Looking for your castle in Ireland? These are the most popular Irish surnames, and their places of origin:
Murphy, O’Murphy, MacMurphy (Ó Murchadha)- In the southern parts of Ireland, this name comes from Counties Wexford and Cork. Towards the north, look for its roots in Co. Roscommon, near Co. Mayo.
Kelly, O’Kelly (Ó Ceallaigh) – Because of its popularity, this name is considerably harder to associate with just a few counties. Generally, the surname was part of the Uí Maine (Hy Many), the tribal group whose lands covered over a million acres including most of Galway and large parts of neighboring counties.
Sullivan, O’Sullivan (Ó Súileabháin) – Originally from Tipperary, the family was forced into Munster during the Anglo-Norman invasions. If you’re a Sullivan or an O’Sullivan, your roots will probably trace back to Munster (Counties Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford).
Walsh, Welsh, anglicised as: Breathnach, Breatnach, Brannagh, Brannick, and so on. Because it signifies a Welshman, there are no clear Irish roots to this name, and it appears throughout Ireland. If you go back far enough, your ancestry probably started in Wales.
Smith, Smyth, Smythe – Nearly always an English family, although they settled in Ireland many generations ago. One exception is when Smith is a translation of Ó Gowan or MacGowan. Those are two different surnames, but if your roots are in the MacGowan family, they’ll probably originate in Co. Cavan.
O’Brien, O’Brian, Brian (Ó Briain) – This predominantly Munster name refers to the family’s relationship to King Brian Boru.
Byrne, O’Byrne (Ó Broin) – Coming from the Irish word, bran, meaning raven, this powerful clan is most associated with Wicklow and east Leinster. Sometimes associated with the O’Brien family, and other related spellings.
Ryan, O’Ryan, Mulryan (ÓMaoilriain) – The name was originally anglicised as Mulryan, and your roots are probably in the Tipperary area.
O’Connor, O’Conor, Connor, Connors, Conor (Ó Conchobhair) – Once one of the largest family septs in Ireland, many of which were related to the last High King of Ireland. The name is predominant in Connacht and Munster, but your roots might be anywhere in Ireland. (This is different from the MacConnor family, usually related to the MacNaugher family of Ulster.)
O’Neill, O’Neil, Neill, Neil (Ó Néill) – Descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages, this surname appears throughout Ireland, but especially in Tyrone and Antrim. This name may be related to Neilson and Nelson, a surname that came to Ireland from Scotland and was gaelicised as MacNeighill. (Njall is the Norse form of the Irish surname, Niall.)
While one should never try to trace a family’s roots from the top down — that is, from long ago to the present, rather than vice versa — it’s always fun to know where the family probably originated.
For more information, I recommend the sources that I use: Edward MacLysaght’s many genealogical references, especially The Surnames of Ireland, which offers detailed information about most Irish family names.
Photo credit: Loes Habraken, Netherlands