Some Irish Family Names

From The Dictionary of Irish Family Names

By Ida Grehan


O'Beollain, the Irish form of the name, comes from a Norse personal name. According to genealogists, the d at the end of the English version - Boland - is a comparatively recent affectation. The family, which come to Ireland long ago and includes a brother of King Brian Boru in its pedigree, settled first around Lough Derg. Their name is perpetuated in the town of Mountshannon in County Clare which, in Irish, in known as Baile Ui Bheolain (the town of Bolands). The other O Bolans are the Cannacht, where they had their headquarters at Doonalton in County Sligo.

Althought the O Beollains were mentioned in the seventeeth-century Annals of the Four Masters, not much has been heard of them since the arrival of the Anglo-Normans.

In1920, when Eamon de Valera was fund-rasing in America and campaigning for international recognition of the Irish Republic, his delegation met Bolsheviks on a similar mission. The Irish had had great success - the Russians had not. So the Russians asked for a loan of $20,000, offering a few of what they said were the Russian crown jewels as collateral. On returning to Ireland, one of the delegation, Harry Boland, a deputy for South Roscommon, was given the jewels to mind (Michael Collins, the Free State Army Chief, would not touch them - "There's blood on them; the Czar and his family have been killed," he said). Boland, who was killed in the Civil War, gave them to his mother for safe keeping. Ten years later, when de Valera came to power, the Boland family handed him the jewels, and in 1949 the Irish High Commissioner in London exchanged them with the Russion Embassy for $20,000.

Harry Boland's brother, Gerald Boland, who also took part in the War of Independence, was a founder member of the Fianna Fail Party. He held several ministerial posts, including Minister for Justice during the Second World War when he had to tek strong measures to counteract IRA subversion.

Frederick Boland was Irish Ambassador in London in the 1950's. He was President of the United Nations in New York in 1960 when the Russion head of state, Nikita Kruschev, dramatically banged his shoe on the table. He was brought to order by the President banging his gravel so hard that it broke. Afterwards he was inundated with new gavels! His daughter, Eavan Boland, is one of Ireland's leading poets.

One of Dublin's oldest bakeries, Boland's Mills, was the scene of much heroic fighting during the Easter rising.




The O’Boyles were chieftains in Donegal. Their stronghold was at Cloghineely, from where they ruled west Ulster with the neighbouring O’Donnells and O’Doughertys. Translated from the Irish, their name is thought to mean "having profitable pledges". Ballyweel, a town in Donegal, translated means "home of the O’Boyles".

Anther Boyle family which moved to Armagh about three hundred years ago had a castle at Desert until 1961, when they sold it. They also owned much territory in Derry.

The Boyle family which dominates history sprang from Richard Boyle, who came from England in the sixteenth century with little more than a sharp wit. His opportunity came by acquiring property belonging to the outlawed Irish, as well as ecclesiastical lands, and selling it to English adventurers. The historic Lismore Castle in Waterford, once his home, came to the present Dukes of Devonshire through a Boyle marriage. When Richard Boyle died in 1643 he was 1st Earl of Cork and had taken care that most of his fifteen clever children had married into titles. His most distinguished son, Robert Boyle, was untitled. He discovered the relationship concerning the compressoin and expansion of a gas at constant temperature, known as Boyle’s Law.

A great grandson, Richard, 3rd Earl of Burlington, introduced the fashion for Palladian architecture to England from Italy. Burlington House in London is a prime example.

Another descendant, Henry, Earl of Shannon, worked zealously for Ireland. As a member of the Dublin Parliament, he tried to block Ireland’s forced financial contributions to the British Crown. He was a great favorite with the people, but this move lost him all his high offices.

Richard Vicars Boyle, an engineer, went to India to build the railroads. He made history during the Indian mutiny, when, with only fifty men, he held out against three thousand rebels. He also helped in the building of the railways in Japan.

John J. Boyle, one of the Ulster Boyles, began life as a stonemason. After studying in Paris, he settled in New York, where he became famous for his gigantic groupings of statuary which include the Indian Family in Chicago and the statue of Commodore John Barry, the Irishman known as the "father of the American navy", which holds a prominent place in Washington DC.

