St. Patrick’s Day: top Irish surnames

Of all the various peoples who make up the United States, the Irish are the second largest group to come to our shores. Germans take the number one spot.


FORT WORTH, Texas, March 17, 2016 — Everyone is a bit Irish on St. Patrick’s Day! Or so they say. Here in the United States it is a day of celebration for all things Irish. Children in school wear green or get pinched. Pubs, nightclubs, restaurants—especially in cities with large Irish populations–swill green beer. We eat corned beef and cabbage, Irish soda bread and potatoes; we wear silly headbands with antennas topped with blinking shamrocks, plastic shamrock beaded necklaces, leprechaun pins and hats and anything else that looks vaguely Irish to an American.

Ireland celebrates this day too, albeit a bit different than we do. Ireland for Visitors describes the day:

 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.

The University of Delaware says that of all the various peoples who make up the United States, the Irish are the second largest group to come to our shores. Germans take the No. 1 spot.

It is no surprise, then that Irish surnames are a large 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.” Many surnames reflect something the family or person on whom it was bestowed. My husband’s ancestors were healers and physicians to Irish kings.

The Real Saint Patrick: a True Conversion Experience

So in honor of the day and in celebration of the Irish, here is a top 10 list of Irish surnames. 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.

Irish Kingdoms, counties and cities. (Wikimedia Commons)
Irish Kingdoms, counties and cities. (Wikimedia Commons)

This list, originally published in Irish Central, 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.

My readers of Irish-American heritage (or by marriage like me) can see whether their surnames made the list.

  1.  Murphy – O’Murchadh, the Sea Battlers

Murphy is the most common name in Ireland and the most common Irish surname in the United States. It means “Sea Battler,” thought to have been given the name by Viking invaders.  It translates to Gaelic as MacMurchadh and O’Murchadh .

O’Murchadh families lived in WexfordRoscommon and Cork and are most commonly found there now. And 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.

Family Motto: Brave and Hospitable

Fortis et hospitium  – Latin

Brave agus fáilteach – Irish Gaelic

2. Kelly – O Ceallaigh, the Bright-Headed Ones

Kelly is the second most common surname in Ireland. When one thinks of the color green of Ireland, he thinks of “Kelly Green.” Septs from many areas of the country claimed the name and were from MeathDerryAntrimLaois, Sligo, Wicklow, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Galway and Roscommon.

O Ceallaigh or O’Kelly means “descended from Ceallach,” an Irish chieftan. “Ceallach” means war or contention. It is an ancient first name no longer used as a first name in Ireland. However, Kelly is a popular first name in the United States.

Family Motto: God is my Strong Tower

Turris fortis mihi Deus – Latin

Is é Dia mo Túr láidir – Irish Gaelic

3. Byrne – O’Broin – Descendant of Bron the Raven, King of Leinster

The O’Byrnes were chieftains in County Kildare and were driven from there with the Anglo-Norman invasion. They settled in South Wicklow around 1200 and still reside in counties Wicklow and Dublin.

Family Motto: I Have fought and Conquered

Certavi et vici – Latin

I An bhfuil throid agus a Conquered – Irish Gaelic

4. 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 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.

Family Motto: I Would Rather Die Than be Disgraced

Malo More Quam Foedari – Latin

Ba mhaith liom ionad sin Die Ná bheith náirithe – Irish Gaelic

5. O’Brien – Ó Briain 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.”  O’Briens still reside in large numbers in Counties Clare, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford.

Family Motto: The Strong Hand from Above

Lahm Ládir in Uachtar – Latin

An Hand láidir ó Thuas – Irish Gaelic

6. Walsh –  Breathnach    Welshmen

One of the oldest names in Ireland, Ó Dubhghaills, or Doyles can still be found in the counties of Wicklow, Carlow and Wexford. (Public Domain)
One of the oldest names in Ireland, Ó Dubhghaills, or Doyles can still be found in the counties of Wicklow, Carlow and Wexford. (Public Domain)

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 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 gradually anglicized to Walsh.

There are two main branches of the Walsh family:

The Kilkenny (Castlehale) Walsh family motto: Pierced But Not Dead                                                                                                         Transfixus sed non mortuus – Latin

Pollta Ach Gan Dead – Irish Gaelic

The Carrickmines/Dublin motto:  Do Not Irritate The Lions

                                                      Noli Irritare Leonem – Latin

Ná irritate an Lions” – Irish Gaelic

7. O’Sullivan – Ó Súilleabháin Descendant of the hawk/dark eyed ones

Part of the name, Súil, means “one-eyed” or “hawk-eyed”

The name was first found in the 13th century in County Tipperary in the Provence of Munster. There are two septs of Sullivans: The O’Sullivan Mor Sept, based in County Kerry, and the O’Sullivan Beare Sept, based in County Cork. Most of the O’Sullivans in Ireland are now found in the counties of Cork, Kerry and Limerick.

Family motto:  The Steady Hand to Victory

Ad vincere in manu forti – Latin

An Hand Steady do bua – Irish Gaelic

8. O’Connor – Descendant of Conchobhair Patrons of Warriors and Dog Lover

They might not be warriors themselves, but they do descend from them. The O’Connor name, with its varied spellings, doesn’t spring from one source. The name came from 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. From that line were the last two high kings of Ireland: Turlough O’Connor (1088-1156) and Roderick O’Connor (1116-1198).

Family Motto: From God Every Help

Ex omni auxilio Dei – Latin

Ó Dia gach an cabhair – Irish Gaelic

9. McCarthy – Mac Cárthaigh Son of the Loving

“Son of the Loving”  – Earned because of territorial conflicts with their neighbors in County Cork and County Kerry. Descended from Oilliol Olum, third-century king of Munster, they are one of the oldest and most important of all Irish families.

Family Motto: Nothing is difficult for the Brave and Faithful

Fortis ferox et celer – Latin

Ní dhéanfaidh aon ní deacair don Brave agus dílis – Irish Gaelic

10.  Doyle  – Ó Dubhghaill   Descendant of Dubhghaill (dark stranger)

Composed of dubh, or “black,” and gall, or “stranger,” it is one of the most ancient names in all of Ireland. They came from Wexford, Wicklow and Carlow, and most are still there today. says that it is rare to find a Doyle in any other part of the country.

Family Motto: He Conquers by Strength

Vincit virtute  – Latin

He Conquers by Strength – Irish Gaelic

There is more than one top Irish surname list out there in cyber world. The first three names are always in the same order, but the rest are all in the top 12 or so, just in different places. For more information about Irish surnames check out the links below. The next 10 names that round out the top 20 surnames in Ireland are O’Neill, Lynch, O’Reilly, Dunne, McDonagh, Brennan, Fitzgerald, Daly, Kavanagh and Nolan.

For research sites and 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; Top 300 Irish Surnames Explained


Read more of Claire’s work at Feed the Mind, Nourish the Soul in the Communities Digital News and Greater Fort Worth Writers.

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