Top Ten Irish Surnames

Find out the top ten Irish names and what they mean. Photo: Four Provinces Flag of Ireland

FORT WORTH, Tx., March 17, 2012 — It’s St. Patrick’s Day and in the US this brings to mind Ireland, shamrocks, parades, leprechauns, green beer, celebrations and the saint who drove the snakes out of Ireland for whom the day is named.  

Ireland celebrates this special day a bit different than we do, however. Ireland for Visitors states,

 “In America, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated with parades and feasts of corned beef and cabbage, and among many, with extensive drinking (drowning the shamrock). To the Irish in Ireland, however, the day is first a feast and holy day, celebrated with a week-long tradition of festivities. Mass on St. Patrick’s Day is de rigueur, and if one stops at a pub for a pint or two afterward, it’s not an uncommon occurrence. But there’s no influence to drink more because of the holiday. In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is treated like any other saint’s day.”

Here in America, there is plenty of Irish influence. According to the University of Delaware, the Irish are the second largest nationality group to immigrate to the United States; people of German ancestry take the number one spot.

Immigrants arriving Ellis Island, NY.; all brought their cultures, religions and surnames from their countries of origin.


So it is little wonder that Irish surnames are a part of the American lexicon. My own married surname is Irish. In Gaelic Hickey is the anglicized form of O hIcidhe which means “physician” or “healer.” Research on the family’s ancestors found that the first Hickey (in my husband’s family) came to North America in 1668 from County Clare, Ireland.

So in honor of the day and in celebration of the Irish, here is the Top Ten list of Irish names. I tried to find a list exclusive to the United States, but all the places I looked said it’s pretty much the same here as it is in Ireland.

This list is originally published in Irish Central and includes the meanings of the surnames as well. Also, the names are only Irish in origin. The names Smith and Murray are very common, but they are not on the list since they originated in England and Scotland.

For my readers of Irish-American heritage (or by marriage like me), see if your surname made the list.

1.  Murphy - the sea battlers

Murphy; you win the prize for most common and widespread name in Ireland, especially in County Cork. This surname, which means “sea battler,” translates to Gaelic as MacMurchadh (son of Murchadh) and O’Murchadh (descendent of Murchadh), a derivation of the first name of Murchadh or Murragh.

O’Murchadh families lived in WexfordRoscommon and Cork, in which county it is now most common, with the MacMurchadhs of the Sligo and Tyrone area responsible for most of the Murphys in Ulster.

The name was first anglicized to MacMurphy and then to Murphy in the early 19th century.

2. Kelly – the bright-headed ones

Kelly comes second to Murphy as the second most common surname in Ireland. The Kellys are all over Ireland; the name originates from ten different and unrelated ancient clans or septs. These include O’Kelly septs from MeathDerryAntrimLaois, Sligo, Wicklow, KilkennyTipperaryGalway and Roscommon.

O’Kelly comes from the Gaelic “O Ceallaigh,” meaning “descended from Ceallach,” an Irish chieftan. “Ceallach” means war or contention. It is an ancient first name that is no longer used as a first name in Ireland. However, Kelly is a popular first name for women in the U.S.

                                                                                                                                       3. O’Sullivan – the hawkeyed ones                                                    

Originally lords of the territory around Cahir, County Tipperary, in the 12th century, they migrated to what is now West Cork and South Kerry, where the name is still very prominent. Kellys may have bright heads, but O’Sullivans have hawk-like eyes.

The O’Sullivans or Sullivans are one of the most populous of the Munster families. In Irish, O’Sullivan is O’Sileabhin, and there is no doubt that origin of the name comes from the word sil (eye), though whether it is to be taken as “one-eyed” or “hawkeyed” is in dispute among scholars.

4. Walsh – the Welshmen

The meaning of this “Welsh” name is pretty straightforward.           

The name Walsh is one of the most common of the Norman associated names found in Ireland. It seems to have been the name used by the many different groups of Welsh people who arrived in Ireland with the Normans during the 12th century. The name comes from Welsh, which simply means Welshman, and its early Norman form was “Le Waleys.” But this became gradually anglicized to Walsh.

5. O’Brien – the noblemen  

O’Briens are pretty lucky – they are descended from one of the greatest and most famous Irish kings. The name O’Brien, also spelled O’Bryan or O’Brian, translates to “Ó Briain” in Gaelic, which means “of Brian.” The name indicates descendance from Brian Boru, the celebrated High King of Ireland. This gives O’Briens leave to call themselves “high” and “noble.”

