This article looks at how common McGrath 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 McGrath 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 McGrath 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. McGrath
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.
McGrath was ranked 48 in the top one hundred names in this decade with a total of 14,500 entries.
This graphic shows how it ranks compared to the 1st, 33rd, 66th, and 100th entries in the survey:
McGrath In The Early 1900s
The only full censuses that are publically available in Ireland are from 1911 and 1901. Prior decades were either destroyed through government action (to reclaim storage space) or by a catastrophic fire during the Irish Civil War.
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 11,150 residents named McGrath on the island in 1911.
Ten years earlier, McGrath had about 11,400 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 11,900 people named McGrath 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 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 McGrath 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 McGrath As A Last Name In The U.S.?
Based on the 2010 U.S. census, the name McGrath ranks about 3,395 among Irish names in America with 34,871 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.
McGrath 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: 4,900
- 1880: 11,800
- 1900: 17,050
- 1920: 19,750
- 1940: 22,600
McGrath In World War II
During World War Two, approximately 8.3 million men and women joined the ranks of the United States Army. Many were of Irish descent. Some had even been born in Ireland and emigrated.
There were registration records for 1,379 soldiers named McGrath who enlisted between 1938 and 1946.
There were 26 who were born in Ireland.
McGrath Surname: Meaning And Origin
McGrath comes from the Gaelic name “Mac Raith” (also spelled “Mac Craith”. The “Mac” in Irish names literally means “son of”, so the name means “son of Raith”.
The personal name Raith derives from the Gaelic word for prosperity or grace. So, the full meaning is akin to “son of prosperity”.
One early powerful McGrath family settled in County Clare and County Waterford. Some were hereditary poets to the powerful O’Brien clan. This means that they composed poems in praise of the O’Brien chieftains, and they recorded the history of their patrons’ families.
Famous Or Historic People Named McGrath
Here are some notable people with the family name:
- James Howard McGrath (1903 – 1966): an American politician who was elected as Governor of Rhode Island in 1941. Harry Truman appointed him Attorney General of the United States in 1949.
- Thomas McGrath (1916 – 1990): a talented American poet from North Dakota who wrote the poem “Letter to an Imaginary Friend”.
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).