This article looks at how common McCarthy 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 McCarthy 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 McCarthy As A Surname In Ireland?
Ireland does not disclose current statistics on surnames in much detail. The most that we get is the top ten last names in birth registrations for the previous year. McCarthy
However, an Irish genealogist studied the top one hundred surname numbers in Ireland between 1992 and 1997. Seán Murphy based his research on telephone books. This isn’t as accurate as a census but gives a good approximation.
McCarthy was ranked 12 in the top one hundred names in this decade with a total of 26,200 entries.
This graphic shows how it ranks compared to the 1st, 33rd, 66th, and 100th entries in the survey:
McCarthy 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 18,600 residents named McCarthy on the island in 1911.
Ten years earlier, McCarthy had about 18,850 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 22,300 people named McCarthy 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 McCarthy 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 McCarthy As A Last Name In The U.S.?
Based on the 2010 U.S. census, the name McCarthy ranks about 384 among Irish names in America with 82,950 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.
McCarthy 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:
These are the numbers in the graph:
- 1860: 5,250
- 1880: 19,750
- 1900: 35,800
- 1920: 46,300
- 1940: 55,500
McCarthy 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 3,295 soldiers named McCarthy who enlisted between 1938 and 1946.
There were 71 who were born in Ireland.
McCarthy Surname: Meaning And Origin
McCarthy comes from the Gaelic surname Mac Carthaigh. The term “mac” means “son of” in Irish, so the name literally means “son of Carthach”. The personal name Carthach means a loving person.
The first Carthach was a king in Munster who died in 1045. His descendants, the McCarthys, were one of the most powerful clans in the southern province.
There were three dominant branches and various minor branches. One of the McCarthy strongholds was at Blarney Castle, home to the legendary Blarney Stone.
Famous Or Historic People Named McCarthy
Here are some notable people with the family name:
- Joseph McCarthy (1908 – 1957): Senator Joe McCarthy became a household name in the 1950s for his over-the-top investigations into alleged communist sympathies among government workers, academics, and Hollywood stars. He gave us the term “McCarthyism”.
- Charles McCarthy (1933 – 2023): writing under the name of Cormac McCarthy, he became one of America’s great modern novelists. Many of his novels have been adapted into films, including “No Country For Old Men”.
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).