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Names to conjure with: a perspective on Clare surnames by Pat Flynn

Apart from taking account of the changing landscape as one speeds along on a fairly long journey by bus or car a further distraction can be noting those names which appear above shop-fronts in towns and villages as the journey progresses. Many names will keep cropping up time and again but gradually some familiar surnames become attenuated to be eventually replaced by fresh and, sometimes, strange ones. I think that I was first aware of this when, as a youngster, I moved, with my family, from a small north Cork town to Ennis almost fifty years ago. Having arrived at night time my first impression of Ennis was the narrowness of the streets and then, the following morning, the novelty of many of the names on display in Abbey Street. Considine, Meehan, Singer, Bugler, Knox, Pyne, Tierney, Tyler, Lipton, and Honan were all new to me (of course I did not realise that a number of these were branches of well-known trading firms). As I further explored my new hometown, more apparently exotic surnames manifested themselves – Mulqueen, Roughan, Maurer, Neylon, Spellissey, Downes and Fawl. I had never come across any of these surnames before, and, when I started school in Ennis, further fresh names came to my notice – Marrinan, O’Dea, Crowe, Madigan, and Haplin were among the surnames of my fellow students in what was a small class by modern standards.

That the names above were unfamiliar was patent but that they might also, in some cases at least, be peculiar to Ennis or Clare did not occur to me then. It was probably some years later that the notion that Irish surnames had ‘homes ‘was borne in on me as I consulted some genealogical map purporting to show where different families originated. My purpose at the time was, no doubt, to ascertain where my own family name came from and I was satisfied that I was from Cork ‘branch’ rather than from the Mayo/Roscommon or northern ones.

When next my attention was turned to consideration of the numbering and location of persons with different surnames it was an attempt to plot the changes which took place in Clare over the next two hundred years from the mid seventeenth century to the 1850s.[1] Using the so-called ‘Census’ of 1659[2] to determine the number and extent of certain family names in the country at that time a comparison was drawn with the pattern evident in the composition of house-occupiers as shown in the Index to Surnames in the Griffith Valuation.[3] While tentative conclusions on the movement of peoples was drawn, one result was to determine the numerical strength of different surnames at two dates. It was found that the most numerous surnames were as follows:[4]

Order 1659 1850s
1. O Mullowny McMahon
2. O Connor NcNamara
3. Bryen (O Brien) OBrien
4. MacMahon Kelly
5. MacNemara Moloney
6. Hogan Keane
7. Bourke Ryan
8. O Hallurune McInerney
9. FitzGerrold O Connor
10. Hickie Lynch
11. McCarthy Griffin/Griffey
12. O Sullevane O Halloran
13. O Dwyre Murphy
14. O Gripha O Loughlin
15. Clanchy Hogan
16. O Loghlen Burke
17. Mahony Walsh
18. O Hehir Malone
19. Dally O Dea
20. O Nealane McCarthy

(The names Griffin and Griffey were combined in the later list as they both represented by O Gripha, it was felt, in the earlier one).

Looking Before and After
It is now proposed to have a look at those names of ‘the Principle Ancient Celtic Families’ which were located in County Clare and later on to bring our investigations forward to more recent times. The following list of family names is taken from a publication
[5] to which we will return in due course: where a name is located in other counties as well as Clare, the other locations are given in brackets.

‘MAC’ Names
MacBrodin; MacClancy (Cork, Kerry, Leitrim); MacCraith or Magrath (Fermanagh, Kerry, Tipperary, Waterford); MacDonnell (Antrim, Fermanagh, Kildare, Londonderry, Monaghan, Queen’s); Mac Gillikelly (Galway); Mac Lysaght; MacMahon (Monaghan); Mac Namara;