William Boyle, a playwright from Dromisken, County Louth, wrote The Eloquent Dempsey, one of the earliest plays staged at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.



Mac Crea

MacCrea - MacRae - Ray - Wray

There are variety of permutations and combinations of this ancient Gaelic name, which is also found in Scotland. It can be MacCrea, MacRae, Ray or Wray. It has often been mistaken for the old Irish surname MacRaith, which was anglicized to MacGrath.

It would seem that the name Crea, or its synonym Rea, was established in Ulster before the plantations, for it is mentioned in the records as early as 1600 and there is also a place-name, Ballymacrea, in County Antrim.

The Crea family were prominent – probably in agriculture – in County Down until comparatively recently. In the Belfast Public Records Office, there is an estate map of 1768 of Rigawiddy, which was owned by Lord Henry FitzGerald, a son of the Duke of Leinster, of which the Creas seem to have been tenants. There are also copies of wills made by several members of the Crea family of Ringawiddy. In 1843, a W. Crea applied for a license to carry arms. There are also farm accounts dating from 1857 to 1893. In 1847, Lord de Ros, a relative of the wealthy FitsGeralds, sent out letters to his tenantry at Ringawiddy thanking them for their support during the Great Famine and this included Mrs. Ann Crea.

Today, the Crea name has almost died out in Ireland, though the name is probably perpetuated in McCrea in Northern Ireland, where that variation of the name is very numerous.




Evans could be an anglicization of the Gaelic surname, O’hEimhin, meaning son of the swift. They were a sept of Ormand in County Kilkenny. However, the numerous Evans in Ireland today are more likely to be descendants of the Welsh soldiers who came to conquer Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Perhaps because their name is so numerous, they frequently added a second name, especially when they inherited their wife’s property. This has resulted in names such as D’Arcy Evans, deLacy Evans, Pierson Evans and Carbery Evans. Sir George Patrick Evans-Freke, 7th Baron Carbery of County Cork, took his surname from Castle Freke, which he inherited by marriage. It is now a ruin.

In 1650, Colonel Griffith Evans, an officer in Cromwell’s army, drove the O’Mahonys from their castle Mahon in County Cork. Colonel Evans fell in love with the doughter of their chieftain, The O’Mahony. He resigned his commission and retired with her to his Welsh estate, where they married and had three sons.

Many of the Evans come to Ireland with the Commonwealth army and, as was usual, they were awarded the forfeited estates of the Irish. Later, as they prospered, they bought many fine seats throughout the country and played an active role in public life, in the Church and in politics and the services. Their Irish lineage is recorded in Burke’s Landed Gentry of Ireland (1912) and in the various books on the peerage. In 1864, W.S. Evans wrote The Last Six Generations of the Evans Family.

In the 1760’s the heyday of high society life in Dublin, shen its Georgian buildings endowed it with the grace and charm which endure to the present day, the Evans name was listed among the many engineers and bricklayers.

Sir George deLacy Evans (1787-1870) of Ireland was a distinguished general in the British army serving in India, the Peninsula wars, America and at the battle of Waterloo. He was a Liberal and represented Rye in the Westminster parliament between 1831 and 1832.

The most illustrious Evans, Emyr Estyn Evans, who was born in Wales in 1905, has been acclaimed as an honorary Irishman for his great service to the country, first and for many years with the Department of Geography at Queen’s University, Belfast, and then as director of the Institute of Irish Studies. He published many books on Irish folklore, music and history, covering the whole range of the Irish cultural heritage.




Griffey - Griffith

This family derives its name from the Irish word griobhtha, which means griffin-like ( i.e. fierce warrior). They were a Dalcassian sept who were chiefs in thomand (parts of Clare and Limerick), where their castle was at Ballygriffey, near Ennis. A minor sept who had their territory in Kenmare, at Ballygriffen, were overcome by the powerful O’Sullivans.

Although some Griffins came from Wales following the Anglo-Norman conquest, their Welsh origins were soon absorbed. Griffin, and its variants, is now a very numerous name in Munster.

Griffins were active in the many uprisings and there were at least nine of them in the army of the Stuart King James II at the time of the battle of the Boyne in 1690. They were also soldiers in the Commonwealth armies and, later, officers in the Irish-American brigades.

