The RYAN name in Surname Dictionaries

If you want to get some idea about the possible origin of a particular surname, a Surname Dictionary is a good place to start. There are several surname dictionaries that address the topic of Irish surnames, and perhaps the three most well-known are those of Woulfe, MacLysaght, and O’Hart. 

The Rev. Patrick Woulfe (1872-1933), or as he preferred to be known, An tAthair Pádraig de Bhulbh, was born in Cratloe to Seamus Woulfe, a farmer. He became a priest, worked in Limerick, and spent 25 years collecting names, communicating with native Irish speakers and studying the different forms of Gaelic to compile the Irish Names and Surnames dictionary. There are two versions of his book – a small version (138 pages) and a larger version (742 pages). The smaller version was originally published in 1906 and reprinted in 1922 – this is available online in its as original print form from Archive.org here. The larger version was printed in 1923 (reprinted in 1967) and consists of 696 pages, with 46 pages of preliminary text. A digital version of the book is available free of charge online from Library Ireland here. The search feature is very useful and allows you to find any mention of a particular name within the book. Woulfe’s work helped to popularise the use of Irish first-names during the last century and has been an important resource for genealogists. His work was subsequently superseded by that of other scholars, such as Edward MacLysaght.

Woulfe, Patrick. Sloinnte Gaedheal is Gall: Irish Names and Surnames, collected and edited with explanatory and historical notes (1923).

Edward MacLysaght was an interesting character. He lived to be 99 years old (1887-1986) and packed a lot into his lifetime. His father was from Cork, his mother from Lincolnshire, and he was born near Bristol. He went to school in Rugby and then Corpus Christi College, Oxford to study law. But a rugby injury changed his life – he went to Lahinch in Co. Clare and lived in a caravan for 6 months recovering. During this time he developed a love for genealogy, history, and the Irish language, in which he became fluent. He started a pioneer farm in Raheen and introduced electricity 40 years before his neighbours. He also set up local community projects and was deeply involved in the Irish Cultural Revival and the movement for Irish independence. His loyal support of Eamonn de Valera (then member of parliament, and later President of Ireland) resulted in his imprisonment. After independence (1922), he was elected to the Seanad Éireann (the Irish Senate). He later became an Inspector for the Irish Manuscripts Commission (1938), a member of the Royal Irish Academy (1942), Chief Herald of Ireland (1943-1954), Keeper of Manuscripts at the National Library of Ireland (1948-1954), and Chairman of the Irish Manuscripts Commission (1956-1973). It was during this latter period that he wrote his indispensible books on Irish surnames.MacLysaght, Edward. The Surnames of Ireland. 1957 (sixth edition 1991)This is a comprehensive list of over 4000 Irish surnames with a short description of each. It includes 1500 surnames not considered in the other books below, which only deal with about 20% of the surnames described in this present book (albeit in a lot more detail). 

MacLysaght, Edward. Irish Families. Their Names, Arms and Origins. 1957 (fourth edition 1985) 

MacLysaght, Edward. More Irish Families. 1970 (first paperback edition 1996, incorporating Supplement to Irish Families, 1964)These latter two volumes (frequently abbreviated to IF and MIF) give a much more detailed account of many of the most common Irish surnames. Second hand copies can be bought online, usually for quite inflated prices.
John O’Hart (1824-1902) was another interesting character. Born in Crossmolina, Co. Mayo, he was a self-taught genealogist who worked variously as a police officer, as an Associate in Arts (at Queens University Belfast), and at the Commissioners of National Education. He published several noteworthy books of genealogical relevance, but has been criticised for allowing his staunchly Catholic and Nationalistic views to influence what he wrote. He considered Gaelic myth and the writings of the Bible to be literal truth and incorporated this into his writing. He claimed that the Irish all descended from Milesius (King of Spain) who himself was the 36th descendant of Adam. Milesius allegedly emigrated from Spain in 1700 BC, which gives us an approximate date of birth for Adam of 2700 BC.

O’Hart’s work was very much part of the Gaelic Revival of the late 1800s which sought to re-imagine a highly idealised pre-Norman Gaelic past in order to inspire patriotic fervour in all things Irish. Thus the earlier parts of his pedigrees (from Adam to the birth of Christ) are largely fantasy fused with fragments of a Gaelic tradition.

