Cullen As An Irish Last Name

This article looks at how common Cullen is as a last name in Ireland and the United States from the 19th century to the present day.

You’ll learn the meaning and origins of the Cullen surname while exploring some notable and famous people that held it.

I use census records, emigration lists, and military archives to uncover fascinating patterns. If you’re studying your genealogy, check out my sources at the end of the post so you can do your own research.

How Common Is Cullen As A Surname In Ireland?

Detailed current statistics about surnames are not publicly released by the Irish government. Instead, they offer the ten most frequently occurring surnames among newborns in the previous year. Cullen doesn’t have enough numbers to appear in this top ten.

Thankfully, an Irish genealogist named Seán Murphy studied the names in national phone books published in the 1990s. His estimates aren’t as accurate as a census, but they are still a good way to get an estimate of numbers.

Cullen was ranked 99 in the top one hundred names in this decade with a total of 9,200 entries.

This graphic shows how it ranks compared to the 1st, 33rd, 66th, and 100th entries in the survey:

Cullen Ireland 1990s

Cullen In The Early 1900s

Only the full censuses from 1911 and 1901 in Ireland are available to the public. Earlier decades were either destroyed by the government (to make room for more storage) or by a huge fire during the Irish Civil War. Later decades are unavailable under privacy laws.

So, let’s concentrate on the early decades of the twentieth century.

I used online archives to calculate the total numbers by surname. I consider these estimates due to some percentage of transcription errors. So, I’ve rounded the numbers to the nearest fifty.

There were 7,250 residents named Cullen on the island in 1911.

Ten years earlier, Cullen had about 7,250 residents in the 1901 census.

Population Estimates In The 1890s

A study of Irish surnames was conducted in 1890 by the head of the Civil Registrations Office. It was published as a “Special Report on Surnames In Ireland.”

The survey estimated that there were about 9,000 people named Cullen in the country.

Emigration To America After The Irish Famine

The Irish have traditionally emigrated to Britain, the U.S., Canada, and Australia in recent centuries. They were driven by various factors like political upheaval, scarcity of work, and food deprivation.

The peak of this migration was driven by what’s known as the Great Irish Famine, a devastating event spanning from 1845 to 1852. Potato blight had a catastrophic effect on Ireland, wiping out the primary food source for a significant portion of the population.

I reviewed the Cullen name in the shipping passenger lists arriving in New York during this period. The departures were from both Ireland and England.

The graph below shows how the numbers rose and fell in the years after the famine. You can see how the number peaks after six years of hardship.

Cullen emigration after the famine

With that explanation out of the way, let’s look at how Cullen ranks in America.

How Common Is Cullen As A Last Name In The United States?

Based on the 2010 U.S. census, the name Cullen ranks about 2,077 among Irish names in America with 20,000 bearers.

Although the 2010 census has exact numbers and rankings, the rank I assign here is my estimate. If you’re curious about how I got there, here’s a brief explanation…

Estimating Rank In The United States

Historically, some Irish families with Gaelic surnames took English-sounding names as translations under the influence of colonization.

As these names also have English origins, they will have been brought to the United States by both British and Irish immigrants. Because the census doesn’t ask about specific European origin (e.g. England vs Ireland), it’s impossible to identify the proportion with Irish heritage.

I reviewed the census to identify which names are predominantly Irish in origin. In order to estimate the relative rankings of “Irish” names, I’ve mostly excluded surnames that have varying origins.

Cullen In Historic Census Years

It’s interesting to look at how the numbers of a surname change over time in a relatively young country like the United States. These changes can reflect the broader demographic shifts within the nation. It’s not just migration from outside. It’s also birth rates, improved child mortality, and people living longer.

The historic census records have been transcribed and digitized. I used online archives to run counts of surname populations.

But the totals can’t be exactly accurate due to transcription errors. So, I’ve rounded the numbers to the nearest 50 in the graph below.

This picture shows the numbers every twenty years from 1860 to 1940:

how common was Cullen in the U.S. between 1860 and 1940

These are the numbers in the graph:

  • 1860: 3,450
  • 1880: 6,500
  • 1900: 9,800
  • 1920: 11,700
  • 1940: 13,050

Cullen In World War II

About 8.3 million men and women enlisted in the U.S. Army during the Second World War. Many were of Irish heritage, and some were born in Ireland.

There were registration records for 771 soldiers named Cullen who enlisted between 1938 and 1946.

There were 12 who were born in Ireland.

Cullen Surname: Meaning And Origin

Cullen comes from the Gaelic name “Ó Cuilinn”, which means “descendant of Cuileann”. The name Cuileann was a personal name that has been given several meanings by different scholars.

They may all be right i.e. early bearers may have taken the name for different reasons.

Some point to the Gaelic for a holly tree while others say it means handsome. The early scholar, Patrick Woulfe (see sources section), wrote that it referred to a small dog.

Famous Or Historic People Named Cullen

Here are some notable people with the family name:

  • Paul Cullen (1803–1878): The first Irish cardinal was an influential figure in the Catholic Church in Ireland during the 19th century. He helped to rebuild the church’s structures in Ireland following Catholic Emancipation.
  • Edgar M. Cullen (1843–1922): An American jurist who served as the Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state. He made significant contributions to New York state law.


Cullen As A Last Name

External Research

The Ireland 1990s estimates are from Seán J. Murphy’s research paper.

The population estimates of 1890 are based on the “Special Report on Surnames in Ireland“, published in 1909.

The population figures for the 2010 U.S. Census come from a file provided by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Internal Research

Some of the population numbers are based on my own research and calculations using online archives. I’ve rounded those numbers to the nearest 50 to account for transcription errors and other technical issues with online databases of this type.

The Irish census estimates for 1901 and 1911 are my calculations based on the Irish National Archives

I plotted the emigration figures from 1845 to 1854 based on calculations from the archives of the New York Passenger Lists (1820-1957).