Richard Griffith (c.1704-88) of Dublin collaborated with this English wife in writing a series of popular novels in the form of letters.

Sir John Griffith (1784-1878) of Dublin, geologist and civil engineer, is esteemed for his survey of the Irish boglands and his advice on the design of some of Dublin’s most important buildings.

Gerald Griffith (1803-40) of Limerick wrote The Collegians, one of the most powerful novels of its time.

Arthur Griffith (1872-1922) was a strong believer in passive resistance to British Rule. He invented the name Sinn Fein (meaning We Ourselves) and edited newspapers advocating the nationalist cause. In 1921, he led the Irish delegation which went to London to sign the Anglo-Irish Treaty. When Eamon de Valera opposed the Treaty and resigned as President, Arthur Griffith became the first President of the Irish Free State. The Civil War followed and he died soon after, it was said of grief.




Keenan, in Irish O’Cianain, is a numerous surname throughout Ireland, especially in Ulster, where it originated.

From the middle of the fourteenth century to the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Keenans distinguished themselves as ecclesiastics and historians to the Maguires in their territories encompassing the counties Fermanagh and Monaghan. Because of the traffic between Ulster and Scotland, the name is also to be found there.

In the eighteenth century, John Keenan was a popular harpist in Dungannon in county Tyrone. Frank Keenan (1858-1929) was the son of an Irish immigrant to the USA. From humble beginnings, he became a successful actor, playing in comedy and character parts both on stage and film. He married three times.

James Keenan (1838-1913), who described his father as an "Irish gentleman", was born in England but went to the USA at the age of fourteen. The Comstock silver find provided the basis for his career as a stock exchange speculator. He won and lost a series of fortunes, both I the money market and on the turf. He loved horses and bred many winners.

Thomas Keenan (1860-1927), an actor and entertainer, using the nom de plume Tom Conway, wrote a stream of popular ballads: "Mother Machree", If You’re Irish, come Into the Parlour", "Hello Patsy Fagan", etc.

Sir Patrick Keenan (1829-1894) was chief commissioner of National Education in Ireland. Sir Norbert Keenan, who was born in Dublin in 1866, emigrated to Australia to become one of that country’s leading statesmen. Joseph Keenan (b.1900) was an authority on thermodynamics.

Around 1986, Brian Keenan, a Belfast teacher, was kidnapped in Beirut, Lebanon, for over four years. Much of his imprisonment was spent in solitary confinement. After his eventual release, he wrote an extraordinary book, An Evil Cradling, describing his harrowing ordeal.




Kelly comes second to Murphy as the most numerous surname in Ireland. It goes back over a thousand years, as does the Kelly coat of arms, which has as its crest a mythical green beast, the enfield. When the Kelly chieftain, Tadgh Mor O’Ceallaigh, was killed at the battle of Clontarf in 1014, the enfield is said to have come out of the sea to guard Tadgh Mor’s body until his kinsmen could give him an honorable burial.

The O’Kellys were a powerful family in Connacht, where they ruled over a vast territory, When they were not fighting, they built churches and castles and they held high rank in the Church. They have been a shaping force in the long saga of Irish history and when they could no longer fight for their own country they went abroad to Europe and America. Today, there are far more Kellys in the USA than there ever were in Ireland.

In 1863, Colonel Patrick Kelly commanded the Irish brigade at Gettysburg. In 1893, Michael Kelly was the US baseball champion. "Honest" John Kelly was the first Irish Catholic head of Tammany Hall. There were also the Kellys of Philadelphia. Jack Kelly was the first American oarsman to win an Olympic Gold Medal in 1920. His daughter was the much-loved Grace Kelly, film star and Princess of Monaco. Captain Colm Kelly was the US pilot of the bomber, which destroyed a Japanese battleship at Pearl Harbor. James Edward Kelly is known as "the sculptor of American history".

In Austria the Kellys served the Empress Maria Theresa so well she awarded them the title of counts of the Holy Roman Empire, which they still hold. In Australia they have achieved dubious fame with Ned Kelly and his brothers, the outlawed bushrangers. They also had a bishop of Sydney.