However, the later parts of his pedigrees can be very useful indeed. He relied on several well-known historical texts for the medieval pedigrees, including those of Cú Choigcríche Ó Cléirigh (Peregrine O’Clery, 1624-1664), Duald Mac Firbis (c.1620-1671) and Roger O’Ferrall (Linea Antiqua, 1709), as well as the Annals of the Four Masters. For pedigrees after 1700, he used the works of Bernard Burke (Burke’s Peerage), John Collins and others. He also used original sources for constructing these pedigrees, many of which were subsequently destroyed in the major fire at the Public Record Office in 1922. The only problem is he never cited his sources so it is difficult to separate out fact from fantasy. Therefore, although the information contained in his books can be very helpful, it is in need of corroboration from other sources (if possible).

O’Hart, John. Irish Pedigrees; or, The Origin and Stem of the Irish Nation, first published 1876, reprinted 8 times since then as expanded volumes. The 1892 edition is available from Library Ireland and is searchable via their Google custom search. It is also available (in its two volumes) from the Archive.org website (here are links to Volume 1 and Volume 2).

O’Hart, John.The Irish landed gentry when Cromwell came to Ireland (1887). Available from Archive.org.

So what do these various surname dictionaries say about the Ryan surname?

Woulfe’s Surname Dictionary
Woulfe has several entries for Ryan and related surnames (they can be found here): 

1) Ó MAOILRIAGHAIN, Ó MAOILRIAIN—O Mulrigan, O Mulryan, O Mulrean, Mulryan, Mulroyan, Mulryne, Mulrine, Mulrain, O’Ryan, Ryan; ‘descendant of Maolriain’ (follower of Riaghan or Rian); the name of a family of Leinster origin who settled in the 13th or 14th century in Uaithne-tire and Uaithne-cliach, now the baronies of Owney, in Co. Tipperary, and Owneybeg, in the east of Co. Limerick, where they became very numerous and powerful. In 1610, William Ryan surrendered to the king all his landed property and all his rights of or in the barony of Owney O Mulrian, and received them back by letters patent. The family property was, however, lost in the confiscations of the 17th century. There are many very respectable families of the name in Tipperary and Limerick, and the name itself is very common in these counties. It is to be distinguished from Ó Riain, which see.

2) Ó RIAGHAIN, Ó RIAIN—O Rian, O’Ryan, Ryan: ‘descendant of Riaghan,’ or ‘Rian’; the name of a Carlow family who were lords of Uí Dróna, the present barony of Idrone, and are now numerous through Leinster; to be distinguished from Ó Maoilriain of Munster and Ó Ruaidhín of Connacht, which are both now incorrectly anglicised O’Ryan or Ryan. 

3) Ó RUADHÁIN—O Ruane, O Rowane, O Roan, Ruane, Rouane, Roane, Ruan, Roan, Roon, Rowan, Rewan, Royan, (Ryan); ‘descendant of Ruadhán’ (diminutive of ruadh, red); also Ó Ruaidhín; the name (1) of an old Mayo family of the Ui Fiachrach, who possessed a district lying between Newbrook and Killeen, to the north of Ballinrobe; and (2) of an old Galway family of the Ui Maine  race. No fewer than seven of the name were bishops of various sees in Connacht, in the 12th and 13th centuries. The name is still very common in that province, generally anglicised Ruane, but sometimes disguised as Ryan.

4) Ó RUAIDHÍN—O Ruyne, O Royn, O Roen, Rouine, Royan, Rowen, (Ruane, O’Ryan, Ryan); ‘descendant of Ruaidhín’ (diminutive of ruadh, red); the same as Ó Ruadháin, which see, both forms being used by the same family, and equally common in Connacht. Some of the name have been long settled in Leinster.

5) Ó SRAITHEÁIN, Ó SRUITHEÁIN, Ó SRUTHÁIN—O Srahane, O Shrihane, O Sreighan, O Shrean, O Streffan, Shryhane, Sruffaun, Strohane, Strahan, Straghan, Strachan, Strain, Bywater, (Ryan); ‘descendant of Sruthán,’ or ‘Sruitheán’ (diminutive of sruth, an elder, a sage, a man of letters); the name of an old Tirconnell family, the head of which was chief of Clann Snedhgile, a sept of the Cinel Conaill, seated in Glenswilly, to the west of Letterkenny, and also erenagh of Conwall in the same district. Some of the family had come southward before the end of the 16th century, probably as followers of the MacSweenys, and settled in Co. Cork, where the name is still extant, but often ‘translated’ Bywater, as if from ‘sruthán,’ a streamlet. In Co. Mayo, it is sometimes strangely anglicised Ryan.