Most O’Briens can be found in Counties Clare, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford.

Irish National Coat of Arms


6. Byrne – the ravens

Byrnes can be found flying around all over Counties Wicklow and Dublin. 

Byrne, originally O’Byrne, comes from the Gaelic “O’Broin” meaning “descended from Bran,” an 11th century King of Leinster. The O’Byrnes were chieftains of what is now County Kildare until the Norman invasion, when they were driven from their lands and migrated (ha!) into the mountains of County Wicklow.

There, together with their allies the O’Tooles, they successfully resisted Norman and English domination for centuries.

7. Ryan – the little kings

The meaning of the Irish name Ryan comes from the old Gaelic word “righ” and the old Irish diminutive of “an,” which together form the meaning of “little king.” The name Ryan comes from the Irish name O’ Riain - a contraction of the older Irish form O’Mulriain, which is now virtually extinct. Ryan is also an extremely popular first name, especially in Britain and the U.S.

The Ryan family motto is ‘Malo More Quam Foedari’, which, when translated, means ‘I would Rather Die than be Disgraced’. And they call them “little” kings…

8. O’Connor – patrons of warriors

They might not be warriors themselves, but at least O’Connors descend from them! The O’Connor name, with its varied spellings, doesn’t spring from a common source. The name arose in five areas of Ireland: Connacht, Kerry, Derry, Offaly and Clare and split into six distinct septs.

The most prominent sept is that of the Connacht O’Connors who gave us the last two High-Kings of Ireland: Turlough O’Connor (1088-1156) and Roderick O’Connor (1116-1198). They trace their heritage and name from the Irish “Ua Conchobhair,” meaning from Conchobhar, a king of Connacht.

9. O’Neill a champion, from a champion, Niall of the Nine Hostages

The O’Neill family traces its history back to 360 A.D. to the legendary warrior king of Ireland, Niall of the Nine Hostages, who is said to have been responsible for bringing St. Patrick to Ireland. Niall is also said to have been incredibly fertile – he has 3 million descendents worldwide.

“O’Neill” is derived from two separate Gaelic words, “Ua Niall,” which means grandson of Niall, and “Neill” meaning “champion.” Ireland’s O’Neills were known by the nickname “Creagh,” which comes from the Gaelic word “craobh” meaning branch, because they were known to camouflage themselves to resemble the forest when fighting the Norsemen. Crafty fellows, those O’Neills.

10. O’Reilly - ?

The O’Reillys round out the top 10 most popular names in Ireland. Their family name is derived from the Gaelic “O’Raghailligh,” meaning descendants of Raghaillach.

The O’Reillys were the most powerful sept of the old Gaelic kingdom of Breffny (Cavan and the surrounding counties), and the family is still prominent in the area.

Reilly, often spelled Riley, has become a trendy given name in the U.S., for both baby boys and girls.

For more information about Ireland visit:

Irish Central

Irish Surnames - Coat of arms from Ireland and Worldwide

The Origin of Irish Family Names

Discover Ireland

National Archives of Ireland

Virtual Tourist - Ireland Travel Guide

Read more Irish legend and lore by Communities writers:

Who was Saint Patrick?

Slainte! Top Ten St. Patrick’s Day Irish Toasts

Author Carol Higgins Clark speaks o’ the Irish

St. Patrick’s Day: Erin go Bragh and green food!

St. Patrick’s Day recipe: Guinness braised beef ragout and braised cabbage

How to buy and cook traditional corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day (Recipes)

Concannon Vineyard: Distilling Irish whiskey and wine for St. Patrick’s Day

Move Over St. Patrick: Wales’ and St. David are lively competition

Irish Blarney: enough with St. Patrick’s Day



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Claire Hickey

Claire has held a Texas Cosmetology License, Certification in Surgical Technology and has decorated cakes professionally. She believes that life is a banquet to be experienced and wants to learn and do as much as possible while she’s here. This Stay @ Home Mom has always loved to write and thanks to the Communities @ The Washington Times has got her chance. Her curiosity and writing lead her to create her column based on “garbage in garbage out” theory to provide interesting and thought provoking pieces that enrich her readers. A proud member and Treasurer for the Greater Fort Worth Writer’s Group she is currently working on her first novel.  


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