Duffy Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Duffy Surname Meaning

In Gaelic the Duffy surname is O’Dubhthaigh, from dubh and dubhthach meaning “black” or “dark” (dubh was also the root for the Scottish/Irish surname Duff). Dubhthach was the name borne by a sixth century saint who was the archbishop of Armagh.

The Duffy surname is widespread in Ireland, featuring most prominently in county Monaghan. It is also numerous in north Connacht and is to be found in Munster to some extent (although there it has often taken the form of Duhig while in parts of Donegal it has become Doohey or Dowey).

Duffy Surname Resources on The Internet

Duffy Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Monaghan)
  • to England, America, Canada and Australia

Ireland.  There have been several distinct septs of Duffy. One was centered around the parish of Templecrone in Donegal. They were powerful churchmen there for close to eight hundred years.

The Roscommon Duffys – from their base at Lissonuffyn near Stokestown – also had a long association with the church, producing a succession of distinguished abbots and bishops. Their names were recorded in the Annals and in the Rental of Cong Abbey compiled by Tadhg O’Duffy in 1501.

But the largest number of Duffys were and are to be found in county Monaghan. Historically they were rulers of an area around Clontibret. Patrick O’Duffy was cited as the chieftain there in 1296. These Duffys also contributed a great deal to the church. A large number of parish clergy were recorded in their name, particularly at the time of the penal laws in the 18th century.

Later Duffys from Monaghan have been James Duffy, the founder of a well-known Dublin publishing company, the remarkable Gavan Duffy family:

  • the father Sir Charles (1816-1903), founder of the Young Ireland party and The Nation newspaper and subsequently Prime Minister of Victoria in Australia. He married three times and had eleven children, four in his 70’s;
  • and among his sons John (1844-1917), also a member of the Victorian government; Frank (1852-1936), who became Australian Chief Justice; Charles (1855-1932), also in Australian politics; George (1882-1951), one of the signatories of the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1922 and later President of the High Court of Justice in Ireland; Bryan (1886-1956), a Jesuit educationalist in South Africa; and Thomas (1888-1942), a Catholic missionary in India;

and also from Monaghan Eoin O’Duffy, chief of the Irish police after independence and the subsequent founder of the Blueshirts.

Monaghan had been one of the most densely populated counties in Ireland in the 19th century, but suffered grievously because of the famine. It is estimated that the population dropped by almost a third between 1841 and 1851 and went on falling afterwards. Duffys like James Duffy emigrated.

England and Scotland.  Duffys crossed the Irish Sea for jobs in industrial Lancashire and Glasgow during the 19th century. A relatively early arrival was Edward Duffy with his wife Elizabeth who were to be found on Eldon Street, Liverpool in the early 1820’s where they raised their family. Hubert Duffy came to Liverpool and Comus Street in the early 1880’s.

Many were coming to Glasgow and elsewhere in Scotland by that time. Carol Ann Duffy, who was made England’s Poet Laureate in 2009, comes from a Glasgow Gorbals family.

America. Many Duffys, like others from Ireland in the 19th century, ended up in the large cities on the Eastern Seaboard, Philadelphia, New York, or Boston. Duffy’s Cut, just outside Philadelphia, was the scene of a terrible Irish tragedy in 1832.

Some were more adventurous and headed West. Their numbers included Michael Duffy who had come to Iowa City by 1840 and farmed near there at what was then called Old Man’s Creek; and Daniel Duffy from Donegal who started a grocer’s shop with his brother in St. Joseph, Missouri in 1865.

Canada.  Duffy was an early name in Newfoundland. One story is that a French pirate called Dupre changed his name to Duffy to avoid a charge of murder and fled to Newfoundland. His descendants settled at Abraham’s Cove in Port-au-Port where the Duffy name is still to be found. Father Duffy was an Irish priest who came to Newfoundland in 1833. His legacy is Father Duffy’s holy well.

Some of the other Duffys who came to Canada from Ireland were:

  • John Duffy who left Sligo in 1833 on the Lord Brougham for Quebec. He settled in Esmende in the Ottawa valley and raised a family there. Duffy Lake nearby was named after him.
  • two years later Patrick Duffy came with his wife and four children from county Monaghan to farm in Oxford county, Ontario.
  • the year 1842 saw the arrival of three Duffy brothers and their mother from county Armagh to Durham township, Ontario. Thomas, the son of the youngest brother, became a notable Quebec politician.
  • and, by the 1840’s, Duffys from Fermanagh were to be found in Cobourg, Ontario. Father Francis Duffy was born there in 1871. He became the most celebated chaplain to the US Army during World War One. A statue in the town commemorates him.

Australia.  Patrick Duffy, born in Sligo in 1786, enlisted in the British army and fought in the Peninsular Wars.  He departed with his wife Bridget and three children on the Eliza for Sydney in 1822.  He served as a district constable for six years and then farmed after receiving a land grant at Couth Colah.  He died in 1854 only seven weeks after the death of his wife Bridget.

Another Patrick Duffy, in this case from Fermanagh, came to Sydney on the Lady Kennaway with his wife Mary and four children in 1841.  They were pioneer farmers at Yass on the Mid North Coast of NSW.  Patrick died at Cootamundra in 1892 on the day before Christmas at the grand age of a hundred plus two days.  His wife Mary also lived to be a hundred when she passed away in 1898.

