Byrne Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Byrne Surname Meaning

The Irish clan O’Byrne claims descent from Bran, the king of Leinster in the 11th century.  Their name was more properly O’Broin (from bron meaning “raven”).  The sept originated in county Kildare but were driven east to the mountains of south Wicklow by the Anglo-Norman invaders under Strongbow in the 1170’s.

The English influence made O’Byrnes Byrnes.  And Byrnes also took on other Irish names such as O’Beirne and Beirne in Connacht.  When the Byrnes left Ireland, their names might subtly change from Byrne – to Byrns, Byrnes and the Scottish-looking Burn or Burns.

Byrne Surname Resources on The Internet

Byrne Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Wicklow)
  • to England, America and Australia

Ireland.  The O’Byrnes were – with their allies the O’Tooles – for three hundred years the most powerful forces in the country south of Dublin.  From their seat at Ballinacor in county Wicklow the O’Byrnes held sway over a territory between Ruthdrum and Shillelagh known as Crioch Branach.

They particularly distinguished themselves by their persistent and largely successful resistance to English incursions.  This reached a culmination with Feagh MacHugh O’Byrne’s defeat of English forces at Glenmalure in 1580, a feat celebrated in song in Follow Me Up to Carlow. Feagh was later killed in a skirmish in 1597.

The O’Byrnes started losing their lands through legal shenanigans in 1628.  The celebrated Leabhar Branach or Book of the O’Byrnes was a collection of Gaelic poetry written in the 1660’s to recount the old O’Byrne story.  After the Jacobite defeat in 1689 many O’Byrnes departed for France as part of the Irish International Brigade known as the Wild Geese.

In the next century the O’Byrnes were prominent in the 1798 insurrection, notably the Ballymanus brothers Garrett Byrne (who was exiled) and Billy Byrne.(who was hanged).  Other Byrnes were banished to Australia as a result of their participation.

Not all the Byrnes were anti-English.  Daniel Byrne took the English shilling and clothed Cromwell’s army in Ireland.  From the proceeds he was able to buy an English baronetcy.  And many Byrnes stood by the English in 1798, such as Matthew Byrne of Knockatomcoyle in county Wicklow.

“Matthew Byrne was a Protestant and was named as church warden along with Edward Byrne, Murtough Byrne and Richard Byrne for the Coolkenna Church of Ireland church in 1793.”

Matthew was a tenant farmer with a large land lease which was inherited by his son Hugh.

Byrnes were also to be found in south Wexford, Kildare, and Dublin.  John O’Byrne established himself at Cabinteely near Dublin in the 1660’s and this estate remained with the family until its loss in the late 19th century.  An O’Byrne of Cabinteely wrote the first reminiscences of the O’Byrne clan in 1843.  A more substantive tome The Byrnes and The O’Byrnes in three volumes were published by Daniel Byrne-Rothwell in 2009.

Today the surname Byrne is to be found throughout Ireland but is particularly prevalent in Dublin and county Wicklow.  Some five percent of families in Ireland have reverted to the older O’Byrne.

England and Scotland.  Many Byrnes crossed the Irish Sea for industrial Lancashire and the shipyards along the Clyde.  A number came to Liverpool, including the following whose families have traced their history:

  • James and Esther Byrne from Dublin who arrived in the 1840’s
  • Michael and Catherine Byrne from county Kildare who came in the 1860’s
  • Michael Byrne, a seaman from Wexford, and his wife Mary Ann who married there in 1904.

Denis Byrne started his specialist grocery store in Clitheroe, Lancashire in the 1870’s and it still flourishes today.

America.  An early arrival was George Byrne who came from Wicklow in 1720 and settled in what is now Washington DC.  Later Byrnes were to be found in Bulltown, West Virginia.

William Byrne arrived as a young man from Dublin in 1785 and ended up in Putnam county, Tennessee.  His descendants migrated to Texas. Another William Byrne, a patriot in 1798, left Wicklow as a Roman Catholic missionary and settled in Kentucky.

More Byrnes entered via New York and some contributed to the physical development of the city:

  • Edward Byrne oversaw the building of many of the city’s bridges, most notably the Triborough, during the 1920’s.
  • at the same time another Byrne, James, was constructing several of Brooklyn’s municipal buildings (Byrne Park in Brooklyn is named after him).
  • and many Byrnes joined the New York police and fire departments.  Edward Byrne, a policeman murdered in 1988 while on duty, is remembered by a street and a park in Queens named in his honor.

