This article looks at how common Kennedy 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 Kennedy 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 Kennedy 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. Kennedy
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.
Kennedy was ranked 21 in the top one hundred names in this decade with a total of 21,200 entries.
This graphic shows how it ranks compared to the 1st, 33rd, 66th, and 100th entries in the survey:
Kennedy 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 17,650 residents named Kennedy on the island in 1911.
Ten years earlier, Kennedy had about 17,950 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 19,900 people named Kennedy 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 Great Irish Famine, which happened from 1845 to 1852, caused the largest wave of emigration. The potato blight was a disaster for Ireland because it destroyed the main food source for a large proportion of the people.
I reviewed the Kennedy 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 Kennedy As A Last Name In The U.S.?
Based on the 2010 U.S. census, the name Kennedy ranks about 146 among Irish names in America with 176,865 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.
Kennedy 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: 18,050
- 1880: 40,600
- 1900: 61,500
- 1920: 79,250
- 1940: 102,250
Kennedy 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 6,172 soldiers named Kennedy who enlisted between 1938 and 1946.
There were 52 who were born in Ireland.
Kennedy Surname: Meaning And Origin
Kennedy comes from the Gaelic surname Ó Cinnéidigh. The Ó in Irish last names means “descendant of”. The rest of the name is derived from several Gaelic words.
The first part means “head” (ceann). The second part can refer to a helmet or also a wizened aspect. So, the full name can be “descendant of the helmet-headed person” or “descendant of the person with a wizened head”.
One prominent Kennedy family descended from a brother of Brian Boru, the great King of Ireland. They fought with their O’Brien kinsmen in Clare and settled in Tipperary where they became highly influential from the 12th to the 16th century.
Famous Or Historic People Named Kennedy
Here are some notable people with the family name:
- Edward Kennedy (1905 – 1963): an American journalist during WWII who was the first to report that Germany had surrendered to the Allies. The circumstances were somewhat controversial as the Allies had wanted to delay the story.
- Stetson Kennedy (1915 – 2011): an American folklorist and civil rights activist who infiltrated the Georgia branch of the Ku Klux Klan to work against them.
- John F. Kennedy (1917 – 1963): youngest elected American president and the first Catholic to hold the position. Jack Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. His brother Robert was assassinated in 1968.
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).