Irish surnames explained - the meaning behind the top ten clan names
Click links after each family to see complete clan story and photos
Irish and Irish-Americans alike tend to be immensely proud of their surnames.
Many a Irish family proudly declare their Irish roots by displaying the crest of their clan in their homes.
But which last names win in the battle of Irishness?
IrishCentral took a look at the list of the most common surnames in Ireland in order to come up with a top 10 list.
Smith and Murray are two of the most common, but one is of British origins and the other’s Scottish, so they didn’t make the cut.
Here are the 10 most Irish last names:
1. Murphy - the sea battlers
Murphys – 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 Wexford, Roscommon 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.
READ THE WHOLE STORY OF THE MURPHY CLAN! CLICK HERE
2. Kelly – the bright-headed ones
Kelly comes second to Murphy as the most common surname in Ireland.
The Kellys are all over Ireland; the name originates from at around 10 different and unrelated ancient clans or septs. These include O'Kelly septs from Meath, Derry, Antrim, Laois, Sligo, Wicklow, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Galway 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.
READ THE WHOLE STORY OF THE KELLY CLAN! CLICK HERE
3. O'Sullivan – the hawkeyed ones
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.
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.
READ THE WHOLE STORY OF THE O'SULLIVAN CLAN! CLICK HERE
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.
READ THE WHOLE STORY OF THE WALSH CLAN! CLICK HERE
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.
READ THE WHOLE STORY OF THE O'BRIEN CLAN! CLICK HERE
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.
READ THE WHOLE STORY OF THE BYRNE CLAN! CLICK HERE
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…
READ THE WHOLE STORY OF THE RYAN CLAN! CLICK HERE
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.
READ THE WHOLE STORY OF THE O'CONNOR CLAN! CLICK HERE
9. O'Neill – 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.
READ THE WHOLE STORY OF THE O'NEILL CLAN! CLICK HERE
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.
READ THE WHOLE STORY OF THE O'REILLY CLAN! CLICK HERE
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