‘O’ Names
O’Brien (Cork, Limerick, Tipperary, Waterford); O’Cahill (Carlow, Galway, Kerry, Tipperary); O’Callaghan (Cork, Mayo, Tipperary); O’Carmody; O’Clery (Cavan, Donegal, Galway); O’Connell (Down, Galway, Kerry, Limerick) O’Connor (Galway, Kerry, King’s, Londonderry, Mayo, Roscommon, Sligo); O’Considine; O’Creagh (Cork, Kerry); O’Cullenan (Cork, Tipperary); O’Culligan; O’Curran (Donegal); O’Daly (Cavan, Cork, Galway, Kerry, Westmeath); O’Davoren; O’Dea (Cork, Tipperary); O’Deegan; O’Dermody (Tipperary); O’Drinan; O’Flattery; O’Flynn; O’Gorman (Carlow, Fermanagh); O’Grady (Kerry, Limerick, Mayo); O’Griffin (Kerry); O’Halloran (Galway); O’Heffernan (Tipperary); O’Hehir; O’Heyne (Cork, Galway); O’ Hickey (Tipperary); O’Hogan (Tipperary); O’Honeen; O’Howley (Sligo); O’Liddy; O’Loghlin; O’Lynch (Cavan, Cork, Down Tipperary); O’Moloney; O’Morony (Cork, Limerick); O’Mullins; O’Neill or Nihil; O’Neylan (Armagh); O’Quinlevan (Tipperary); O’Quinn (Donegal, Limerick, Londonderry, Longford, Mayo, Tyrone; O’Shaughnessy(Galway).

It is assumed that the names on the above list are those of pre-Norman surnames of the main Irish septs and that their locations are where they were particularly numerous. It will be notes that where Clare is not exclusively shown as their ‘homeland’ many names were spread into the adjoining counties of Limerick, Tipperary or Galway: the wide spread of those ‘good Clare names’ O’Brien and O’Quinn should also be noted. If we compare this list with the twenty most numerous in the seventeenth century, we will see that all but six (Bourke, FitzGerrold, McCarthy, O’Sullevane, O’Dwyre, and Mahony) of the 1659 names can be found in the fifty two which make up the ‘ancient’ listing: Bourke and FitzGerrold are, of course, Norman names, while McCarthy and O’Suullevane one would associate with the Cork and Kerry region: O’Dwyre and O’Mahony are located in Tipperary and Cork respectively in the ‘ancient’ groupings. The ingression of outsider names prior to 1659 is evident in this comparison and is even more pronounced in our list of the top twenty names in the 1850s. We shall now turn our attention to a source which has been described as ‘perhaps the most interesting ‘blue book’ ever issued by a government in Ireland’.[6]

Matheson’s Special Report
Robert E. Matheson’s Special Report on Surnames in Ireland was issued in 1894 as an Appendix to the Twenty-ninth Report of the Register-General of Marriages, Births and Deaths in Ireland.
[7] Matheson, who was the Registrar-General, deals with the derivation and ethnology of surnames in his Report but it is his listing of names and his estimation of their numerical order which has made this seminal study a most important contribution to the general inquiry into surnames in Ireland. The method adopted by Matheson was to take note of all surnames (and their variations) which accounted for five or more births in the year 1890. In all some 2800 names are listed showing the total number of births for the particular name in 1890, the number in each province and, finally, indicating in which counties that name was especially well represented. In addition, a list showing the 100 most numerous names in the country at large was provided with an estimate of the numerical strength of each name, while the top names in each county were separately given. Matheson simply multiplied the 1890 births by 44.8 (the Birth Rate at that time being calculated to be 44.8 in 1000) rounding the result to the nearest hundred to give the estimated population bearing each surname and from the outcome complied his list of the 100 most numerous surnames. The figures for the first twenty surnames follow:

Order Surname Estimated Population Order Surname Estimated Population
1. Murphy 62,600 11. Reilly 29,000
2. Kelly 55,900 12. Doyle 23,000
3. Sullivan 43,600 13. McCarthy 22,300
4. Walsh 41,700 14. Gallagher 21,800
5. Smith 33,700 15. Doherty 20,800
6. O’Brien 33,400 16. Kennedy 19,900
7. Byrne 33,300 17. Lynch 19,800
8. Ryan 32,000 18. Murray 19,600
9. Connor 31,200 19. Quinn 19,200
10. O’Neill 29,100 20. Moore 17,700