Moses Byrne was one of the early settlers in the West, having arrived in Utah in 1854 after converting to Mormonism in England.  He and his wife Catherine subsequently left the church and were pioneers in western Wyoming while it was still Indian territory.

Another Byrne (Frank), born of Irish immigrants in Iowa, pushed onto South Dakota and rose to become Governor of that state in 1913.

Australia.  Hugh Byrne of Ballyrogan was one of the Wicklow outlaws who were pardoned and subsequently exiled to Australia.  He and his wife Sarah settled in Campbelltown, NSW and raised fifteen children.

Another political exile with many descendants was Andrew Byrne, also from Wicklow, who arrived in 1800.   A third exile who came at the same time was James Byrne from Annamoe in Wicklow.

Joseph Byrne from Dublin was an early traveller in Australia in the 1830’s.  He subsequently returned to England and promoted emigration schemes.  His Byrne settlers left England for Natal in South Africa in the late 1840’s.  The scheme bankrupted him but he made another fortune in the Victoria goldfields before involving himself in a South Sea island resettlement plan.

Byrne Surname Miscellany

The O’Byrne Clan.  By the beginning of the 14th century there were two distinct branches of the O’Byrne clan.  The branch ruled land to the east from Delgany to the outskirts of Arklow.  A semi-autonomous branch held the mountainous country east of Imaal, between Glendalough and Shillelagh and was known as Ghabhal Raghnaill. Its territory centered round the chief’s principal residence at Ballincor.

In the 16th century the O’Byrnes of the plains submitted to English rule.  However, the mountain O’Byrnes under Hugh McShane O’Byrne refused and aggressively pursued a policy of resistance to the Anglicization of Ireland.  Hugh was succeeded by his son Feagh McHugh O’Byrne as leader of the Gabhal Raghnaill sept in 1579.

Follow Me Up To Carlow – Chorus

  • “Curse and swear Lord Kildare!
  • Feagh will do what Feagh will dare
  • Now FitzWilliam, have a care
  • Fallen is your star low
  • Up with halbert out with sword!
  • On we’ll go for by the Lord!
  • Feagh MacHugh has given the word,  Follow me up to Carlow!” 

Billy Byrne’s Lament.  Billy Byrne was an influential and well-regarded gentleman among his peers in Wicklow in 1798.  But he was convicted and hanged on the evidence of informers after the rebellion of that year was quashed.

The ballad Billy Byrne’s Lament appeared soon afterwards.  The tune was played by itinerant musicians in Dublin and was well known and extremely popular in the southeastern counties.  A longer version of the ballad gave the names of the informers who testified against Byrne.

Daniel Byrne and His New Money.  Daniel Byrne from Ballintlea in south Wexford saw his opportunity when Cromwell invaded Ireland in the 1640’s.  He was a clothier who supplied clothing to Cromwell’s forces.  He was said to have employed an enormous workforce in Dublin and to have supplied 40,000 uniforms on credit.  He did eventually get paid and the profits on this business made him a rich man.

The money allowed him to acquire the O’Kelly estate at Timogue in county Laios and to purchase an English baronetcy.  The seller was a young squire named Whitney who represented old money.  Byrne apparently left Whitney the castle on the estate as a residence.

The story goes that Whitney invited Byrne to dine with him there and contrived that Byrne got neither knife nor fork.  When Whitney told him to help himself, Byrne replied that he had plenty of meat but nothing to cut it with.  Whitney answered: “Why don’t you draw out your scissors and clip it, sir?”  For this affront, Byrne ordered him to quit the castle the next morning.

Byrne Traditions in South Wexford.  The Muchtown Byrons seemingly have a tradition that “there were four brothers from Wicklow; one went to Doowooney and one went to Grallagh, a third married into the family of Shepherd at Ballinaleigh near Ballamitty, and the fourth went into Nash.”

This is reminiscent of a Newtown Byrnes tradition that “the brothers came down from Wicklow; one married into Bonagrew near Brittas Bay, one married into Doowooney near Adamstown; and in the next generation there was a son who went to Grasscur and another into Ballylibernagh.”

Both traditions stress Doowooney in county Wexford and include the notion of “marrying into” a place.  The two stories cover generations radiating out into south Wexford and both mention a Wicklow origin.

