Connolly Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Connolly Surname Meaning

The Irish surname Connolly is the anglicized form of the Gaelic sept name O’Conghaile, meaning “descendant of Conghal (from con or “hound” and gal or “valor”). The Munster branch of this sept, which established itself in West Cork, went by O’Coingheallaigh, from Coingheallach meaning “faithful” or “reliable.”

Connolly and Connelly are the main spelling variants. Conolly also appears, as does Connally in America.

Connolly Surname Resources on The Internet

Connolly and Connelly Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland
  • to Scotland, America and Australia

Ireland.  The O’Conghailes were an ancient Connacht sept reportedly descended from Congal, a 10th century chief of the southern Hy Niall. Over the passage of time, they were believed to have separated and dispersed into three main branches:

  • the chief branch resided in county Meath and was one of the “four tribes of Tara.”
  • a second branch belonged to the ancient kingdom of Oriel in modern-day Monaghan.
  • while the Munster branch of the sept established itself in west Cork.

Tirlogh O’Connola was recorded as the Connolly chief and vice-marshal to the McMahons in Monaghan in 1591.

In subsequent years William “Speaker” Conolly, speaker of the Irish House of Commons in the early 1700’s, was the most prominent of these Connollys (although he himself was born in humble circumstances).

He became rich by acting as a solicitor for landlords who bought and sold property after the Jacobite confiscations. He built Castletown House in county Kildare in 1722 on these proceeds. Apparently it required 240 horses to bring his half year’s rent from Dublin to Castletown and three cellars to store them.  He was a Protestant and a representative of the Protestant ascendancy at that time.

His great nephew Thomas “Squire” Conolly, who inherited the estate, was the quintessential Irish gentleman of the late 18th century and was said, erroneously, to have been the richest man in Ireland at that time. Charles Conolly, an English lawyer who was related to this family, acquired the Midford castle folly near Bath in Somerset in 1808.

Today the Connolly name is principally to be found in Monaghan, Galway, and Cork. There appears to have been a particular cluster of Connollys in or around the parish of Clones on the Monaghan/Fermanagh border.

Scotland. Many poor Irish, including Connollys, left Ireland for Scotland in search of work. Among them were John and Mary Connolly from Monaghan who settled in the “Little Ireland” slum area of Edinburgh in the 1860’s. Their son James Connolly was an Irish nationalist and socialist agitator. He played a leading part in the Easter Rising of 1916 for which he was executed and became a martyr to the cause.

Larger numbers came to Glasgow. Billy Connolly’s paternal ancestors came from Galway in the 1880’s and worked in the shipbuilding industry. As did Billy until he discovered his taste for comedy. Another Glaswegian Connolly is Brian Connolly, lead singer of the rock group Sweet.

America. The spelling may be Connolly, Connelly, or Connally. There were a number in America by the 1700’s, mainly in Virginia and North Carolina:

  • John O’Connelly came to the Catawba river valley in North Carolina from Ireland in 1743. His offspring spread over Burke, Caldwell, and Catawba counties. Connelly Springs in the area was named after this family.
  • George Connolly was a plantation owner in Lancaster county, Virginia in the 1760’s. His grandson George fought in the Revolutionary War and then migrated westward to Lewis county.
  • John Connelly, born in Sussex county Virginia, also fought in the War. He later moved to North Carolina and then to Tennessee. His son James was a missionary in Africa.
  • John and Sarah Connelly were living in Bedford county, Virginia during the 1760’s. They moved to Wilkes county, North Carolina after the War.
  • and Charles Connally, born in Virginia in 1772, married in Georgia and later moved to Alabama.

The 19th century saw the destination for immigration shift to New York and Boston. John Connolly was appointed Bishop of New York in 1814 and came out from Meath a year later. He served ten years and was buried in the old St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

The immigrant wave came later in the century, their numbers including:

  • Patrick Connolly who joined the US Navy from Ireland and came to Brooklyn in 1858.
  • the Connelly family from Galway who arrived in Boston from Galway in the 1880’s and worked as longshoremen in the Chelsea area. Edward Connelly from Chelsea was a respected clothier in Wakefield, Mass.
  • and Michael Connolly who came to Boston from Dublin in 1883 and married Ellen Delaney five years later.

