Top 20 Irish surnames in 19th century Ireland

Meanings of surnames in Ireland
Irish surname meanings
List of Irish names
Origins of Irish surnames

Brian Boru, King of Munster.

One of the earliest Irish surnames, O'Brien
dates back to the 12th century when the
grandson of Brian Boru, High King of Ireland,
honoured him by taking his name.

The Irish surnames in the table below were the 20 most numerous in 1890, according to a study by Robert Matheson, then Registrar-General of Ireland. In his Special Report on Surnames in Ireland, Matheson estimated the total number of people living on the island bearing the 100 most numerous names, and he indicated the counties and provinces in which each was most common.

The table below is based on Matheson's Top 20 Irish surnames of 1890. In addition to including brief details of his findings and calculations, the table includes statistics revealed by Griffiths Valuation, a survey of households and land carried out county by county between 1848 and 1864. In addition, the table includes some brief details about the origin of each of the names.

SurnameGriffiths Valuation c1850s1890Meaning, Origin, Misc
Murphy A total of 13,539 Murphy households were recorded across the island, making Murphy the most numerous of Irish surnames in the mid-19th century. It was most prevalent in Cork (3087 households), Wexford (1688), Kilkenny (888). Smallest incidence in Donegal (32) and Derry (66). Total population of Murphys in Ireland estimated at 62,600. It was one of the most well distributed or Irish surnames, most common in Cos. Dublin, Wexford and Cork. From the two Old Irish surnames, O'Murchadha and MacMurchadha, both meaning 'sea warrior'. For reasons unknown, the Murphys of the 19th and 20th centuries chose not to re-adopt either the O' or Mac prefixes. In 1992-97, about 70,900 Murphys were telephone subscribers in Ireland (Northern and Republic)*. In the Republic in 2015, an analysis by the Central Statistical Office of the surnames of children whose births were registered in 2014 found Murphy was still the number one surname.
Kelly Griffiths Valuation recorded 11,518 Kellys and only 57 O'kellys. Most were in Galway (986), Roscommon (815) and Mayo (595). Ulster had 2640 Kelly entries, with only 65 in Fermanagh. Total population of Kellys estimated at 55,900. Appeared in all counties but most common in Cork, Galway, Mayo, Dublin, Roscommon. Derivation is not certain. Possibly from ceallach, meaning 'strife'. In Irish, the name is written O'Ceallaigh. Originally only a surname, it became first a boy's first name and, later, a girl's name.
O'Sullivan Of the 8,000 O'Sullivan or Sullivan households recorded, nearly three-quarters were in Cork (3388) or Kerry (2567). Some 15 counties had less than 20 households with this name. Some 90% of the O'Sullivans were estimated to be in Munster. Internationally recognised as one of the great Irish surnames, O'Suileabhan, meaning 'hawk-eyed' or 'one-eyed', remains the most common name in Cos. Cork and Kerry. In 1992-97 there were approx 41,500 telephone subscribers of this name across the island of Ireland*. In the Republic in 2015, an analysis by the Central Statistical Office of the surnames of children whose births were registered in 2014 found O'Sullivan was the eighth most common surname.
Walsh Of the 9,843 households names Walsh/e, Welsh, Welch or Brannagh, the largest numbers were found in Co Kilkenny (1420), Cork (1357) and Mayo (1092). The name was most common in Galway, Dublin, Wexford, Cork and Mayo. Numbers were lowest in Ulster. The name was originally Breatnach, meaning 'from Wales', which arrived in Ireland with the Norman invaders. The name is pronounced Welsh in Munster and Connaught.
Smith Scattered across the island, Smith households were most numerous in Cos Cavan (1074), Down (635) and Meath (578). More than half the Smiths were in Ulster, and more than one quarter in Leinster. Especially common in Cos Antrim, Cavan and Dublin. Although England's most common surname, Smith in Ireland does not necessarily suggest an English ancestry. Many MacGowans (whose name derives from gabhann, meaning 'smith') had their name translated into English 3-400 years ago.
