In the rich history of Ireland and Irish emigration to the United States, few surnames have been as enduring and prevalent as Murphy.
This is an exploration of the Murphy surname and its prevalence from the mid-19th century to the present day. Census records and emigration lists uncover the patterns of this quintessentially Irish last name.
Murphy Surname: Meaning And Origin
Murphy is derived from the Old Irish personal name “Murchadh,” which means “sea warrior” or “sea battler”. The Gaelic word “muir” means sea, and “cath” means battle.
In its original Irish Gaelic form, Murphy is spelled “Ó Murchadha”. This was later shortened to “Ó Murchú”.
The prefix “Ó” translates to “descendant of”. So, “Ó Murchadha” or “Ó Murchú” means “descendant of the sea warrior.”
When Anglicized, “Ó Murchadha” or “Ó Murchú” became Murphy.
Family Coat Of Arms
There are several versions of a Murphy coat of arms. This is one example:
Typically, there are three or four lions that symbolize bravery, strength, and nobility. In heraldry, each is known as a “lion rampant” due to its pose.
The term “rampant” comes from a French word that means “climbing”. The lion is standing on its hind legs, its front paws raised in the air as if it is climbing.
There are also three golden garbs on the crest. A “garb” is a sheaf of grain – usually wheat. This symbolizes the family ties to farming or agriculture.
The family motto is often found written beneath the crest. The phrase is:
Fortis et Hospitalis
This is Latin for “brave and hospitable”.
How Common Is The Murphy Surname In Ireland?
I’ve trawled online archives and genealogical studies to get population estimates going back to the late 19th century. It’s hard to go back much further in Ireland as the earliest full census that is available to us is from 1901.
But every estimate shows that Murphy has been the most common name in Ireland since the 19th century.
Irish Government Statistics In Recent Years
Although Ireland conducts a census every five years, the government doesn’t publish general statistics for surname frequency.
However, the country’s Central Statistics Office provides the ten most common surnames of babies born at the end of a year. Murphy was at the top of the list in 2022.
For context, here are the top five names in descending order.
You can read more about the other top names here:
Population Estimates In The 1990s
Murphy happens to be the surname of an Irish genealogist who researched the prevalence of Irish surnames between 1992 and 1997 based on entries in telephone books. Seán J Murphy’s survey covered the entire island of Ireland i.e. the Republic and Northern Ireland.
The survey found that Murphy was the most common name in this decade. For context, this bar chart below, shows the top five names in this survey.
Census Records In The Early 1900s
Unlike the United States, the Irish government doesn’t allow the publication of census archives within the last one hundred years. The only full censuses available are for 1911 and 1901.
As you can see from this table, Murphy was the most common name in Ireland in 1911 and in 1901.
If you want the raw numbers, there were approximately 55,800 bearers of the name Murphy in 1911.
The number was a little higher in 1901 when about 56,600 people named Murphy were recorded.
Population Estimates In The 1890s
In 1890, the Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths on the island of Ireland conducted a population study. Sir Robert Matheson published his results in 1909 as the “Special Report on Surnames In Ireland.”
Remember, these are estimates so it’s worth focusing on the rankings in the bar chart below:
Once again, Murphy is the highest-ranking name in the survey. This means that it has consistently been the most common surname in Ireland in over 130 years.
How Common Is Murphy In The United States?
Unlike Ireland, the United States publishes census details up to recent decades.
For privacy reasons, the 2010 census only provides high-level totals of surnames in the entire country. But that’s exactly what we need for this article.
Murphy In The 2010 U.S. Census
Based on the 2010 U.S. census, The name “Murphy” is the single most common Irish name in America with 308,417 bearers.
But the situation changes when we take alternate surname spellings into account. I identified three variants of Murphy in the census:
Now, let’s look at the variants of the next most common name of “Kelly”:
The variant of Kelley with an “e” has over 140 thousand bearers, making it a significant name in its own right.
When the totals are added up, Kelly and its variants are more numerous in the U.S. than Murphy and its variants. I’ll summarize by saying this:
Murphy is currently the most common Irish name in the U.S., but Kelly is more common when spelling variations are included.
