This article looks at how common Ryan 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 Ryan 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 Ryan 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. Ryan
So, I had to look elsewhere for population estimates. Thankfully, an Irish genealogist researched the prevalence of Irish surnames through national phone directories published in the 1990s. Seán Murphy’s estimates aren’t as robust as a census but give a good broad estimate.
Ryan was ranked 8 in the top one hundred names in this decade with a total of 39,200 entries.
This graphic shows how it ranks compared to the 1st, 33rd, 66th, and 100th entries in the survey:
Ryan 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 30,650 residents named Ryan on the island in 1911.
Ten years earlier, Ryan had about 30,800 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 32,000 people named Ryan 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 Ryan 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 Ryan As A Last Name In The U.S.?
Based on the 2010 U.S. census, the name Ryan ranks about 193 among Irish names in America with 143,452 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.
Ryan In Historic Times
It’s interesting to look at how the numbers of a surname change over time in a relatively young country like the United States. These changes can reflect the broader demographic shifts within the nation. It’s not just migration from outside. It’s also birth rates, improved child mortality, and people living longer.
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: 25,550
- 1880: 53,300
- 1900: 71,750
- 1920: 80,250
- 1940: 90,800
Ryan 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 5,309 soldiers named Ryan who enlisted between 1938 and 1946.
There were 70 who were born in Ireland.
Ryan Surname: Meaning And Origin
Ryan comes from the Gaelic surname Ó Riain, which means “descendant of Rian”.
The personal name Rian is likely the diminutive (pet) form of the Gaelic word for a king (rí). So, the full name is akin to “descendant of the little king”.
An early Ryan family were influential in Carlow, with their seat in Idrone in the west of the county. Another clan were powerful in Thomond, an ancient kingdom in the province of Munster.
Famous Or Historic People Named Ryan
Here are some notable people with the family name:
- Tony Ryan (1936 – 2007): an Irish businessman who co-founded Ryanair, a hugely successful European airline. Before his personal success, he joined the national Airline after leaving school and rose up through the management ranks.
- Cornelius Ryan (1920 – 1974): an Irish writer who worked as a war correspondent during World War II. He authored renowned historical books about World War II, including A Bridge Too Far.
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).