William Connelly arrived in Boston during Prohibition in the 1920’s and started up in the mob business. His business boomed and the Connelly family was soon running the streets of Boston. Eldest son James took over from him in the late 1960’s.

Heading West.  Some Connollys headed west. Perhaps the most successful was Tom Connolly who started a carriage business in Dubuque, Iowa in 1858. By 1885 his factory was producing a thousand buggies, carriages and sleighs annually and Tom had become wealthy.

“Connolly had one of Dubuque’s most elegant mansions built in 1893. Fine woods floated down the Mississippi river from forests in Wisconsin and Minnesota were used in the construction. The home was one of the few in Dubuque with a carriage step, a raised platform three feet off the ground enabling visitors to leave their carriages without soiling their clothes.”

Son Maurice was a local politician unfortunately killed in an early airplane accident in 1921.

Also unfortunate was the Irish group from Galway who were transplanted to rural Minnesota under an assisted emigration scheme in 1880. There they encountered the worst winter in the state’s history and nearly froze to death in shanties on the prairie. Newspapers featured their plight as the welfare scandal of the year. The story was recounted in the 2003 book Forgetting Ireland by Bridget Connelly, a descendant.

Australia. The early Connollys in Australia were convicts. A Connolly and a Connelly in fact came on the First Fleet in 1789. Bridget Connolly, transported from Dublin in 1802, was one of the first inmates of the “female factory” at Parramatta.

In 1820 Father Philip Conolly was sent by the Catholic Church to minister to the Irish convicts in Tasmania.  “A man ‘of no small ability and attainments, witty and full of dry humor,’ Conolly labored alone for fourteen years among ‘a wicked and perverse generation,’ making regular quarterly visits on horseback to Launceston, George Town, and other settlements.”

Later came Connolly settlers, often under assisted passage. Patrick and Julia Connolly, for instance, arrived in Sydney with their seven children on the Elphinstone in 1840. They settled to farm in Queanbeyan, NSW.

Some headed for colonial outposts such as Western Australia and Queensland. John Connolly was a private in the 63rd Regiment who arrived in Western Australia in 1829 and farmed in the Upper Swan valley. Connolly, a northern suburb of Perth, is named after him. Two Connollys, John and Paddy, struck it lucky during the Western Australian gold rush of the 1890s. The latter achieved fame as a racehorse owner.

“‘Lucky Connolly’ was known throughout the country as an astute breeder, a canny owner and a big punter. Tall and well-built, he had a determined jaw and eyes that told nothing. Few shared his confidence; fewer claimed him as a friend.”

A Connolly family from Ballinasloe in Galway left Ireland in stages during the 1840’s and 1850’s and eventually settled in Gayndah, Queensland. Matthew Connolly arrived with his family in 1852 and became a constable in Gatton.

Connolly Surname Miscellany

Connolly, Connelly, and Variants.  Connolly and Connelly are the main spelling variants.  Conolly also appears, as does Connally in America.  The table below shows the approximate current numbers.

Numbers (000’s) Connolly Connelly Others Total
Ireland   15    1    16
UK   15    7    22
America   10    9    1    20
Canada    5    1     6
Australia    5    3     8
New Zealand    1     1
Total   51   21     1   73

Castletown House and The Conollys.  Castletown House in county Kildare was built in 1722 for “Speaker” William Conolly, the speaker of the Irish House of Commons from 1715. It was designed by the famous Italian architect Alessandro Galelei and it remains the only house in Ireland designed by him.  The only Irish Palladian house built with the correct classical proportions, it is said to have influenced the design of the White House in Washington.

Catherine Conolly, widow of the great “Speaker,” continued to live in Castletown until her own death in 1752.  Castletown was then inherited by her nephew William.  He died just two years later and the house was inherited by his son Tom Conolly.  “Squire” Conolly, as he was known, married Lady Louisa Lennox, daughter of the Duke of Richmond, in 1758. Louisa was just fifteen years of age at the time.