The surname Murphy far outstrips all other names in Matheson’s list and assuming a population of 4,717,959 in 1890, 13.3% of all in Ireland bore this name. Where Matheson came up with a few names being numerically equal he listed them in alphabetical order, as in the case of Boyle, Healy, Shea and White which are given as 47, 48, 49 and 50 though each has an allotted population of 13,000. It should also be noted that the form of a surname given is that which is most commonly found: thus Shea rather than O’Shea and, surprisingly, Sullivan (No. 3 on the list) not O’Sullivan. Since 1890 there has been a general move to resume the ‘O’ in those names which had previously dropped it.

As we have seen Matheson’s Report does not claim to take account of all surnames to be found in Ireland. Obviously where a surname was represented by four or less births in 1890 (or had no birth) it could not enter the reckoning. While all six entries in the birth index for the name McGuane are attributed to Clare, one searches in vain for any mention of the reasonanably numerous Gallery or Daffy. Short of a count of all names in the Census it is not possible to be fully precise on the actual number of persons bearing a specific surname at any time. Matheson’s method does give a very close approximation to the situation in 1890. Another technique to estimate the numerical order of surnames is to count the number of persons having the same name on the voters’ list. This was done, for Clare, in 1945 by that well known authority on surnames Edward MacLysaght.[8] The two listings of the thirteen most numerous names in Clare at these dates, based, in the case of 1890 on births and, for 1945, on voters gives us the following orders:

Order Surname Births 1890 Surname Voters 1890
1. McMahon 74 McMahon 1584
2. McNamara 61 McNamara 1358
3. Moloney 50 O’Brien 945
4. O’Brien 47 Moloney 922
5. McInerney 39 Kelly 832
6. Kelly 38 Keane 713
7. Keane 33 MacInerney 690
8. Murphy 29 Ryan 685
9. Griffin 27 Murphy 592
10. Halloran 26 Lynch 574
11. Ryan 23 O’Connor 549
12. Lynch 22 Hogan 488
13. Clancy 21 O’Loughlin 460

The reason for limiting the order to thirteen was because that was all that Matheson listed for the county: MacLysaght goes on to twenty and it is of interest that in that reckoning Griffin and O’Halloran are Nos. 15 and 14, with 426 and 447 voters respectively, and Clancy with 335 woters is No. 20. Only O’Connor, Hogan and O’Loughlin appear in MacLysaght list but not in Matheson’s. One could say that there has been some jockeying for position in the league table over the fifty-five years separating the counts and a small number of surnames have been relegated or promoted.

What of the Present?
It is a full half-century since MacLysaght’s tally, so what is the situation now? Have there been changes in the order of names in the county? Before attempting to answer these questions, perhaps it would be useful to look at how general population has altered in the interim. In 1946, which is the nearest census year to MacLysaght’s count, Clare’s population stood at 85,604 persons. The decline in population, initiated by the Famine, continued to reach an all-time low of 73,597 in 1966, after which there has been a steady rise up to 1986 followed by a slight drop in 1991, in which year the county population was returned at 90,918. One could say that between 1945 and today the population has risen by about 5,000. Unfortunately I do not have a figure for the electorate in 1945, but at the present time it is slightly over 71,000 or roughly 78% of the total population.
[9] Of course since 1945, the voting age has been lowered from 21 to 18. Thus there was a sizeable increase in the electorate from 1945 to present and this should be remembered when looking at the order of names for 1995.

