A Tale of Nine Irish Surnames

Today we’re going to dive into the background of Irish surnames and locations. We’re going to do this with a little help from one of our readers.

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A Tale of Nine Irish Surnames

Here on the Letter from Ireland – we focus on your Irish surnames and where in Ireland they come from – why? Simply because this matters to people!

The 3 most common questions I get asked are:

My name is “O’whatishisname” – is it Irish?

  1. Where in Ireland does the name come from?
  2. My great Grandfather’s name is Joe Conlon – he came from Kilkenny – we traced him as far as the parish hall in Ballingroibertown – and the trail ran cold. Can you help?

Questions 1 and 2 are what we are all about, as for question 3? Sorry – lots of other people can – but we can’t help.

So, today we’re going to dive into the background of Irish surnames and locations. We’re going to do this with a little help from one of our readers – Barbara Melanson O’Regan who is based in the USA. When she contacted me first, she passed on NINE Irish names (names in her ancestry that left Ireland for the US over the past few hundred years).

Like to add your surname to our list? Just signup for your free weekly Letter from Ireland by clicking here.and we’ll let you know how to join in the fun.

Yep – Nine names!

So, I had a look at them and found that they were a great mix of Gaelic, pre-Gaelic, English settler and anglo-Norman names.

Now, while we won’t go into the specifics about Barbara’s ancestry – let’s use each of these names to bring a slightly different aspect of Irish heritage to the fore.

Ready? Let’s go:

Name 1: Eaton – Emigrated from County Kerry.

This is an English surname derived from a placename that would have appeared in Ireland from the 16th century onwards. Why? Typically as settlers, planters, soldiers. Lots of possibilities there.

I’m often asked about a certain Irish name of English origin and where in Ireland it comes from. But many English planters would have travelled to Ireland as individuals or small groups – and there is often no specific place associated with these individual English names. Unless they had powerful lordships – then they could name everything around them after their family!

Name 2: Keane – Emigrated from County Waterford.

Irish Gaelic surnames typically come originally from a first name – in this case the Irish “O Cein” which means “from Cein” which is more or less the modern Irish first name Cian.

This sept or clan would have started out in the County Waterford area of Munster – and it seems like Barbara’s ancestor stayed in this area until they emigrated. This is typical of many Irish Gaelic Families – they tended to stay near the family lands for life, or move en masse.

Doyles Bar

Name 3: Kenneally – Emigrated from County Waterford.

I mentioned how Gaelic surnames come from original first names. Well, where do Gaelic first names come from?

The original Gaelic first names were typically descriptions of a quality the person had. Often visual, a personality trait or compared to an animal. In this case – it’s the Irish “O Cinnfhaolaidh” – meaning “head of a Wolf”.

The Keanneallys were part of the Ui Fidhgenti sept which were found in Connelloe. Parts of the Ui Fidhgenti moved en masse as families (the O’Collins’s and O’Donovans to West Cork) when displaced by the Anglo Normans. But the Kennealys were displaced all over many parts of South Munster.

The Surname Kennedy

Name 4: MacNamee – Emigrated from County Westmeath.

Have you a poet in your family? A feature of the old Gaelic system was a very strict hierarchy. The lords and the top – and each lordship was surrounded by many types of roles and professions: poets, soldiers, doctors, genealogists and so on.

Often certain surnames were associated with certain professions – as in this case. The Mac Namees (Mac Conmidhe – sons of the hounds of Meath – more dog names!) – were the Filí and Ollamhs (poets and scholars) to the O’Neill lords around present day County Tyrone.

Name 5: Manning – Emigrated from County Meath.

There’s a peculiarity with Irish names. When they were anglicized from the original Irish – sometimes this was done phonetically and sometimes by choosing the closest-sounding English name. As a result, you might find a name that is both Gaelic and English in origin.

This is the case with Manning. It is originally an English name – and when you find it today in counties Cork and Dublin it’s often belonging to people whose ancestors came from England.

But it is also a version of the Gaelic surname – “Mannion” – which you will find mostly in County Galway. This version is descended from the pre-Gaelic Sodhan race – and would have roots similar to the Picts of eastern Scotland.


Name 6: Power – Emigrated from County Waterford.

“More Irish than the Irish themselves” was a quote from the 15t^h century. It related to many of the Anglo-Norman lords who invaded Ireland in the 13^th century and became completely “Hibernicized” – absorbing Gaelic customs, dress and language.

Power was one of those families – typically now found in County Waterford and one of the 50 most numerous surnames in Ireland.

