Mayo: Where there’s history in your surname

Mayo surnames

Mayo has a wealth of surnames – some of those which are most numerous around the county include Walsh, Gallagher, O’Malley, Moran, Kelly, McHale, Joyce, O’Connor and Duffy.

Irish surnames are usually derived from an ancestor (Mac/Mc means ‘son of’, Nic means ‘daughter of’) or are descriptive in some way or based on a nickname. They usually do not refer to a place, though there are always exceptions – Walsh being the most famous in Mayo – the name, befitting its Norman origin, means ‘Welsh’.

Surnames in Mayo can be (roughly) categorised as:

  • ‘Old’ Mayo names going back many centuries and which are in that sense, ‘native’, to the County – such as McNicholas, Gaughan, Kilbane
  • Anglo-Norman names, such as Bourke/Burke (de Burgo) and Walsh
  • Surnames which came from the outside the county  but have been here for many centuries – the Gallagher name for example, which derives from Galloglas, the famous Scottish mercenary warriors of medieval Ireland
  • New Mayo names brought by new communities who will write themselves into our history book just as previous arrivals to our County did.

Identifying one from the other

Surnames in Mayo are often concentrated in certain communities and so are well associated with certain places, such as 

  • O’Malley in Louisburgh
  • Gallagher in Achill
  • McNicholas in Kiltimagh

A lovely tradition in those communities is the use of an additional descriptor in front of a surname to distinguish one particular family from another.

So ‘Tom’ or ‘Hill’ or ‘Red’ or ‘Mike’ is often put in front of the surname so locals know who is being talked about! In these instances, ‘Tom’ and ‘Mike’ would often be the first name of the paternal grandfather (or even great-grandfather) in the family.

Resources for finding out more

We are lucky in Mayo to have two great Genealogy Centres that can help those of you looking for further information on your ancestors.  Be sure to contact North Mayo Heritage Centre and South Mayo Family Research Centre, both of which have professional genealogists who can assist you with your research.

The 1901 and 1911 Census of Ireland can be accessed directly here

The National Library of Ireland has outstanding resources here



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