McNamara As An Irish Last Name

This article looks at how common McNamara 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 McNamara 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 Was McNamara In Ireland 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.

So, let’s concentrate on the early decades of the twentieth 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 6,700 residents named McNamara on the island in 1911.

Ten years earlier, McNamara had about 6,800 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 8,600 people named McNamara 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 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 McNamara 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:

McNamara emigration after the famine

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

Based on the 2010 U.S. census, the name McNamara ranks about 1,549 among Irish names in America with 26,534 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.

McNamara 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:

how common was McNamara in the U.S. between 1860 and 1940

These are the numbers in the graph:

  • 1860: 2,450
  • 1880: 7,900
  • 1900: 11,250
  • 1920: 13,450
  • 1940: 15,800

McNamara 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 1,309 soldiers named McNamara who enlisted between 1938 and 1946.

There were 20 who were born in Ireland.

McNamara Surname: Meaning And Origin

McNamara comes from the Gaelic surname Mac Conmara. The “Mac” in Irish names literally means “son of”. The Gaelic words “con mara” mean “hound of the sea”. So, the name translates to “son of the hound of the sea”.

The early McNamaras were kin to the O’Briens, and both clans descended from the powerful ancient tribe known as the Dalcassians.

Their territory was in what is now County Clare on the west of Ireland. As hereditary marshalls, they would inaugurate the chief of the O’Briens.

Famous Or Notorious McNamaras

Here are some notable people with the family name:

  • John J. and James Barnabas McNamara: two brothers and union leaders who gained notoriety for dynamiting the Los Angeles Times Building in 1910. The ensuing fire killed 21 people.
  • Patrick McNamara (1894 – 1966): his parents emigrated from Ireland, and he grew up in Massachussets. McNamara was elected to the U.S. Senate from Michigan in 1955 and served for eleven years.


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).