Uncommon Irish Surnames


We recently completed a research session for one of our clients who was planning a trip to Ireland. Like many of our clients, he wanted to visit the exact village of his ancestors, but he didn’t even know the Irish county where they lived. We conducted in-depth research for him and we are quite happy to say that our research discovered the exact county and parish his ancestors came from in advance of his trip! Now he can visit his ancestral parish in Ireland, which makes the trip more meaningful. The way we solved this Irish problem was unusual, so I’d like to share it.

First, I need to give this very important caution: Irish surnames are usually so common that they don’t give much helpful information about what county a family was from. Many Kellys, Murphys, Walshes, O’Briens, etc., appeared in every Irish county, not just one or two counties primarily. So it would be a guessing game to select a county to research without more information than just the family’s surname.

I am reminded of serving as a genealogy consultant at the annual Milwaukee Irish Fest, the largest Irish festival in the United States. I was puzzled one year that everyone who came up to talk to me about their Irish genealogy seemed to already know the county their ancestors came from. This was unusual since my previous experience was that only about half of the people would know. Then I realized that near where I was sitting was a large map of Ireland with surnames written on particular counties to show where they originated! Those maps are so annoying (and misleading)! Each person looked at the map for his or her surname, found the county, and then came to talk to me about researching it! This is a seriously flawed approach to Irish research.

While historically many surnames in Ireland may have had a particular geographical origin, and many surnames may be particularly common in a specific county, by the nineteenth century most surnames were very spread out across the island. You cannot use a map like that to figure out what county your ancestors originated! You have to do thorough, diligent, and time consuming research in American records in many cases just to yield the Irish county of origin.

Sometimes, however, the presence of a rare surname in a family can provide a short-cut. In the case I’m talking about for our client going to Ireland recently, we could find no American record that gave the immigrant’s county of origin. However, we did find one American document that stated that his mother’s maiden surname was Colbert. This was very significant because the surname Colbert is rather uncommon in Ireland. Further, it is primarily found in two counties – Cork and Waterford. We had gathered enough information about the immigrant family from American records, that we were able to search records from these two counties and identify the family in County Waterford records! Now our client has a specific parish in Waterford to visit on his trip to Ireland. The key to finding this parish in Ireland was the rarity of the surname Colbert in Ireland.

There are other Irish surnames that are also uncommon or highly concentrated in particular counties, so it is worth checking the distribution of each of the surnames of your ancestors in Ireland – even if it is not the main line you are tracing. It may be a wife’s maiden name or mother’s maiden name that is rare. You can see why it is so important to identify maiden names in Irish immigrant research. The American marriage and death records of Irish immigrants can give their mothers’ maiden names.

One of my own Irish family lines is the Braniff family. There was a Braniff airline that many people may remember. Practically all of the Braniffs who came from Ireland originated in one place – the Ards Peninsula of County Down (now in Northern Ireland). So even though I have not found a document yet that specifically states where my Braniff family originated in Ireland before they came to Pennsylvania, I know they must have come from the Ards Peninsula.

One helpful place online where you can check the frequency and distribution of your Irish ancestors’ surnames is the Irish Ancestors web site of the Irish Times: http://www.irishtimes.com/ancestor . The data on this site comes from the mid-nineteenth century census substitute, Griffith’s Primary Valuation (1847-1864).

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Reader Comments

I found this very interesting since my name is Colbert! I had already figured out that the family came from Waterford, but still haven’t found the exact location.