Byrne and Name Variants in England in 1851.  The table below shows the Byrnes (and variant spellings) from county Wicklow that were recorded in the English census for 1851.

Head of Household No. in family County Place
Matthew Byrne     1 Cheshire Monks Coppenhall
Michael Burns     1 Lancashire Liverpool
John Byrnes     4 Liverpool
John Byrne     7 Ulverston
Sarah Byrns     7 Lancaster
David Burn     6 Yorkshire Horton
Hanry Byrne     1 Hampshire Portsmouth

The census also included six Byrne soldiers, two female servants, and one prisoner.

Moses Byrne, Wyoming Pioneer.  Early in 1860, Moses Byrne took a contract from the Overland Stage Company in Denver to build stage coach stations on the old emigrant trail through western Wyoming and Moses and his wife Catherine then moved to Wyoming.

These stations were built every fifteen miles beginning at Point of Rocks, Wyoming and going westward into Utah.  He built the cabins mostly of logs which he got from the forests many miles away.  He would go to the timber and cut and fit the logs on the spot so that there would be no waste material to haul.  He used mostly ox teams to haul with.

He did considerable trading of horses, ox and supplies with the emigrants while he was at the toll bridge which he had erected on the Muddy Creek.  He would often trade one strong fat animal for two that were leg weary and played out.  He would also go to the natural meadows through the country and cut hay with scythes and hand raking it and piling it he would leave it there until winter and then haul it to Fort Bridger where he would sell it to the US Government for use there at the Fort.

Just before the Union Pacific Railroad came through Moses moved three miles father up the Muddy where he built the store, started a town, and named it Byrne.  The name was changed, however, at the request of Union Pacific because of confusion with the town of Bryan farther east on the railroad.  The new name of Piedmont was named in honor of the country in Italy where Catherine Byrne had come from.

Piedmont was essentially in Shoshone territory; but there were rarely instances of serious Indian trouble.  One did occur while Moses Byrne was still running the Muddy Creek stage station.  A small hunting party of Sioux had ridden by and kidnapped Byrne’s two-year-old son Eddie while he was playing in the yard. The Indians moved swiftly and by the time the child was missed, all chances of rescue were gone.

Heartbroken, Byrne gave up all hope of ever seeing their son again.  One summer day two years later, Chief Washakie rode into the station and handed the stunned Moses his now four-year-old boy.  The chief would not tell where he had gotten the child.  Eddie Byrne grew up to become a mayor of an Idaho town where he was buried.

Reader Feedback – Denis Byrne to Australia in 1882.  I am the great grandson of Denis Byrne who arrived in Victoria Australia in 1882 from Wicklow in Ireland.

Denis Byrne (

Byrne Names

  • Feagh MacHugh O’Byrne defeated English forces at Glenmalure in 1580 but was then killed in a skirmish seventeen years later.  He is commemorated as an early nationalist hero.
  • Garrett Byrne was one of the leaders of the Irish rebellion of 1798.
  • Alfie Byrne was ten times Lord Mayor of Dublin in the 1930’s.  He was known as “the shaking hand” of Dublin.
  • Roger Byrne, captain of Manchester United, was one of the eight footballers of the team who lost their lives in the 1958 Munich air disaster.
  • Gay Byrne, born and raised in Dublin, was presenter of the Late Late Show on Irish TV from 1962 to 1999. He is credited with helping the social transformation of Ireland in the latter half of the 20th century.

Byrne Numbers Today

  • 32,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 18,000 in America (most numerous in New York).
  • 71,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland).

Byrne and Like Surnames 

The Irish clan or sept names come through the mists of time until they were found in Irish records such as The Annals of the Four Masters.  The names were Gaelic and this Gaelic order was preserved until it was battered down by the English in the 1600’s.

Some made peace with the English.  “Wild geese” fled to fight abroad.  But most stayed and suffered, losing land and even the use of their language.  Irish names became anglicized, although sometimes in a mishmash of spellings.  Mass emigration happened after the potato famine of the 1840’s.

Some surnames – such as Kelly, Murphy and O’Connor – span all parts of Ireland.  But most will have a territorial focus in one of the four Irish provinces – Leinster, Munster, Ulster, and Connacht.

Leinster in SE Ireland covers the counties of Carlow, Dublin, Kilkenny, Offaly, Laois, Longford, Louth, Meath, West Meath, Wexford, and Wicklow.  Here are some of the Leinster surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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