Do You Have a County Cork Ancestor?

Did you know that Cork is the largest county in Ireland (both north and south)? The surnames of that county are the subject of today’s Letter from Ireland.

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Do You Have a County Cork Ancestor?


Cork is, by far, the largest county in Ireland, so it’s not a surprise many of our readers have a County Cork ancestor. Within its boundaries, it has mountain ranges, dramatic shorelines, expansive bogs, fertile land, long rivers, a wide range of market towns and ports as well as the city of Cork itself sitting inside the second largest natural harbour in the world. Many of these features make County Cork a lovely place to live today and very attractive to tourists. In the past many of these very same features made it attractive to early Viking, Norman and English settlers.

So, today we’re going to examine the prominent surnames of County Cork and chat about the initial Gaelic population and later waves of settlers that arrived here.


If we look at the 1901 census for County Cork (which included the city of Cork) we see that it had the second-largest population of any county in Ireland – standing at 402,357 people (County Antrim up to the north-east of the island had the largest population).

Dig a little deeper into the census figures and we find that the following surnames were the 50 most numerous in County Cork for 1901 (number of persons included in brackets):

Sullivan/O’Sullivan (16,905), Murphy (14,533), McCarthy (11,373), Donovan/O’Donovan (7,789), Brien/O’Brien (7,227), Mahony/O’Mahony/Mahoney (7,182), Leary/O’Leary (6,095), Walsh (5,366), Connell/O’Connell (5,052), Driscoll/O’Driscoll (4,981), Callaghan/O’Callaghan (4,898), Connor/O’Connor/Connors (4,800), Barry (4,607), Collins (4,526), Crowley (4,213), Cronin (3,888), Buckley (3,842), Keeffe/O’Keeffe (3,818), Sheehan/Sheahan (3,735), Daly/Daley (3,660), Regan/O’Regan (3,476), Neill/O’Neill (3,160), Kelleher (3,149), Ahern/Aherne (3,145), Hurley (3,109), Riordan/O’Riordan (3,102), Lynch (3,099), Shea/O’Shea (3,045), Fitzgerald (2,835), Healy (2,679), Twomey/Toomey (2,634), Hayes (2,614), Harrington (2,612), Flynn/O’Flynn (2,189), Cotter (2,039), McSweeny/Sweeny/Swiney (2,003), Foley (1,993), Roche (1,962), Coughlan/Coghlan (1,922), Ryan (1,903), Burke/Bourke (1,821), Kelly (1,820), Hegarty (1,734), Horgan (1,672), Casey (1,607), Barrett (1,564), Desmond (1,460), Carroll/O’Carroll (1,448), Murray (1,448), Leahy (1,359).

Here are some of my thoughts as I look through this list

  • Of the 50 surnames: 42 were of Gaelic origin; 1 was of Viking/Hiberno-norse origin (Cotter); 6 were of Norman origin (Walsh, Barry, Fitzgerald, Roche, Burke, Barrett); 1 was of Galloglass origin (McSweeny). There were not any names in this group of English or Scottish settler origin – the first of that category to appear was Kingston, much further down the list.
  • The Sullivan, Murphy and McCarthy surnames dominate the list. Almost 4% of all the people in County Cork had the surname Sullivan/O’Sullivan. What the list does not tell you is that names like Sullivan were concentrated in particular areas of Cork (on the Beara Peninsula) but can be quite rare in other parts of County Cork.
  • There is also a story of displacement and mass movement of families behind the surnames listed above. Many of the families listed (e.g. O’Sullivan, McCarthy, O’Donovan etc.) actually originated in what is now the counties of Tipperary and Limerick but were forced to move south-west into Cork and Kerry before 1200AD under pressure from other emerging Gaelic families and the arrival of the Normans in that area. They inevitably ended up in poorer lands in County Cork to join existing Gaelic families in the area such as O’Leary, O’Driscoll, Murphy, O’Regan and so on.
  • The first post-reformation English settlers arrived in County Cork from the mid 1500s and established many of the market towns around the county. These towns (Bandon, Bantry, Mallow etc.) and their hinterlands, were home to protestant family settlers and the gaelic population mostly lived outside these towns until the 1700s.
  • Another thing to bear in mind is that many of the Gaelic and Norman families above existed on small tenant farms by 1901 – often on poorer land to the west of the county. This list tells the story of the majority of the county’s population living on a relatively small percentage of the arable land.
  • You might notice the “O” before some surnames? Well, by 1901 many of the Irish gaelic surnames had lost their “O” as they fell out of favour from the late 1600s. They were being slowly re-established by some families by 1901. However, there were e.g. still many more “Donovans” than “O’Donovans” listed in the census. So, remember that when you hear that your family had their “O” removed only after they immigrated. It was most likely “removed” long before that.

These are just some of my own thoughts as I look through the 50 most numerous surnames in County Cork in 1901 (you can examine the 1901 census yourself here). How about you? What do you notice? What questions arise in your mind? Do you have a County Cork ancestor? Are any of your own family names listed above?

That’s it for this week and feel free to share your own family surnames, places and stories.

Slán for now,


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