Comments: From the above, it would appear that there may be several different origins of the surname Ryan. And following from that, one might expect to see several different genetic signatures associated with the surname. That’s the first point.

Secondly, several Ryan groups are associated with a particular surname variant as well as a geographic location and a purported ancient “clan” origin. Thus, the DNA project may reveal that  there are a series of genetic groups each with a unique genetic signature, associated with a specific place, a specific Ryan surname variant, and a specific “clan”. We can build a profile for each of these anticipated groups as follows:

  • Genetic Group 1: this relates to entry no. 1 above. Most members might have Tipperary or Limerick ancestry; some members might bear the surname Mulryan; the group might be placed on the Tree of Mankind next to branches that clearly originated in Leinster.
  • Genetic Group 2: this relates to entry no. 2 above. The major surname variant is Ryan; members have ancestry from across Leinster, but mainly Carlow. Is there a pedigree for the Lords of Drone?
  • Genetic Group 3: from entry 3 above. The predominant surname variant is not Ryan, but Rowen and similar; many have Mayo ancestry; connection to Ui Fiachrach genealogy.
  • Genetic Group 4: also from entry 3 above. Predominant variant is Ruane, not Ryan; Galway ancestry; connection to Ui Maine.
  • Genetic Group 5: from entry 4. Predominantly Ruane, Rowen, etc. Many from Leinster. Genetically similar to Groups 3 and 4.
  • Genetic Group 6: from entry 5. Predominant surnames are not Ryan, but Strahan, etc. Many have Donegal ancestry. Genetically distinct from other groups. Connection to the Cinel Conaill “clan”.

These are possibilities to bear in mind when we come to exploring the genetic data and analysing what it tells us about the origins, surname variants, and “clan” associations of the various genetic groups. It will be important to approach this as objectively as possible and to avoid the natural tendency to fit the facts to our preconceived ideas.

MacLysaght’s Surname Dictionaries
MacLysaght gives a brief account of the Ryan surname in his Surnames of Ireland (1957) and a much more detailed account in his Irish Families (1957). 

(O) RyanÓ Maoilriain is the correct form in the homeland of the great sept of Ryan, formerly Mulryan; but it is now usually abbreviated to O Riain, which is properly the name of a small Leinster sept. Ryan is by far the most numerous name in Co. Tipperary having almost four times the population of the next in order (O’Brien and Maher). For a note on the derivation of Ryan see introduction, pp. xvi-xvii. Bibl.

IF Map Tipperary (Mulryan), Carlow (O’Ryan). See Ruane. 

(from Surnames of Ireland, p263)

(O) RuaneÓ Ruadháin (ruadh, red). A sept of the Uí Maine. The variant Royan is found in the same area – Gortyroyan near Ballinasloe is Gort Uí Ruadháin in Irish. Royan, however, has inevitably been sometimes changed to Ryan by absorption, notably in Co. Mayo, as also have Rouine and Ruane. MIF   Map Galway.

(from Surnames of Ireland, p262)

The abbreviation IF refers to his book Irish Families, and Map Tipperary refers the reader to the map in that book on page 222 where the Mulryan name is located, due east of Limerick. The entry for Ryan in Irish Families is much more informative: 

RYAN, O’Mulrian   Ryan is amongst the ten most numerous surname in Ireland with an estimated population of 27,500. Only a very small proportion of these use the prefix O. Subject to one exception, to be noticed later in this section, it is safe to say that the great majority of the 27,500 Ryan’s are really O’Mulryans – this earlier form of the name is, however, now almost obsolete: even in the census of 1659 in Co. Limerick Ryan outnumbers Mulryan by about four to one, and today there is not one O’Mulryan or Mulryan in the telephone directory. The sept of Ó Maoilriain was located in Owney, formerly called Owney O’Mulryan, which forms two modern Baronies on the borders of Limerick and Tipperary, in which counties the Ryan’s are particularly numerous today. They do not appear in the records of this territory (formerly belonging to the O’Heffernans) until the 14th century, but after they settled there, they became very powerful. Nevertheless they did not produce any really outstanding figures in Irish history or literature, except the romantic character known as Eamonn a ‘chnuic, or Ned of the hill, i.e. Edmund O’Ryan (c. 1680-1724), Gaelic poet, gentleman, soldier and finally rapparee, beloved of the people, though he met his death through the treachery of one of them. Two abbés called O Ryan were executed during the French Revolution. Luke Ryan (c. 1750-1789) first an officer in the Irish Brigade, made a huge fortune as a privateer, was condemned to death and four times reprieved and having been cheated out of his money died in a debtor’s prison.