O'Brien One of the great Irish surnames centred on Munster, the largest concentrations of O'Brien households were found in Cos Limerick (725), Claire (511), Tipperary (455) and Cork (418). Without the O' prefix, the name was most common in Cork (806) and Tipperary (628). Smallest numbers in Cos Wicklow, Carlow and Kilkenny. Of the estimated 490 O'Brien registered births this year, all were in Munster or Dublin (105). Without the O' prefix, there were around 80 births registered, in Cos Meath, Kilkenny, Wicklow and Wexford. In Irish, O'Briain, meaning descendant of Brian (Boru), the name means 'exalted one' or 'eminence'. It's original homeland is Co Clare, but it is now scattered across Ireland. There were 29,400 telephone subscribers of this name in Ireland in 1990. In 2015 the Central Statistics Office (RoI) analysed the surnames recorded in the previous year's civil registration of births registers; O'Brien was the fourth most common.
Byrne By far the most prevalent county for Byrne households in the mid 19th century was Wicklow where it was recorded 1203 times. The neighbouring counties of Dublin (893), Carlow (572) and Wexford (534) were the next largest concentrations. The smallest numbers were found in Derry(9) Leinster was the great stronghold of this name, with five times more Byrnes than the other three provinces combined. More than half (301) of the 568 Byrne births in 1890 were in Co. Dublin; 87 were in Co Wicklow. O'Broin, meaning raven, can be traced back to Bran, the son of an 11th century king of Leinster. It remains one of the most common Irish surnames in Wicklow and neighbouring counties and in 2014 was the third most common surname to appear in the civil registration of births registers.
Ryan There were 8871 Ryan households recorded in Griffith's Valuation. Nearly half (4090) were in Tipperary. Limerick had 1263 while the next most numerous were Cos Kilkenny (616) and Cork (409). More than half of all Ryan births this year in Munster, especially Tipperary, then Limerick. Only 13 entries in all of Ulster, and just 49 in Connaught. In Old Irish, the name was spelt O'Mulriain; in Modern Irish, it's O'Riain. It's long been the most numerous of Irish surnames in Tipperary, and has become a popular first name. It means 'little king', and the sept of this name were from the Tipperary/Limerick borders.
O'Connor In the mid-19th century, the singular form of Connor was the most numerous (5377 households), being found mainly in Kerry and Cork. There were 1749 using the plural form Connors (especially in Wexford and Waterford). Those households using the name O'Connor numbered only 841 and were mainly in Munster. Of 266 births this year, 80% were in Kerry, Cork, Limerick, Dublin, Clare and Galway. Just 13 Connor/O'Connor births were in Ulster. From Conchobar, meaning 'lover of hounds'. The O' prefix, formerly discarded, has now resumed its position. The name remains very common in Kerry.
O'Neill The Neills and O'Neills were fairly evenly split with 2578 and 2720 households respectively. Just one fifth (537) of the former and more than half (1412) of the latter were in the six counties that now make up Northern Ireland. There were 407 O'Neill births in 1890. They covered nearly all counties but more than half were in Dublin, Antrim, Cork and Tyrone. Only 28 were in Connacht. O'Neill, son of Niall, which means 'vehement'. The main O'Niall family, centred on Tyrone, descend from Niall of the Nine Hostages, but there were other, separate, groups in Carlow and Waterford. Still a very big name in Ulster.
O'Reilly By far the greatest concentration of Reilly households was in Co Cavan (1759). The next largest, Meath, had only 579. Reilly households outnumbered O'Reillys nearly 20-1. Co Cavan remained the stronghold of Reillys with 137 births registered in this year. But there were 319 births elsewhere, including 93 in Dublin and 78 in Longford. Only 10% of Reillys used the O'prefix at this time. From raghallaigh, possibly meaning 'sociable tribe or group'. The origins of the Reillys lies in Breffny (a kingdom based across modern day Cos Cavan and Longford where it remains the most common surname). At the dawn of the 21st century almost 60% of Reillys used the O' prefix.
Doyle There were 4634 Doyle households recorded across Ireland and more than half were in Wexford (1169), Wicklow (556), Carlow (393) and Dubliln (330). Smallest numbers were in the far northwest. Of the 360-odd Doyle birth registrations, three-quarters were in Co Dublin (162) and Co Wexford (102). Other counties were Kildare, Carlow and Wicklow. One of several common Irish surnames which didn't resume the O' prefix, it comes from the Irish for 'dark stranger' ie Vikings, and is not believed to have any Celtic connections.