The Print Room, dated around 1765, is attributed to Louisa.  It is the only print room to have survived.   The fashion of print rooms originated in England and consisted of engravings and mezzotints being pasted onto the wall and framed with decorative borders.

Castletown House stayed with the Connollys until 1965 when it was put up for auction by Lord Carew, whose mother was a member of the Connolly family.

Charles Conolly – From Protestant to Catholic in Faith.  Charles Conolly, born around 1760, was related to the Conolly Protestant family in Ireland.  Their wealth and eminence had stemmed from William Conolly, a man who had risen to become Speaker of the Irish House of Commons.

Who exactly was Charles Conolly?  It is not very clear.  One report has him as the illegitimate son of Thomas “Squire” Conolly of Castletown.  In any event, he moved to London in 1781 at the age of twenty and entered Lincoln’s Inn to train as a lawyer.  He was called to the Bar in 1791 and his rapid success made him one of the most eminent barristers in London.  By 1808 he had accumulated enough wealth to acquire Midford Castle near Bath in Somerset.

What brought about his Catholic conversion?  Was it related to his possible illegitimacy?  Was it to do with his marriage to Maria Burke in 1784?  Or was there some other factor at play?  In any event, professionally, he became an advocate of Catholic emancipation.  Privately, his spiritual needs at Midford were catered to by visiting monks from Downside Abbey.  Later his son Charles built a Catholic chapel and appointed a resident Catholic priest.

Charles senior died in 1828, one year before Parliament passed its Catholic Emancipation Act.  His son Charles took over the running of Midford. He loved to entertain at the castle, organising dances and local shoots. Unfortunately, he enjoyed being a gentleman of leisure so much that on his death in 1850 his wife was left with a debt of over £10,000 and was forced to borrow money.  Midford Castle did remain with the Conolly family until 1901.

James Connolly’s Trial and Execution.  Connolly had been in charge of the General Post Office during the Easter Rising and was immediately arrested once the rebels had surrendered.  At his trial he made the following statement:

“We want to break the connection between this country and the British Empire and to establish an Irish Republic.

In this rising, we have succeeded in proving that Irishmen are ready to die endeavoring to win  for Ireland those national rights which the British government has been asking them to die to win for Belgium.  As long as that remains the case, the cause of Irish freedom is safe.  I personally thank God that I have lived to see the day when thousands of Irish men and boys and hundreds of Irish women and girls were ready to affirm that truth and to attest it with their lives if need be.”

James Connolly was sentenced to death and, on May 12 1916, he was shot by firing squad.  He had been taken by military ambulance to Kilmainham prison, carried on a stretcher to a courtyard in the prison, tied to a chair and shot.  His body was put into a mass grave with the other executed rebels and given no coffin.

In death he was a martyr.  There is a statue of him in Dublin outside Liberty Hall.  There is also the Dublin Connolly railway station and the Dublin Connolly hospital.

Billy Connolly and His Ancestors.  The much-loved Scottish comedian Billy Connolly was born in Glasgow in 1942.  Billy was originally a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, but gave it up to be a folk-singer in the 1960’s.

When the BBC Who Do You Think You Are? team came to research his ancestry, they decided to focus on his mother McLean’s side of the family.  Much more interesting.  They found family ancestors in the Isle of Mull and a career soldier in India at the time of the 1857 Mutiny.

However, Billy hardly knew his mother.  When he was four she abandoned her children while her husband was out in Burma fighting in the Second World War.  He and his elder sister Florence instead were cared for by his father’s sisters.  His father was not much of a father when he returned from the war.

Billy’s father line began with Bartholomew Connolly nicknamed Valentine who was a farmer in Galway, Ireland.  After his wife Anne died in 1870, he crossed the Irish Sea to Liverpool with his six children.  He died in Liverpool.  His son Charles moved to Glasgow to work in the shipyards there, which was where Billy was born.

The Bible Record of John Connelly from Virginia.  

Births.  “Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth.”  Genesis XI: 1.

