This article looks at how common Donnelly 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 Donnelly 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 Donnelly As A Surname In Ireland?
The Irish government doesn’t publish detailed surname statistics for recent years. The best that they give us is the ten most common surnames of babies born in the previous year. Donnelly
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.
Donnelly was ranked 62 in the top one hundred names in this decade with a total of 12,400 entries.
This graphic shows how it ranks compared to the 1st, 33rd, 66th, and 100th entries in the survey:
Donnelly 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 focus on the early 1900s.
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 7,700 residents named Donnelly on the island in 1911.
Ten years earlier, Donnelly had about 8,800 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 10,700 people named Donnelly in the country.
Emigration To America After The Irish Famine
The Irish diaspora is large and widespread with a significant number of people emigrating to other parts of the globe. The destinations traditionally have been England, the U.S., Canada, and Australia. Emigrants were driven by various factors like political unrest, poverty, and food scarcity.
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 Donnelly name in the shipping passenger lists arriving in New York during this period. The departures were from both Ireland and England.
This picture shows how the numbers rose and fell in the years after the famine:
How Common Is Donnelly As A Last Name In America?
Based on the 2010 U.S. census, the name Donnelly ranks about 1,114 among Irish names in America with 33,329 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.
Donnelly In Historic Times
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:
These are the numbers in the graph:
- 1860: 4,450
- 1880: 9,250
- 1900: 2,550
- 1920: 16,050
- 1940: 5,100
Donnelly In World War II
Approximately 8.3 million men and women joined the United States Army during World War II. Many had Irish ancestry. Some had been born in Ireland before leaving the country.
There were registration records for 1,240 soldiers named Donnelly who enlisted between 1938 and 1946.
There were 19 who were born in Ireland.
Donnelly Surname: Meaning And Origin
Donnelly comes from the Gaelic surname “Ó Donnghaile” which means “descendant of Donnghal.”
The personal name Donnghal derives from two words. “Donn” means brown while “gal” means courage. The full phrase means something like “family of the brown-haired warrior”.
The genealogy of the name was documented in the Annals of the Four Masters, an ancient Irish text. It says that the Donnelly clan is descended from a great-grandson of Donal, a king in the early 10th century. His kingdom of Ailech was in Donegal.
Famous Or Historic People Named Donnelly
Here are some notable people with the family name:
- Ignatius Donnelly (1831-1901): American congressman who supported women’s suffrage and the efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau to assist freed African Americans. As well as these admirable positions, Donnelly was also an enthusiastic proponent of the lost city of Atlantis as the ancestral home of the Irish – a less reputable position.
- Edward Donnelly (1871-1929): rose through the ranks of the U.S. Army to be Brigadier General and commander of the 164th Field Artillery Brigade in France in WWI. The French awarded him the Croix de Guerre for valorous service.
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.
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).