Foley As An Irish Last Name

This article looks at how common Foley 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 Foley 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 Foley 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. Foley

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.

Foley was ranked 79 in the top one hundred names in this decade with a total of 10,500 entries.

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

Foley Ireland 1990s

Foley In The Early 1900s

The only complete Irish censuses that are available to the general public are those from the years 1901 and 1911. They offer two detailed snapshots of the population.

Some records exist from earlier censuses, but most of the documents are lost to history. So, we’ll focus on the turn of the 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 8,900 residents named Foley on the island in 1911.

Ten years earlier, Foley had about 9,100 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 11,200 people named Foley in the country.

Emigration To America After The Irish Famine

The Irish have historically emigrated to Britain, the United States, Canada, and Australia. They were motivated by multiple factors, including social unrest, economic desperation, and hunger.

The largest wave of emigration to the United States occurred during the 19th century. The peak was in response to the Great Irish Famine, which took place between 1845 and 1852. A plant disease devastated the main food and income crop for much of the population.

I reviewed the Foley 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:

Foley emigration after the famine

How Common Is Foley As A Last Name In The U.S.?

Based on the 2010 U.S. census, the name Foley ranks about 661 among Irish names in America with 51,865 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.

Foley In Historic Times

In a country as young as the United States, tracking the popularity of a surname over time can be fascinating. This reflects other demographic shifts across the country in addition to immigration. Higher child mortality rates and longer life expectancy are just two factors.

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 Foley in the U.S. between 1860 and 1940

These are the numbers in the graph:

  • 1860: 7,500
  • 1880: 17,350
  • 1900: 24,400
  • 1920: 28,350
  • 1940: 32,850

Foley 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 2,088 soldiers named Foley who enlisted between 1938 and 1946.

There were 28 who were born in Ireland.

Foley Surname: Meaning And Origin

Foley comes from the Gaelic “Ó Foghladha”, which means “descendant of Foghlaidh”.

The personal name Foghlaidh derives from the Irish word for someone who marauds and plunders. So, the full name refers to the “descendant of the plunderer”.

One early bearer of the family name was Maeliosa O Foghladha, who was an Archbishop of Cashel (in county Tipperary) in the 12th century.

Famous Or Historic People Named Foley

Here are some notable people with the family name:

  • John Henry Foley (1818 – 1874): a Dublin-born sculptor who has several notable works in London. If you visit Dublin’s main street, the large statue of Daniel O’Connell is by J.H. Foley.
  • Frank Foley (1884 – 1958): a member of MI6, the British secret intelligence unit, Foley was a passport controller in the British Embassy in Berlin in the early 1940s. He worked clandestinely to issue passports to thousands of Jews to get them safely out of Germany.
  • Charles Foley (1930 – 2013): an American inventor of toys, he was the co-inventor of Twister.


Foley 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).

More Irish Names Starting With F