butler

    When you think of Butlers now, you would be forgiven for thinking of chocolate. There are 39 Butlers Chocolate cafés worldwide, with the most famous being on Grafton Street in Dublin. With the Anglo-Norman invasion of the 12th century came the name “Butler.” It derives from the Huguenot “boteillier,” meaning bottler or cupbearer.

    Today it is largely found in the Marble County of Kilkenny and descendants can claim lineage from a powerful dynasty that was once known as the Dukes of Ormond.

    Wander Ireland’s Ancient East on our self drive of the same name.

    View Trip

    Doyle

    The origins of this surname are a little hazy, but it is largely suspected to be of Norse origin. Mainly due to the Irish name Dubhghaill, translating as the “dark stranger or foreigner” in reference to the Danish Vikings of the 8th and 9th centuries. It is most popular in Dublin and the surrounding counties of Wicklow and Kildare.

    Hike the Wicklow Way along the ancient stomping grounds of the Doyle clan.

    View Trip

    Byrne

    In south Wicklow, nearing the end of the Wicklow Way trail, there is such an abundance of Byrnes that they must distinguish the various families by nickname – the rabbits, badgers, fish, pigs and hares, to name a few.

    Identifying families by obscure nicknames is standard practice across the country, given the small population! It could be argued that “Byrne” is an anglicised version of “O’Brien,” and it likely is. But it’s one that’s taken on a life of its own.

    Want more flexibility? Walk the Wicklow Way self guided to travel at your own pace.

    View Trip

    Find Your Irish Story

    Trip & Departure DatesAvailabilityStatusPriceBook
    Deluxe Family Adventure – Legends of The Southwest

    27th Mar - 2nd Apr 2024

    4 place(s) leftGuaranteed 3,300Book Now
    Hiking – Kerry & Clare

    6th Apr - 12th Apr 2024

    5 place(s) leftGuaranteed 2,250Book Now
    Hiking – The Causeway Coastal Route & Donegal

    13th Apr - 19th Apr 2024

    1 place(s) leftGuaranteed 2,490Book Now
    Hiking – The Dingle Way

    20th Apr - 26th Apr 2024

    1 place(s) leftGuaranteed 2,440Book Now
    Hiking – Kerry & Clare

    27th Apr - 3rd May 2024

    4 place(s) leftGuaranteed 2,250Book Now
    Hiking – The Causeway Coastal Route & Donegal

    27th Apr - 3rd May 2024

    1 place(s) leftGuaranteed 2,490Book Now
    Hiking & Island Hopping – Ireland’s West Coast

    25th May - 31st May 2024

    1 place(s) leftGuaranteed 2,290Book Now
    Hiking – Connemara’s Atlantic Edge

    25th May - 31st May 2024

    1 place(s) leftGuaranteed 2,190Book Now
    Hiking & Island Hopping – Cork & Kerry

    8th Jun - 14th Jun 2024

    1 place(s) leftGuaranteed 2,460Book Now
    Hiking & Island Hopping – Ireland’s West Coast

    8th Jun - 14th Jun 2024

    1 place(s) leftGuaranteed 2,290Book Now
    Self Drive – Belfast, Giant’s Causeway & Donegal

    12th Jun - 18th Jun 2024

    Trip FullGuaranteed 3,450Trip Full
    Self Drive – Belfast, Giant’s Causeway & Donegal

    18th Jun - 24th Jun 2024

    2 place(s) leftGuaranteed 2,695Book Now
    Hiking & Island Hopping – Cork & Kerry

    22nd Jun - 28th Jun 2024

    1 place(s) leftGuaranteed 2,460Book Now
    E-bike – Ireland’s West Coast

    22nd Jun - 28th Jun 2024

    1 place(s) leftGuaranteed 3,320Book Now
    Hiking – Connemara’s Atlantic Edge

    22nd Jun - 28th Jun 2024

    2 place(s) leftGuaranteed 2,190Book Now
    Bike Tour – Donegal From Cliffs to Coast