The Kellys have also been outstanding in the field of literature. Since the last century there has been a throng of Kelly dramatists, journalists, actors and novelists.




This numerous surname could derive from a number of sources. Firstly, there was the powerful twelfth-century de Marisco family, who came from Normandy and attached themselves to the Butlers, Dukes of Ormand, who gave them tracts of land, mostly in county Kilkenny. They integrated with their Irish neighbours and styled themselves MacMuiris and, eventually, Morrissey.

Then there was a Gaelic family called O’Muirgheasa who were a branch of the ancient Ui’Fiachrach, whose clan homeland was located in counties Mayo and Sligo. Another family were of south Galway and descended from Muiris, the grandson of the famous Donogh MacDermot, known as "na Mainstreach" because of the number of monasteries he built. This Muiris was a member of the royal family of MacDermot of Coolavin in County Sligo.

The name is usually spelled Morrissey and is to be found I most counties, with the exception of Northern Ireland. It would now be difficault to distinguish the Norman from the English settlers, let alone the early Irish O’Muirgheasa. A townland near New Ross in County Wexford is called Morrisseyland, demonstrating how the name had spread.

Enri (Feargus MacRoigh) O’Muirgheasa (1874-1945) who was born in County Monaghan, was an inspector of primary schools and a tireless campaigner for the revival for the Irish language. He was a poet and compiled many collections of folklore.

Reverend Thomas M. Morrissey was a regular contributor of historical articles to Studies, an academic Irish periodical.





Thompson is comparatively new to Ireland, but it has rapidly become established as the second most numerous non-Irish name, especially in Ulster. When it is spelled Thomson, the name is Scottish origin.

In the nineteenth century many Thompsons came to the fore as anturalists, scientists, physicians, ecclesistics and scholars of many kinds.

William Thompson (c.1785-1833) was a wealthy landowner in Rosscarbery in County Cork who was distressed by the contrast between his own welth and the poverty of the people. He became a leading political economist and had a great influence on European socialism, writing many influential books on the subject. He also campaigned for equality between the sexes. His attempt to leave his fortune for the progress of the co-operative movement was thwarted by his heirs-in-law, following twenty-five years of litigation.

William Thompson (1805-1852), who was born in Belfast, wrote widely on natural history. One of his most important books was The Natural History of Ireland.

William Marcus Thompson (1857-1907) of Derry was a journalist and editor who defended the burgeoning trade union movement.

Sam Thompson (1916-1965) was a shipyard worker in Belfast. From his own working –class experience, he began writing powerful plays which were at first rejuected because they were considered dangerously controversial. Eventually, Over the Bridge was produced and was a great success. Belfast had never been written about in such a way before, but sadly Sam Thompson died quite unexpectedly.

Alexander Thompson (b.1936) is assistant professor of the cosmic ray section of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. He was written many academic papers and has earned an international reputation in his field of nuclear science.




The Wall name was originally deValle (of the valley) when they come to Ireland in the twelfth century with the Anglo-Normans. The Walls have long been a distinguished family, particularly in Munster, where they can boast a variety of achievements, including a trio of medieval bishops and a lord high treasurer of Ireland.

Edmund Wale (1670-1755) was a Gaelic poet.

Lieutenant-General Ricardo Wall (b.1674), formerly of Kilmallock in County Limerick, filled the important post of minister of war in Spain.

Patrice Viscount Wall, formerly of Carlow, was a noble at the court of King Louis XVI who was murdered in 1787. Many of his kinsmen fought valiantly in the Irish brigades up to the time of the French Revolution. Many Walls are also mentioned at the courts of Russia.

Joseph Wall (1737-1902) was a black sheep who managed to wangle a governorship for himself in Senegal, West Africa. In a drunken brawl he had one of his men flogged to death, but justice caught up to him and he was tried in London and executed.

The outstanding Wall of the twentieth century is Mervyn Wall, who was born in Dublin in 1908. A playwright, and short story writer, he is widely acclaimed for his series of humorous novels about an obstreperous monk living in medieval Ireland.

The Walls are very well documented. Hubert Gallwey wrote their history in the Wall Family in Ireland, 1170-1970, which was published in Waterford in 1970.