Many Ryan’s have distinguished themselves in the United States. Father Abram Joseph Ryan (1838-1886) of a Clonmel family, was poet of the Confederates in the Civil War; another Tipperary man, Patrick John Ryan (1831-1911) was Archbishop of Philadelphia, and Stephen Vincent Ryan (1826-1896) from Clare, was Bishop of Buffalo. In other walks of life the most noteworthy Irish American of this name was Thomas Fortune Ryan (1851-1928), a millionaire who began life as a penniless youth.

The Ryan’s of Co. Carlow and other counties in that part of Leinster, are distinct from those dealt with above, though both are of the race of Cathaoir Mór, King of Leinster in the second century. These are Ó Riain, not Ó Maoilriain: the chief of this sept was lord of Ui Drone (whence the name of the barony of Idrone in Co. Carlow).

(from Irish Families p145)

Comments: In MacLysaght’s description, the Ryan’s of Limerick/Tipperary take centre stage and he does not add any substantial additional information about them that we did not already know from Woulfe. The only new information is that the Carlow Ryan’s and the Limerick/Tipperary Ryan’s are related, both descending from Cathaoir Mór, King of Leinster. This should be reflected in the DNA if it is true. There should be a genealogy for this king and it may indicate when the Carlow Ryan’s and the Limerick Mulryan’s branched apart. The date of this branching point could also be confirmed by DNA.

MacLysaght’s entry for Ruane, Rowen, and other potential surname variants will be the subject of a future blog post.

O’Hart’s Surname Dictionary
There is a brief mention of the Ryan surname in O’Hart’s book Irish pedigrees; or, The origin and stem of the Irish nation. 

THE following is a brief summary of the Irish families in Munster, beginning with the three branches of the race of Heber: namely, the Dalcassians, the Eugenians, and the Clan Cian.

VII. Of the Leinster Milesians of the race of Heremon, were some chiefs and clans of note in Munster, as O’Felan, princes of Desies in Waterford; and O’Bric, chiefs in Waterford; O’Dwyer and O’Ryan, chiefs in Tipperary; and O’Gorman, chiefs in Clare.

(from Chief Irish Families of Munster

THE following accounts of the Irish chiefs and clans of Ossory, Offaley, and Leix, have been collected from the Topographies of O’Heeran, O’Dugan, O’Brien, O’Halloran, and others:—

30. O’Ryan and O’Felan were ancient families of note in Kilkenny, as well as in Carlow, Tipperary, and Waterford.

(from Irish Chiefs and Clans in Ossory, Offaley, Leix)

Comments: It is difficult to know which timescale O’Hart refers to in these brief descriptions. They do not add anything to what we already know from Woulfe & MacLysaght.

O’Hart also lists some Ryan pedigrees, namely Ryan (No.1) and Ryan (No.2). These are discussed elsewhere.

Next Steps
The information in these surname dictionaries gives us some idea of what to look out for in the DNA data, and serves as a basis for further research into the various potential genetic groups identified.

To recap, here is the list of genetic groups that we may find among the DNA results if the content of these various surname dictionaries is correct.

  • Genetic Group 1: this relates to entry no. 1 from Woulfe. Most members might have Tipperary or Limerick ancestry; some members might bear the surname Mulryan; the group might be placed on the Tree of Mankind next to branches that clearly originated in Leinster.
  • Genetic Group 2: this relates to entry no. 2 from Woulfe  The major surname variant is Ryan; members have ancestry from across Leinster, but mainly Carlow. Is there a pedigree for the Lords of Idrone? MacLysaght’s entry suggests that this group may be distantly related to Group 1 above.
  • Genetic Group 3: from entry 3 from Woulfe  The predominant surname variant is not Ryan, but Rowen and similar; many have Mayo ancestry; connection to Ui Fiachrach genealogy.
  • Genetic Group 4: also from entry 3 from Woulfe  Predominant variant is Ruane, not Ryan; Galway ancestry; connection to Ui Maine.
  • Genetic Group 5: from entry 4. Predominantly Ruane, Rowen, etc. Many from Leinster. Genetically similar to Groups 3 and 4.
  • Genetic Group 6: from entry 5. Predominant surnames are not Ryan, but Strahan, etc. Many have Donegal ancestry. Genetically distinct from other groups. Connection to the Cinel Conaill “clan”.

Originally published by Maurice Gleeson on the Ryan DNA Project blog (26 Jan 2018)

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