Murphy In The 1940 U.S. Census
Murphy is the single most common Irish name in the 1940 census with 184,942 bearers.
Kelly and Sullivan are the next two (in that order) and are the only others with over one hundred thousand bearers that year.
However, things change between Murphy and Kelly when we take spelling variants into account. Below are the variations for Murphy.
Unlike the 2010 numbers, these are estimates rounded to the nearest 50. See the section on sources for an explanation.
And here are the variants for Kelly:
In 1940, Murphy was the most common Irish name in the U.S. Kelly was more common when spelling variations like “Kelley” are included in the total.
Murphy In The 1870 U.S. Census
Let’s jump back another seventy years to the first census taken after the American Civil War.
Murphy was the most common Irish name in the 1870 census with 83,209 bearers. Here is the breakdown of the spelling variants:
Once again, Murphy drops below Kelly when alternate spellings are taken into account.
In 1870, Murphy was the most common Irish name in the U.S. However, Kelly was more common when spelling variations of both names are included in their totals.
Murphy Emigration After The Irish Famine
Traditionally, Irish people have emigrated to England, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States.
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.
This is clearly illustrated when looking for the Murphy name in the shipping passenger lists arriving into New York.
I plotted the numbers for the top three Irish names from 1845 (the start of the famine) to 1854. Murphy is the red line.
It’s no surprise that Murphy is the most common name here, as it has long been the most common name in Ireland.
But it’s interesting (and sad) to see how the numbers rose sharply through the disastrous famine years before dropping in the aftermath.
Early History Of The Murphy Name
The Murphy name is so prevalent that we’ve written a separate article on one of the big Murphy clans dating back to the twelfth century.
This looks at the turbulent life of Dermot MacMurrough, an early King of Leinster whose actions led to the Anglo Norman invasion.
Historic And Famous Murphys
- Marie Louise O’Murphy (1737-1814): known as Mademoiselle de Morphy in France, she was a mistress of King Louis XV. Believed to be the model for the renowned nude painting “Reclining Girl“.
- Rev. John Murphy (1753-1798) and Rev. Michael Murphy (1767-1798): the two catholic priests from County Wexford were leaders during the Rebellion of 1798.
- James Murphy (1825-1897): founder of a Cork brewery and Murphy’s Stout, a rival in Ireland to Guinness.
- Patrick Murphy (1834-1862): known as the “Irish Giant”, he stood at 8 feet 1 inch tall as the tallest man in Europe.
- Michael Murphy (1837-1893): joined the British army and received the Victoria Cross for his actions in East India when defending an injured comrade while severely wounded.
- William Martin Murphy (1844-1921): a successful newspaper baron who earned notoriety for his opposition to workers’ unions during a mass strike in Dublin in 1913.
- Edward Murphy (1918-1990): this American aerospace engineer is said to have coined the term “Murphy’s Law”: everything that can go wrong will go wrong.
- Audie Murphy (1924-1971): this American soldier showed such courage during World War II that he was awarded every medal of valor.
Perhaps the most famous Murphy in recent times is Eddie Murphy, the American actor and comedian. And there are other historic African Americans with the Murphy name.
The top ten birth numbers in Ireland for 2022 are published by the Central Statistics Office.
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 birth estimates for 1955 are my calculations based on the Ireland Civil Registration Indexes.
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).
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Murphy A Scottish Or Irish Name?
Murphy is an Irish name that comes from the Gaelic words for “sea warrior”. Although the name is found in Scotland, the Scottish bearers descend from emigrants from Ireland.
Is Murphy A Viking Name?
Although some Irish names have Norse origins, Murphy does not. It comes from old Irish.
Is Murphy A Catholic Or Protestant Name?
Murphy is predominantly a Catholic name, although there are Protestant families represented in the population.
What Part Of Ireland Do Murphys Come From?
As such a common name, Murphys are found throughout Ireland. It’s thought that several independent families adopted the surname in the 12th and 13th centuries. Historically, some notable early families originated in Wexford, Cork, and Kerry.