Before giving the present order of the most numerous surnames in the country as determined by the current voters’ lists, I should like to suggest another possible source for exploration of surname distribution – the Telephone Directory. We are all aware of the enormous growth in the number of telephone users over the past couple of decades: many will remember when one directory served the whole country: leaving aside the Yellow Pages for the Dublin (01) area, one would need six bulky volumes to have a full listing of numbers in the Republic and, if one were so inclined, a further thick tome for the Six Counties. Between 1953 and 1984 the number of telephone ‘stations’ (as they are termed) went from 99,167 to 894,138, a nine fold increase.[10] At the moment there are between 17,000 and 18,000 telephone subscribers in Clare alone.[11] With a view to seeing how telephone numbers listed under different surnames related to the number of voters a count was made in the current 06 Directory of certain names. For the high ranking names, the lists which follow give the order of surnames in the voting lists and in the telephone directory:

Order Surname No. of Voters 1995 Order Surname Telephone Entries
1. McMahon 1506 1. Ryan 260
2. McNamara 1195 2. Kelly 254
3. O’Brien 1131 3. McMahon 252
4. Ryan 1122 4. O’Brien 245
5. Kelly 1050 5. Murphy 211
6. Moloney 908 6. McNamara 201
7. Murphy 825 7. Moloney 192
8. Keane 805 8. Keane 187
9. Lynch 672 9. Lynch 183
10. O’Connor 618 10. O’Connor 158
11. McInerney 546 11. McInerney 546
12. Walsh 546 12. O’Halloran 124
13. O’Halloran 541 13. McCarthy 123
14. O’Loughlin 519 14. O’Loughlin 122
15 Hayes 513 15.



Before making any comparisons between the two lists above or with previous rankings, the following table, based on material in the published census data for 1986 might be worth looking at, as it seems to me to throw some light on certain changes which have taken place in the recent past.[12]

Birthplace Age Group of Total Persons 0-24 25-44 45-64 65+  
Ireland (Rep.)          
Clare 27,985 14,559 11,298 9,636 63,478
Other County 9,714 7,242 3,229 1,202 21,387
Outside Ireland (Rep.)          
N.Ireland 363 364 169 46 942
England & Wales 2,391 1,006 296 113 3,806
Scotland 55 65 28 14 162
Other European 126 209 71 19 425
United States 402 172 160 58 792
Other Countries 168 128 44 12 352
Total 41,204 23,745 15,295 11,100 91,344

Population of County Clare in 1986 classified by place of birth and age group.

It will readily be seen from this table that 63,478 persons enumerated in 1986 were born in Clare: this represents 69.5% of the county’s population. Adding those born in Northern Ireland to those born in the Republic but not in Clare we get a total of 22,329 (or 24.4%), with the remaining ‘outsiders’ amounting to 5,537 (61%), of whom 3,806 were born in England or Wales. This influx of persons from outside the county must have augmented the relative strength of certain surnames and also have added many not previously found. The corresponding figures from the 1991 census suggest that this trend continuing, as we find that 90,818 persons returned as living in Clare that year, only 56,121 or 61.7%, were in fact born in the county.[13] In other words at the present time four out of ten residents were not born in Clare. This is in stark contrast to the state of affairs obtaining in the middle of the last century. Then the native born Clare residents accounted for 97.2, 96.5, 95.8, and 95.1 per cent in the years 1841, 1851, 1861 and 1871.[14] The dilution of Clare-born persons in the county total was even then gradually under way but the process has obviously accelerated in more recent times.