Name 7: Stanley – Emigrated from County Westmeath.

Remember Stanley and Livingstone? “Doctor Livingstone I presume?” Like Sir Henry Stanley – this name is of English origin and based on an English placename.

That’s often the difference between English and Gaelic surnames. It seemed to be important to give the location or profession (Smith, Carpenter etc.) in an English surname. For a Gaelic surname – the emphasis was on which specific family grouping you came from and who you are related to. When you understand this difference, you understand a lot about tracing Irish surnames and locations.

And Stanley came to Ireland very early – been around since the 1200s – and settled in counties Louth and Meath.

Nolan's Pub, Rosscarbery

Name 8: Sullivan – Emigrated from County Kerry.

Sullivan which comes from O’Suilleabhain – which probably means “one eye”. This is the most numerous name in Munster (the most numerous in Ireland is Murphy).

The Sullivans originally came from South Tipperary (about a 1000 years ago) but were driven west into Cork and Kerry to become an important part of the Eoghanacht tribe (lord of which were the McCarthys).

So which is right? “Sullivan” or “O’Sullivan”?

Well, they were all O’Suileabhain at one time. BUT then it became beneficial to drop the O during penal times for Gaels. This dropping of the O lasted until a Gaelic revival of the 1800s – when many surnames put the Os (and the macs) back into their surnames. But not everyone did.

For example – many of the emigrants to the USA and Australia would have left before the O came back and so you find many Sullivans overseas. Also, it seems that the majority of Sullivans in Kerry left the O out – while in Cork, they went back to become O’Sullivan.

Can be confusing, can’t it?

Connolly, Skibbereen

Name 9: Terry – Emigrated from County Waterford.

An old Anglo Norman who settled in a specific area – Cork city and county since the 13th century. You’ll also find this name in this form in England – so it is possible that it also belonged to an English planter.

So that’s it! Phew! Nine names leading to one person. A bit long this week, but I hope you enjoyed it – each name teased out a different aspect of Irish Heritage.

Many thanks to Barbara for sharing her name – and do remember to share yours below in the comments section if you haven’t done do already.

Slán for now, Mike.

  • Dennis P. McNamee says:

    Thank you Mike for the background on my clan. We have multiple generations of teachers and college lecturers going back into the 1800’s, to my great grandfather, and perhaps beyond. In the modern age we also have members of the army both Irish Drfense Force and U.S. Army that has crept into the lineage. I am both a college lecturer and a U.S Army veteran. Can we imagine the term identity crisis? Thanks again for your work. I enjoy your Facebook posts each day.

    • Mike says:

      Hi Dennis – thanks for the feedback. Great to have such a feel for the scope of your family through the decades! Mike.

    • Kathy Holliman says:

      Dennis, my mother’s maiden name was McNamee. Her father’s family were mainly in Chicago; before that, I’m not sure. My mother mentioned the McNamees being from County Cork, but I’m not sure about the facts.

  • Jeanne says:

    How can we get our names done just like above?

    • Mike says:

      Jeanne – I do a lucky dip every now an again! If you put your name on the list, you may be soon 😉

      • Jeanne says:

        where is the list, so I can add my name(my first name-or all my family names? Thank you.

        • Mike says:

          Give me the surnames and counties of origin for each (if known) and I’ll look after the rest. Mike.

          • Jeanne says:

            O’Meara(Meara)(Tipp) Roughan(not sure of Spelling-Tipp also Colue(?) Tipp
            McKenna (Kerry
            Griffin (Kerry)
            McDonnell, Denning, Gillick, and Greene-all Cavan
            Flynn, Daly, Reilly and O’Reilly all came to NYC bet. 1847/52 don’t know from what county yet.

          • Mike says:

            All in. Mike.

          • Jeanne says:

            and MCELLYOTT from Kerry.
            Thank you.

  • pat says:

    Hi Mike, great info on those nine names above! One of those names Manning also is in my family tree. We also have Branfields and I have wondered if they may have come originally from England. As you know when you research people most of what you get is Ireland for an answer. Pat

    • Mike says:

      Thanks for the feedback Pat. I don’t know about Branfield – but you do get the English name “Bransfield” in counties Cork and Waterford. Mike.

  • My great grandmother from Esker, county Longford was Anne Whitney. I’m sure that is English. I wonder when the Whitney’s came to Ireland? Thank you so much for this wonderful information on our ancestors. Sincerely, Pat

    • Mike says:

      Pat – I think Whitney is an old English Norman name in Ireland since the 1300s around Leinster generally. MIke.

