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Derry Surnames
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Written by Brian Mitchell, Derry Genealogy. Email:

Based on Sir Robert E. Matheson’s survey of 1890 civil birth registers which was published in Special Report on Surnames in Ireland the most common surnames in County Derry during 19th century were as follows:

Below, you will find a table of the most common County Down surnames throughout the 19th century. 

Rank Surname
1 Doherty
2 McLaughlin
3 Kelly
4 Bradley
5 Brown
6 McCloskey
7 Campbell
8 Mullan
9 Smith
10 O'Neill
11 Kane
12 Moore
13 Gallagher


This name, a variant of O'Doherty, is by far the most popular name in Derry. This County Donegal sept, which originated in Raphoe but settled in Inishowen from the 14th century, can trace its lineage to Conall Gulban, son of the 5th century High King of Ireland, Niall of the Nine Hostages. They ruled Inishowen until the arrival of an English army at Derry in 1600. An O'Doherty-led rebellion, which included the ransacking of Derry in 1608, helped pave the way for the Plantation of Ulster.

Plantation of Ulster

A picture showing the map of the plantation of Ulster, Ireland and its history. Downloaded from

This surname, together with the number 2 surname of McLaughlin, illustrates the very close links between the city of Derry and the Inishowen peninsula, County Donegal. As Derry developed an industrial base in the 19th century in shirt making, shipbuilding and distilling it attracted much of its workforce from Inishowen.


The second most popular name in Derry. Derived from the Norse personal name Lachlann this County Donegal sept can trace its lineage to Eoghan, son of the 5th century High King of Ireland, Niall of the Nine Hostages. In the 12th century the McLaughlins, from their Inishowen homeland, were High Kings of Ireland and patrons of the monastic settlement in Derry. From the mid-13th century the O'Neills of Tyrone ousted the McLaughlins as the leading power in Ulster. Some may be of Scottish descent from Clan MacLachlan of Argyll.


A picture showing the plaque for Eoghan, son of the 5th century High King of Ireland, Niall of the Nine Hostages. Downloaded from


At least seven distinct septs of the name established themselves in Ireland, the most powerful of which ruled over a territory which included east Galway and south Roscommon. In Ulster, a Kelly sept, claiming descent from Colla, the 4th century King of Ulster, was based in south Derry. Kelly was known as a surname in Scotland long before the 19th century immigration really established the name there; there was a Kelly sept attached to Clan Donald.

Clan Donald Flag

A picture of Clan Donald flag, aka Clan MacDonald which is a Highland Scottish Clan. Downloaded from


The territory of this sept, together with O’Brollaghan, an earlier anglicized form of Bradley, was on the borders of Counties Derry, Donegal and Tyrone. In Derry, Bradley will largely be of this origin. A branch of the Irish Bradleys settled in the Western Highlands where one of its members became Abbot of Iona in the 12th century. In 1158 Flahertagh O’Brollaghan was appointed as ‘successor of Colum Cille’, i.e. Abbot of all monasteries under the rule of Colum Cille, which included Derry and Iona in Scotland. Some Bradleys may be of Scottish descent, derived from the place name of Braidlie in Roxburghshire.

Colum Cille

A picture of Colum Cille also known as St. Columba or Clomcille. He founded the abbey on Iona. Downloaded from


The great majority of the Ulster Browns are of English and Scottish descent. Derived in most cases as a nickname for someone who was 'brown-haired' or 'brown-skinned', an Anglo-Norman family of this name settled in Ireland in the 12th century. In Highland Scotland, at least two septs, one meaning son of the judge and the other meaning son of the brown lad, had their names anglicised to Brown. On their outlawing by the Crown in the 17th century one of the names adopted by members of Scottish Clan Lamont was Brown.


This County Derry sept is very much associated with the Dungiven area, at the time of the first Ordnance Survey in the early nineteenth century the McCloskeys constituted nearly two-thirds of the population of the parish of Dungiven. The McCloskeys were a branch of the O'Kanes, tracing their descent from the 12th century Bloskey O'Cahan, whose son Donough, in 1196, slew Murtagh O’Loughlin, heir to the Irish throne, and were thus in Gaelic Mac Bhloscaidh, i.e. son of Bloskey O’Kane.


Derived from a nickname meaning crooked mouth the Campbells of Argyll, Scotland grew in power through the 17th century at the expense of the MacDonalds, Lords of the Isles. Most Ulster Campbells are of this connection. The galloglasses (gallowglasses) or mercenary soldiers of Clan Campbell settled in Donegal from the 15th century. The County Tyrone sept of McCawell, whose name meant son of the battle chief, was anglicised as Campbell. At the height of their power in the 12th century, from their base at Clogher, they controlled a large portion of County Tyrone and had penetrated deep into County Fermanagh.


A picture showing carvings of gallowglasses, also known as Irish Mercenaries. Downloaded from

Thank you to Brian Mitchell, Derry Genealogy. Email: for his continued support and help to us and all IrelandXO members



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