This article looks at how common Sheehan 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 Sheehan 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 Sheehan 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. Sheehan
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.
Sheehan was ranked 93 in the top one hundred names in this decade with a total of 9,500 entries.
This graphic shows how it ranks compared to the 1st, 33rd, 66th, and 100th entries in the survey:
Sheehan 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.
So, let’s focus on the early 1900s.
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 7,200 residents named Sheehan on the island in 1911.
Ten years earlier, Sheehan had about 6,850 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 9,600 people named Sheehan in the country.
Emigration To America After The Irish Famine
The Irish diaspora is large and widespread with a significant number of people emigrating to other parts of the globe. The destinations traditionally have been England, the U.S., Canada, and Australia. Emigrants were driven by various factors like political unrest, poverty, and food scarcity.
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 Sheehan 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 Sheehan As A Last Name In The U.S.?
Based on the 2010 U.S. census, the name Sheehan ranks about 1,329 among Irish names in America with 26,902 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.
Sheehan 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: 1,450
- 1880: 6,150
- 1900: 8,000
- 1920: 14,700
- 1940: 12,000
Sheehan 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 1,124 soldiers named Sheehan who enlisted between 1938 and 1946.
There were 26 who were born in Ireland.
Sheehan Surname: Meaning And Origin
Sheehan is from the Gaelic surname Ó Siodhacháin, which means “descendant of Siodhachan”.
The name Siodhachan is a diminutive (pet) form of “siodhach”, which means peaceful in Gaelic. So, the full name means “descendant of the peaceful person”.
One early prominent family was based in the province of Munster in what are now the counties of Clare, Kerry, and Limerick. These Sheehans were a branch of the Dalcassians, a powerful tribe in the Middle Ages.
Famous Or Historic People Named Sheehan
Here are some notable people with the family name:
- Harold Sheehan (1900 – 1988): British professor of pathology who discovered a pituitary disease now known as Sheehan’s Syndrome.
- Neil Sheehan (1936 – 2021): New York Times reporter who revealed the secret Pentagon Papers from the Vietnam War. He won the Pulitzer Price for his book “A Bright Shining Lie”.
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).