  • Milton H. Connelly was born January 22, 1810
  • James M.C. Connelly was born January 22, 1810
  • Jefferson Connelly was born November 3, 1803
  • Charles L. Connelly was born August 10, 1807.

Marriages.  “This is now bone of my bones…therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and shall cleave unto his wife and they shall be one flesh.”  Genesis II: 23-24.

  • John Connelly was born January 27, 1760
  • Married March 2, 1790
  • Died June 29, 1835.

Connelly Springs, North Carolina.  In 1838 William Lewis Connelly was the first settler in the area later called Connelly Springs.  His pioneer settlement was called Happy Home.  Son William started a general store there in the 1860’s.

His wife Elmira would wash the family clothes in water from a spring on their property.  Her white clothes always had a yellowish tint and in 1885 she had the water treated by the state chemist in Virginia.  The chemist found in his analysis that the water had a high content of bicarbonate of iron.  He told Mrs. Connelly that in his opinion the water should be beneficial for healing a large number of diseases.

Soon the news of the mineral springs spread and visitors began to visit Happy Home to drink the wonderful healing waters. Some arrived by horse and wagon and carted the water away in five gallon demijohns. Others came by train from further afield.  In time the town’s name was changed to Connelly Springs and the town itself became a summer resort.

Philip Conolly and The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce.  The Australian film The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce described the extraordinary saga of the escaped convict Alexander Pearce, tried and convicted of murder and cannibalism in Hobart in 1824 and sentenced to hang.

Father Philip Conolly recorded Pearce’s confession in Gaelic and he accompanied Pearce to the gallows the next day where it seems (although accounts vary) he made an impassioned speech condemning the harsh treatment of the prisoner.

In the film it was pointed out that both Conolly and Pearce had come from the same parish of Clones on the Monaghan/Fermanagh border. Like Pearce, Conolly had been forced to go to Australia.  At that time Catholic priests were barely tolerated in the colony and the hopelessness of Conolly’s parish of extreme sinners apparently weighed heavily upon him.

By being a cannibal, Pearce had forced Conolly to examine the idea of what it is to be human.  As Pearce had advanced across the wilderness – starving, killing, eating – it seemed that he had been shedding the very constructs of society.  Many saw him as a monster.  But Conolly had to look beyond these judgments. Pearce may have been a terrible sinner.  But he was still a man and therefore not beyond the possibility of redemption.

Matthew Connolly Dead in Queensland.  Matthew Connolly was 36 when he brought his family to Australia in 1853, leaving behind famine-stricken Ireland in the hope of finding a better life.  After joining the police force in Queensland, Constable Connolly worked as a watchhouse keeper at Gatton.

On August 25, 1861 he had finished a routine prisoner escort to Ipswich when a doctor requested that he obtain medication from Ipswich for two ill women, including the wife of a district magistrate.  However, heavy rains in the region had created dangerously high water levels in surrounding creeks and streams.

Connolly, determined to deliver the medicine, attempted to cross a flooded creek on horseback with the two parcels tied across his chest.  The horse made it to the opposite bank.  But Constable Connolly didn’t.  His 44 year old body was found the next day along with the medication.  He left behind a wife and six children.

In 2006 his descendants, together with police and other local community members, unveiled a plaque commemorating Constable Connolly in Toowoomba.

Connolly Names

  • Speaker Conolly prospered from the Jacobite confiscations after the Battle of the Boyne and was reportedly the richest man in Ireland when he died in 1729.
  • James Connolly was one of the leaders of the Irish Easter Rising of 1916. He was captured by the English and executed by a firing squad.
  • Cyril Connolly was an English writer and literary critic of the 1940’s and 1950’s.
  • Little Mo Connolly was an American tennis player of the early 1950’s. She was the first woman to win all four Grand Slam titles in the same year.
  • John Connally was Governor of Texas in 1963 and subsequently Secretary of the Treasury under President Nixon.
  • Billy Connolly is a well-known Scottish comedian, actor, and entertainer.

Connolly Numbers Today

  • 22,000 in the UK (most numerous in Glasgow)
  • 25,000 in America (most numerous in Massachusetts)
  • 32,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland).

Connolly 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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