Returning to the ordering of voters in 1995, when we look at the actual number of voters now and in 1945 we find that some surnames account for more voters and some less: thus there are now 88 less McMahons on the Register, while the O’Brien name’s total has gone up by 188. A fall in voters can be seen in the NcNamaras, Moloneys and McInerneys in addition to the McMahons. On the other hand, there are more Ryan, Kelly, Murphy, Keane, Lynch, O’Connor, O’Halloran and O’Loughlin, as well as O’Brien, voters now than 50 years ago. Walsh, makes it’s first in our rankings since the 1850s, in fact increased it’s voter numbers from 388 in MacLysaght’s list, where it was 18th. Hayes, which has not figured at all previously, must be deemed to have shown an increase in view of the lower limit of MacLysaght’s ordering. It is suggested that those names which substantially increased their voters – Ryan (+437), Murphy (+233), Kelly (+218), O’Brien (+188) and Walsh (+158) – indicate an inflow of persons bearing these names. These five surnames are among the top eight in the county as a whole, if Matheson’s computations still hold good, and in that count figure strongly in the tallies for the contiguous countries of Limerick, Galway, and Tipperary,[15] further suggesting that neighbouring counties account for a substantial number of those shown in our table above as ‘Ireland (Rep.) Other County’ When we turn to the order of names in the 1995 voters’ list, we see that the same eleven surnames are included in the top ten echelon but that, after the first three names, there has been a slight jostling for position, most noticeably in the promotion of Ryan to fourth place from eighth and the demotion of McInerney from seventh to eleventh place. Other less obvious shifts in position can also be seen.

Looking back on all the different list we have considered and taking into account of varying elements utilised in the counts – house-occupiers, births and voters – to attempt to get a picture of the relative strength of family names it is perhaps surprising that, in the main, we have been dealing with much the same group of names. Even our novel counting of telephone subscribers tends to reinforce the idea that there is a core of names and that, despite the growing mobility of people both into and out of the country, this ‘anchor’ of family names is still holding fast.

In our perspective on Clare surnames we have been concerned for the most part with the more numerous names. I had hoped to deal with other aspects of this topic but time and space preclude any such undertaking at this time. Perhaps on another occasion it may be possible to attempt to follow the fortunes of the more obscure and numerically small surnames of Clare provenance. A recent foray in this direction suggests that the telephone directory can be a useful if rather blunt tool in such research. But what is needed is surely another official publication on the lines of Matheson’s Special Report. Given that the census data must by now be computerised, such an undertaking should no longer entail the tedium of the earlier work and could give more detailed information on the present relative size of family names nationally and locally. After all, Murphy may well be still the most frequently met surname overall, but in 1890 a single birth put Rourke into 98th place ahead of Buckley.


1. Pat Flynn, ‘A Local Habitation and a Name: Some Clare Surnames’ The Other Clare, Vol. 14 (1990), 55-60.

2. Seamus Pender, (Ed.) A Census of Ireland, circa 1659, Dublin (Irish Manuscripts Commission), 1939.

3. ‘An Index of Surnames of householders in Griffith’s Primary Valuation and the Tithe Applotment Books – Co.Clare’, National Library of Ireland, 1964 (Typescript).

4. The form of surnames given for 1659 is that used in the source.

5. Robert E. Matheson, Special Report on Surnames in Ireland, Dublin (H.M.S.O.), 1984, 16-20. Matheson’s list as based on a topographical and historical map of ancient Ireland published by Philip Mac Dermott in 1846.

6. Edward MacLysaght, ‘Some Observations on Thomond Surnames’, North Munster Antiquarian Journal, Vol. V (1946-49), 12.

7. Matheson, op.cit.

8. MacLysaght, op.cit. 13, and also used in the same author’s Irish Families (4th ed. 1985) in a chapter on Distribution and Continuity.

9. Information provided by Ms. Minogue of the Clare County Council office concerned with the electoral list.

10. From various issues of Statistical Abstracts.

11. Information supplied by Telecentre (Marketing), Limerick.

12. Census 86, Local Population Report No. 23 County Clare, 2nd Series, p.16.

13. Census 91, Local Population Report, No. 6, 2nd Series, p.12.

14. Census of Ireland for the Year 1871 – Clare, 96.

15. Walsh is in the Top Ten in all three counties, Ryan heading the list in both Limerick and Tipperary with Kelly in first place in Galway. Murphy is there in Galway and Limerick, while O’Brien scores higher in Limerick and Tipperary than it does in Clare.

16. cf. MacLysaght Irish Families, 25, ‘the extent to which present-day descendants of the old Gaelic families still inhabit the territories occupied by the medieval septs from which they stem is most remarkable’.