Hundreds of thousands of Irish people emigrated during the Great Famine, creating a significant diaspora. What this means is that millions of individuals across the planet who claim to have Irish heritage, especially in North America, are unfamiliar with that heritage and are continuously scouring the internet for more information.
Now look, family is very important and we like to think we know our families. However, for those of us looking to dig up the past and trace our roots to the ancient Celts, knowing our families is not so easy. For some of us it will be easier than others though as we look at some of the most common Irish surnames, their crests, and their meanings.
A Brief History
Before we get into some of the most common Irish surnames and their associated crests, we should first delve into some history.
So, when we’re talking about a family’s coat of arms, we’re talking about the long standing tradition of heraldry. Heraldry as we know it began in the 12th century as important symbols for military use, but also as a means of identifying combatants at medieval tournaments since all of them would be wearing helmets and therefore could not be identified by their beautiful faces.
Of course, not every commoner trying to watch the games was expected to know the names and symbols of every knight jousting about. So, the job of herald was created. Heralds were responsible for knowing the names, ranks, and heraldic devices of many knights and lords so that they could announce their presence.
This becomes interesting considering that most coats of arms were not recorded visually. They simply had to identify knights and lords based on heraldic descriptions which might look like “Azure, a harp or, stringed argent” because the language of heraldry is a mix of multiple languages.
Additionally, some heraldic artists did not know what certain things looked like. So charges (the animals and plants depicted on shields) sometimes look nothing like what they are meant to represent. For example, dolphins could be depicted with tusks.
Eventually tournaments stopped being popular entertainment and the military necessity of such identifiers became obsolete. In response, the art of heraldry evolved to become decorative and its usage expanded to include hereditary and territorial identity. That’s why several nations have a coat of arms.
Irish Heraldry and Their Coats of Arms
Much of the above is gleaned from the history of English heraldry, which Irish heraldry has a lot of crossover with; however, there are a few things that are unique to the Irish coats of arms. In particular, an Irish coat of arms often represents a family and an Irish coat of arms often contains a motto which was the family’s war-cry.
So, to honour a piece of Ireland’s unique heritage, we’re going to share some information on the most common Irish last names and the Irish crests that belong to them.
Name Meaning: Anglicized from the name O Maoilriain, as many Irish names have been over the centuries for various reasons including facilitating work during discriminatory times and inconsistent spelling during the Middle Ages. The name means 'son of Maoilriain' but what Maoilriain means is disputed. Popular answer is that it means 'little King'.
The name nowadays is just as often a given name as it is a surname.
Motto: Malo Mori Quam Foedari - "I would rather die than be dishonoured"
Name Meaning: The name is derived from the word "carthach" meaning 'loving'. Therefore, it roughly means “son of a loving person”.
Famously, Cormac McCarthy the King of Munster is said to have been gifted the popular Blarney Stone by Robert the Bruce.
Motto: This is disputed. The motto may be "Strong, Courageous, and Swift" or "Nothing is difficult to the brave and faithful".
Name Meaning: Popularly, the name is said to mean ‘bright-haired’, though it may also be derived from the word ‘ceallach’ meaning ‘strife’. This is the #2 most common Irish last name. There are more Kellys overseas than there are in Ireland. Thus, like many other popular Irish surnames, the name is made famous by non-Irish people. For instance, there is the infamous Australian outlaw, Ned Kelly.
Motto: Turris Fortis Mihi Deus - God is a strong tower to me/God is my tower of strength
Name Meaning: Derived from the word ‘murchadh’ meaning sea warrior. This is the #1 most common Irish last name.
Infamously, the surname lends itself to Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”. Sadly, this is not the family motto.
Motto: Fortis et Hospitalis - Brave and Hospitable
Name Meaning: The name is an anglicized variation of the name O Maille and it is said to mean ‘the descendant of a follower of John’.
A notable member from this ancient lineage is Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen of Connacht. Alive in the 16th century, her life has been mythologized to include extensive raids, the kidnapping of nobles, and more.
Motto: Terra Marique Potens - Powerful on Land and Sea
Name Meaning: “son of Thom”, Thom is an Aramaic name meaning twin. One of Ireland’s longest court cases was due to a William Thompson who attempted to leave his estate to Ireland’s cooperative movement after his death. He was considered by some to be the “first Irish socialist”.
Motto: Nosce Teipsum - Know Thyself
Name Meaning: Derived from the word ‘flann’, the name means ‘ruddy’.
This name is graciously used for many beloved characters such as Flynn Rider from Tangled and the Flynn family from Disney’s Phineas and Ferb.
Motto: Honor Praemium Virtutis Est - The reward for virtue is honor. This is uncertain though.
Name Meaning: The name originated as Mac Craith which either means “son of divine grace” or “son of a prosperous person”.
The name appears in an old Irish song called “Master McGrath” about a greyhound who won the Waterloo Cup three times.
Motto: Salus In Fide - Salvation in Faith
Today these coats of arms are popular as wedding presents with the Wedding Day Shields and are a great item to be hung on the wall of any proud family with an Irish name origin. Ireland is a nation of so many emmigrants and you will recognise so many famous people in America who have Irish names and these wall plaques are a great way to connect with their Irish heritage.
Wedding Day Shield
So that's a brief history of Irish names. Do you have an Irish name of origin? Do you know what county you might hail from? Well there is a good chance you can find out by doing some online research and you never know what cousins you might bump into!