McCarthy With 2298 households, County Cork had by far the highest proportion of the 3830 entries in Griffiths Valuation. There were also 1203 Carty and 534 Carthy households. The southwest of the island remained the stronghold with an estimated 90% of the McCarthy population in Munster. Of about 380 McCarthy 72% wre in Cork. Means 'loving', and derives from Carthach, an 11th century king of Cashel. In the 12th century the dynasty was exiled from Tipperary and relocated to Cork and Kerry. About 60% of McCarthy families hail from Cork.
Gallagher Although widespread, Gallagher households were most common in the north western counties, especially Donegal (1732) and Mayo (627). Smallest numbers were in Kilkenny and Tipperary (just 7 combined). Total 4125 households. Ulster (principally Donegal) still held the greatest number of Gallaghers, with Connacht in second place. Meaning 'foreign helper', the Old Irish spelling is O'Gallchobhair; the Modern Irish Gallachoir. It has more than 20 variant spellings, and descends from a son of Niall of the Nine Hostages. Still holds the number one spot of Irish surnames in Co Donegal.
Doherty Some 3033 Doherty and 918 Dogherty households were recorded with the largest numbers Co Donegal (1430 and 290 respectively) and Derry (319 and 155 respectively). Ulster remained the province most densely populated with Dohertys. All other provinces had only small numbers. Originally one of the great families of the Inishowen peninsula, and another that is descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages, the Dohertys are still especially numerous in Cos. Donegal and Derry. The name means 'unlucky' and took 14th place in a 1996 survey of common Irish surnames.
Kennedy Of the 4820 Kennedy households recorded, just under a quarter (1112) were in Co Tipperary. The remainder were scattered across the island. Limeric, had 262, Antrim 258, Down 211 and Kilkenny 232. Still widely distributed, the province with the lowest population of Kennedys was Connacht. Co Tipperary saw the highest number (70) of Kennedy births, with Dublin in second place with 51. Old Irish spelling: O'Ceanneidigh. Means 'ugly head'. This surname descended from a nephew of Brian Boru and the family were Lords of Ormond throughout the early medieval period before splitting into three distinct groups and dispersing.
Lynch Another of the great Irish surnames centred on Munster, Lynch was recorded 658 time in Co Cork, 400 in Kerry, 274 in Limerick, 261 in Co Clare and 220 in Cos Tipperary and Waterford. Other significant groupings were found in Cavan (516 households) and Meath (300). In 1890, some 188 Lynch births were registered. While Co Cavan ranked at the top, with 51 births, Co Meath was pushed into 5th place with only 17. Kerry had 41, Limerick 31, Co Clare 23, Co Westmeath 14, and Co Louth 11. A name with two distinct derivations, one of them the French/Norman name of De Lench. The other is of Celtic Irish origin, from O'Loingsigh, meaning 'mariner'.
Murray There were 4455 Murray households and an additional 248 that clung firm to the Mc prefix. Well distributed throughout the island, it had significant groups in Co Cork (356 households), Co Roscommon (278), Co Down (277) Co Galway (262), Co Meath (235). The McMurrays were nearly all in the north east of the island. Some 145 Murray births were registered in 1890. 60 were in Dublin, the remainder in Down (33) and Midlands counties. In Irish 'Muireb', meaning 'seafarer'. A considerable number of the Ulster Murrays are of Scots or Flemish origin.
Quinn A well scattered name, 4442 Quin/Quinn households were recorded in the Valuation. They were most common in Co Tyrone (663), Co Galway (297) and Co Tipperary (265). There were 121 Quinn births in 1890. Tyrone, unsurprisingly, took top ranking as the location of 40 of them. Cos Armagh and Roscommon recorded 26 and 25 each, while Monaghan and Longford saw the remainder. Derived from O'Cuinn (descendent of Conn) meaning 'wisdom' or 'chief'. It still holds the top spot for Irish surnames in Tyrone but is well-distributed across the island.
Moore Although Moores were found in all counties, they were most common in Co Down (404 households), Antrim (376) Laois (290) and Tyrone (237). The smallest numbers were in Co Sligo (13 households), and Co Clare (20).Connaught and Munster had the smallest number of Moores. The name was most numerous in Cos Kildare, Tyrone, Dublin, Derry and Antrim.In Old Irish, Mordha, meaning 'stately/noble'. The O'Moores were a leading sept in Co Laois but those that carry the name today may be of English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh origin.

* Source: Sean J Murphy,
A Survey of Irish Surnames 1992–97.

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