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Image: Peace Bridge built across the River Foyle. 

Have a Doherty, McLaughlin, Gallagher, or Kelly in your family tree?

This week, we look at County Derry, the homeplace of Ireland's only remaining intact walled city and one of the best examples of such throughout Europe. 

Genealogist Brian Mitchell explores the top 10 surnames there during the 19th century while we list some of the top genealogy resources for anyone doing research in the County.

County in Focus - Derry

County Derry, also known as Londonderry or Doire in Irish and is one of the six counties in Northern Ireland. Derry is famous for its old intact city walls which surround the city and for the pretty Sperrin Mountains and Lough Neagh. There are over 500 members linked to the community, and close to 300 ancestors have already been added to the IrelandXO Platform. 

When you are doing research in the county it's vital to know which civil registration districts to focus on. If your not sure which district your ancestors came from Shane Wilson has a handy FREE  District Map which identifies the PLU (Poor Law Unions) /SRD (Superintendent Registrar Districts) for each county- but also shows the location of their Dispensary Districts. The six districts associated with County Derry are

  • Ballymoney,
  • Coleraine,
  • Gortin,
  • Limavady,
  • Derry and
  • Magherafelt.

From the late 1600s, in the age of the sailing ships, to the onset of the Second World War in 1939, when the last transatlantic steamer sailed from the port, Derry was one of the principal emigration ports in Ireland. Read more HERE

County Derry

Most Common Surnames in Derry (Londonderry) during the 19th Century

Doherty - 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 (see image below) This surname, together with the surname 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.


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

Image: Plantation of Ulster

McLaughlin - 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

Kelly - 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. See Clan Donald Flag below.

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

Bradley - 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.

Brown - 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.

McCloskey - 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.

Campbell - 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. See below A picture showing carvings of gallowglasses

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

County Derry Ancestors 

Kitty Wilkinson

Kitty Wilkinson

Despite losing her father and sister on the journey to Liverpool, Kitty Wilkinson pictured above became known as 'Saint of the Slums' after she invited those with infected linen and clothes to use her laundry services during the 1832 Cholera epidemic since she was the only one on the street with a water boiler. Following the epidemic, due to the large number of children orphaned she began taking 20 children every morning to read to them. Her tombstone reads

Indefatigable and self-denying, She was the widow's friend; the support of the Orphan; the Fearless and Unwearied Nurse of the Sick; the Originator of Baths and Wash Houses for the Poor

Read Kitty's story here.

Read More: The Life and Times of Kitty Wilkinson by Michael Kelly can be purchased or view at any library across the Country. Click here to purchase 

Hercules Mulligan

Hercules Mulligan

A spy during the American Revolutionary War, Hercules was born in 1740 in Coleraine, Co. Derry, Mulligan was an early supporter of American Independence. He and his family crossed the Atlantic when Mulligan was only 6 years old, so America would have been more of a home to him than Ireland ever was. 

Mulligan came to be friendly with Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, as Hamilton was known to lodge with the Mulligans while he was studying at Colombia University. He even features as a character in the Broadway hit musical which bears Hamilton's name. 

As a young man, Mulligan was involved in a number of patriotic groups, including the Sons of Liberty of New York, which was the first group to take military action against the British, at the Battle of Golden Hill in 1770. During the War, he served as an important member of the Culper Spy Ring, a secret group that transmitted important military intelligence to George Washington, using such techniques as invisible ink, pseudonyms, and other methods of secret correspondence. He also took advantage of his family's tailor shop in New York as an opportunity for espionage, as several British officers requented the business. 

Thanks to a recommendation from Hamilton, George Washington agreed to take on Mulligan as his chief confidential agent. Mulligan excelled in this role, and is thought to have saved Washington from both a kidnapping and an assasination attempt. 

After the Revolutionary War Mulligan returned to his life as a tailor and lived to the age of 84. 

Find out more about your Derry Roots

Whatever stage you are at with researching your Derry ancestry, we have the resources to help you find out more. Once you have tracked down your Derry  Ancestors, be sure to add them to the IrelandXO Chronicles so that others can read their story. Who knows? You may even find a connection you never knew you had.

We highly suggest checking out our Derry Message Board where our wonderful team of volunteers are waiting to answer your queries and help you to solve your family history mysteries. CLICK HERE to get started.

In the meantime here are some pages that we have put together to help you on your genealogy journey. 

  • If you're not sure where exactly in Derry your Ancestors lived then CLICK HERE for information on how to Find Your Derry Parish.

  • If you want to know how the Famine affected Derry CLICK HERE to read our handy guide

  • In 1837 the Lewis' Topographical Survey was published. This provides detailed snapshots of life in each Civil Parish just before the Famine. CLICK HERE for more information on the Derry (Londonderry) County.

  • As always, your local library is an incredibly valuable resource. Contact the relevant Derry County Library to see what resources they have.

  • Ireland Genealogy Project provides a collection of FREE resources specific to Derry County more information HERE

  • Free Government Site, provides transcripts linked to scanned images 

  • Derry City and Strabane have several online resources to help anyone doing research in the County, more information HERE

  • Located within the historic walls of Derry (Londonderry) The Tower Museum is a must-see visitor attraction. Permanent exhibitions such as The Story of Derry and An Armada Shipwreck offer a fantastic lens into the city and how it was shaped. Their online exhibition the Walled City 400 Years can be experienced from anywhere in the world and includes a treasure trove of objects and archive materials that tell the story of the walls, the city and its people. 

Read More


We hope you have found the information we have shared helpful. While you are here, we have a small favour to ask. Ireland Reaching Out is a non-profit organisation that relies on public funding and donations to ensure a completely free family history advisory service to anyone of Irish heritage who needs help connecting with their Irish place of origin. If you would like to support our mission, please click on the donate button and make a contribution. Any amount, big or small, is appreciated and makes a difference. 

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