    6th Jul - 12th Jul 2024

    8 place(s) leftAvailable 3,180Book Now
    Deluxe Family Adventure – Legends of The Southwest

    6th Jul - 12th Jul 2024

    Trip FullGuaranteed 3,050Trip Full
    Hiking – The Causeway Coastal Route & Donegal

    6th Jul - 12th Jul 2024 Women only departure

    8 place(s) leftAvailable 2,490Book Now
    Hiking – The Dingle Way

    6th Jul - 12th Jul 2024

    6 place(s) leftAvailable 2,440Book Now
    Hiking – Kerry & Clare

    13th Jul - 19th Jul 2024

    6 place(s) leftGuaranteed 2,250Book Now
    Hiking – The Causeway Coastal Route & Donegal

    20th Jul - 26th Jul 2024

    6 place(s) leftGuaranteed 2,490Book Now
    Hiking – Connemara’s Atlantic Edge

    27th Jul - 2nd Aug 2024

    8 place(s) leftAvailable 2,190Book Now
    Hiking & Island Hopping – Cork & Kerry

    27th Jul - 2nd Aug 2024

    6 place(s) leftGuaranteed 2,460Book Now
    Hiking & Island Hopping – Ireland’s West Coast

    27th Jul - 2nd Aug 2024

    5 place(s) leftGuaranteed 2,290Book Now
    Deluxe Family Adventure – Legends of The Southwest

    1st Aug - 7th Aug 2024

    4 place(s) leftGuaranteed 3,300Book Now
    Hiking – The Causeway Coastal Route & Donegal

    3rd Aug - 9th Aug 2024

    1 place(s) leftGuaranteed 2,490Book Now
    Hiking – Kerry & Clare

    3rd Aug - 9th Aug 2024

    2 place(s) leftGuaranteed 2,250Book Now
    E-bike – Ireland’s West Coast

    10th Aug - 16th Aug 2024

    2 place(s) leftGuaranteed 3,320Book Now
    Hiking & Island Hopping – Cork & Kerry

    10th Aug - 16th Aug 2024

    7 place(s) leftAvailable 2,460Book Now
    Hiking – The Dingle Way

    17th Aug - 23rd Aug 2024

    2 place(s) leftGuaranteed 2,440Book Now
    Hiking & Island Hopping – Ireland’s West Coast

    17th Aug - 23rd Aug 2024 Women only departure

    6 place(s) leftGuaranteed 2,290Book Now
    Hiking – Connemara’s Atlantic Edge

    24th Aug - 30th Aug 2024

    8 place(s) leftAvailable 2,190Book Now
    Bike Tour – Donegal From Cliffs to Coast

    24th Aug - 30th Aug 2024

    8 place(s) leftAvailable 3,180Book Now
    Hiking & Island Hopping – Cork & Kerry

    31st Aug - 6th Sep 2024

    Trip FullGuaranteed 2,460Trip Full
    Hiking – Kerry & Clare

    7th Sep - 13th Sep 2024

    2 place(s) leftGuaranteed 2,250Book Now
    Hiking – The Causeway Coastal Route & Donegal

    14th Sep - 20th Sep 2024

    3 place(s) leftGuaranteed 2,490Book Now
    Hiking & Island Hopping – Ireland’s West Coast

    21st Sep - 27th Sep 2024

    8 place(s) leftAvailable 2,290Book Now
    E-bike – Ireland’s West Coast

    21st Sep - 27th Sep 2024

    10 place(s) leftAvailable 3,320Book Now
    Hiking – Kerry & Clare

    28th Sep - 4th Oct 2024

    6 place(s) leftGuaranteed 2,250Book Now
    Hiking & Island Hopping – Ireland’s West Coast

    5th Oct - 11th Oct 2024

    8 place(s) leftAvailable 2,290Book Now

    Meet the Author: Eimear Quinn

    “Originally from Northern Ireland, Eimear is particularly interested in gardening from a Permaculture perspective, exploring the Irish landscape, understanding the rich and wonderful world of Irish mythology, legend and folklore, and preserving Irish language, tradition and music.”

    View profileMore by Eimear

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