  • Carol says:

    Hi Mike
    Would you have any info on the Cove surname from Kilkenny. Also have Hunt, Hickey,Dunn, Lahey. All from Kilkenny. Thank you.

    • Mike says:

      Carol – Ive added your names to our list.

      Sounds like Cove might be a later spelling. It might be from Coveney which was a Kilkenny name originally.

      It is also an English name in its own right. Mike.

  • I enjoyed your article on the location of Irish surnames as I specialize in mapping surname distributions. In the case of Irish names the ability to map the 1901 census at the DED level can sharply focus the search for a given surname. Additionally by ploting the distribution of the occupation of “farmer” in conjunction with the surname, can assist in identifying areas of long term settlement. H.B. Guppy pioneered this approach and applied it to England in the 1890’s.

    • Mike says:

      Hi Howard – thanks for the note – fascinating area you’re working in. If you ever want to do a short bloog article for our readers with an illustration do let me know. Mike.

  • Margaret says:

    My paternal Irish roots are Boyle and McCurdy. I’ve had great luck with McCurdy in Antrim, but have traced the Boyle side only once, in Derry. Yet isn’t there a Boyle location in Ireland? Any links to the name? Thank you.

    • Mike says:

      Margaret – Boyle in County Roscommon is named after a different Irish word. The O’Boyles (O Baoighill) were a family from Donegal originally – stretching into Derry. Richard Boyle was also the first Earl of Cork on the other side of the country. 🙂

  • Robin Doherty says:

    Checked back and still nothing on Doherty from Donegal…is it coming soon?

  • Julie says:

    Hi Mike,

    My family name is Mulvey. From what I have found out my Dad’s family were from Carrick on Shannon.

    Any Info would be great.

    Thank you

  • Sherri Moore says:

    Anything you can tell me about the Moore surname would be amazingly helpful. I’m new at this family tree stuff, but learning everyday! 🙂

  • Marilyn Linch Kegarise says:

    Can you give me any information on the Lynch family and where they settled and immigrated from?

    • Mike says:

      Hi Marilyn – the surname Lynch can either be of Norman origin (one of the Tribes of Galway) – but can also be an anglicisation of the Irish name “Ó Loingsigh” – which comes from a number of areas such as Antrim, Cavan, Clare, Cork or Tipperary. Mike.

  • James J Munroe says:

    Some time ago, before I joined your site. I commented on the Irish/Scotland version of Munroe/Munro, at school in Ireland I was known as Shamus Mulroony.[excuse my spelling], by the christian brothers.
    Surnames in my Irish family, Wynne, O’brien, Geoghean, Redican, Lee, Kegan, and Raggett, Idiens, my late English wife and family. Please include these in your list. Regards James.

  • Susan says:

    My maiden name is Manning. My father was very interested in your article and wants me to pursue research of his family tree. Thank you.

    • Mike says:

      Hi Susan – Manning can be from 2 possible sources – either an English planter name or from the Irish Ó Mainnín. When its Manning and from the Irish, it is usally from County Cork. Where does your ancestors come from in Ireland? Mike.

  • Anne Betts says:

    Hi Mike. Love reading about the origins of Irish surnames. My ancestors names were Malone from Kings County, Shanley from Queens County. I have noticed the “e” was not always included. Also Leddin from County Limerick. Thanks.

  • Angela says:

    Please include Kerwin (some ancestors have it spelled Kirwan) to your list. Thanks!

  • Kelli Manning says:

    I would like to be placed on your
    Surname List
    Thank You Mike & Carina☀️

  • I have travelled to Ireland twice in 2006 and 2011. It was not necessarily a Genealogy hunt but my daughter Kathy took some time with me in a library. The first time and the next. Well anyway The KENNEALY’S FROM Cork and Egan’s from Roscommon, O’CONNOR/CONNOR from Kerry. There was office to go to but they were closed I think that was in Dublin. I have been to both parts of EIRE. I also have a GGGrandma Ann McMaster that was from Armagh.

  • Ronald McCarty says:

    Could you please let me know anything you can about the McCarty name. Thank you.

  • Helen says:

    Sounds about right. My grandmother was a McNamee and a writer. My mother, my nephew and I all write – poetry in particular.

  • Ellen Zarnick says:

    My grandmother was a Mahon. Haven’t been able to learn of the county. My g’grandmother was Marshall, from Wales, but her father, Bart Marshall came from Ireland to Wales. My great-great grandfather was a K(i)ernan and he came from Lietrim.