This article looks at how common McDonnell 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 McDonnell 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 McDonnell 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. McDonnell
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.
McDonnell was ranked 76 in the top one hundred names in this decade with a total of 10,800 entries.
This graphic shows how it ranks compared to the 1st, 33rd, 66th, and 100th entries in the survey:
McDonnell 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.
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 7,150 residents named McDonnell on the island in 1911.
Ten years earlier, McDonnell had about 8,650 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 11,000 people named McDonnell 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 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 McDonnell 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 McDonnell As A Last Name In The U.S.?
Based on the 2010 U.S. census, the name McDonnell ranks about 3,154 among Irish names in America with 14,309 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.
McDonnell In Historic Times
It is fascinating to examine how the prevalence of a surname shifts over the course of time in a country as young as the United States. As well as immigration, this reflects other demographic shifts across the nation. Factors include higher child mortality rates and longer life expectancy.
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: 1,950
- 1880: 4,250
- 1900: 5,100
- 1920: 6,600
- 1940: 8,200
McDonnell 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 616 soldiers named McDonnell who enlisted between 1938 and 1946.
There were 27 who were born in Ireland.
McDonnell Surname: Meaning And Origin
McDonnell comes from the Gaelic name “Mac Domhnaill”, which means “son of Domhnall”. The personal name Domhnall is derived from the Gaelic word for the world (domhan) and an old word that means “to rule”. So, the full name refers to a ruler of the world, the kind of name given to a powerful chief.
Interestingly, the name has both Irish and Scottish origins. One powerful Irish family was from Kerry. They were related to the O’Brien clan as descendants of Domhnall, the son of King Murtagh Mor O’Brien.
The Scottish McDonnells were a separate clan from the Highlands of Scotland. They came to Leinster (the eastern province of Ireland) in the 14th and 15th centuries and became an influential presence.
Famous Or Historic People Named McDonnell
Here are some notable people with the family name:
- Alexander McDonnell (1798 – 1835): a Belfast son of a surgeon who was a leading chess master of his era. He introduced the chess move known as the McDonnell Gambit.
- John McDonnell (1938 – 2021): a six-time All-Star in track and cross-country who became head coach for the Unversity of Arkansas track team. When he retired in 2008, was one of the most successful head coaches in college athletics.
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).