Duffy Surname Miscellany

The Duffys in Monaghan.  Fr. Peadar Livingstone in his book The Monaghan Story, published in 1980, wrote the following on Monaghan names:

“The big majority of Monaghan people today are descended from families whose ancestors have lived in the area of the present county for well over a thousand years. Their surnames are those of the tenth and eleventh centuries when surnames began to be used fior the first time.Many of them are descended from the Ui Chreamthainn families – the McMahons, Connollys, McArdles, Comiskeys, Cunninghams, and many others.  Though not belonging to the Ui Chreamthainn, other families like the Duffys, McKennas, Treanors, and Hanrattys have belonged to Monaghan for a very long time.”

The principal Monaghan surnames in the hearth tax rolls of 1663 were, in numerical order, McMahon, McKenna, Duffy, and Connolly.

Livingstone found from an examination of the Monaghan electoral register of 1970 that Duffy had become the most common name, followed by McKenna.  Pat Holland, who did the same exercise in 2001, discovered that their order had been reversed, with McKenna first and Duffy second.

Leading Monaghan Surnames Livingstone Holland
(1970) (2001)
Duffy 1,047 1,061
McKenna 1,014 1,408
Connolly   662   780
McMahon   510   665

Holland noted that Duffy was the leading name in Carrickmacross in the south and Castleblayney in the east. 

Sir Charles Gavan Duffy from Monaghan.  Sir Charles Gavan Duffy wrote about his roots in Monaghan as follows:

“I am shy of pedigrees.  When I was a boy, however, there were half a dozen of my relations among the Catholic priests of the diocese of Clogher, and I listened with complacency to their talk of the M’Mahons, chiefs of Oriel, and the M’Kennas, chiefs of Truagh, as our near kinsmen.

I was delighted to be told that under George III. when the existence of a priest was at last grudgingly recognized, provided he could find two freeholders willing to be sureties for his good behavior, such sureties for a dozen priests of Clogher were furnished by the Duffys of Monaghan, who held land in their native Oriel, under the imperfect tenure permitted by law.  These were facts which in after life I submitted to the test of critical scrutiny, and found to be authentic.

I was born in the town of Monaghan on Good Friday, 1816.  My father, John Duffy, was a shopkeeper, who by industry and integrity had accumulated considerable property in houses and townparks, and had purchased a share in a bleach-green at Keady, the art of transforming the grey web into one of dazzling whiteness being then, as it still is, one of the standard industries of the country.

The Ulster Catholics had been reduced by law to abject penury, but at the beginning of the 19th century they were here and there slowly lifting their heads.  Even while the penury was sorest old social distinctions were cherished,

My father, as a descendant of “the old stock,” was one of the few leaders of the people in his district. Among the family papers bequeathed to me was a resolution of the Catholics of Monaghan, thanking him for having acted as their faithful treasurer for sixteen years, an authentic testimonial which I prefer to a glittering and shadowy pedigree furnished by Ulster King at Arms.”

Both Sir Charles’s parents died while he was still a child and his uncle Father James Duffy, who was the Catholic parish priest of Castleblayney, became his guardian.  At the age of sixteen he set off for Dublin to become a journalist.

Reader Feedback – Duffy from Ireland to Lancashire.  My branch of the Duffy family traces Matthias (father, grandfather, great grandfather, and great great grandfather) via Lancashire, Durham and eventually Ireland, probably Roscommon.

Michael Duffy (mickduffy99@hotmail.com).

James Duffy at the Time of the Famine.  James Duffy was born in the Lettermacaward parish of west Donegal in 1839.  He is thought to have been the son of a small tenant farmer having perhaps one to two acres of very poor quality land.   Too many families in the area were probably trying to scrape an existence from the rccky earth.  This was an area which had suffered from famines in the past and the 1847 famine turned out to be devastating.  Hundreds died at that time from starvation.

The only light at the end of the tunnel was emigration, in particular to America.  The trek to Derry to join a famine ship could start the adventure of relief.  Philadelphia was a welcome sight after six or seven weeks on the North Atlantic passage.

James Duffy, having survived the 1847 famine, emigrated at the age of sixteen in 1854 from Derry to Philadelphia on the Libuinia.  His early life there is not known.  But he enlisted in the army and fought on the Union side for the duration of the Civil War.  Afterwards he was a marble polisher at the Philadelphia Mint and lived onto an apparently comfortable old age.

Reader Feedback: Thank you for developing this wonderful piece. My name is John Hughes and I am the great, great grandson of James Duffy.  If helpful I would be happy to share information about James and aspects of his life in Philadelphia and the States.  John Hughes (johngeorgehughes@gmail.com)

Duffy’s Cut.  Duffy’s Cut was the name given to a stretch of railroad track some 30 miles west of Philadelphia.  In 1832 a contractor named Philip Duffy hired 57 recent Irish immigrants to lay the line through the area’s densely wooded hills and ravines.

A Pennsylvania marker at the site describes their fate:

“Nearby is the mass grave of fifty seven Irish immigrant workers who died in August 1832 of cholera. They had recently arrived in the United States and were employed by a construction contractor named Duffy for the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad.  Prejudice against Irish Catholics contributed to the denial of care to the workers.  Their illness and death typified the hazards faced by many 19th century immigrant industrial workers.”

Philip Duffy emerged as the villain of the piece.  After the immigrants died Duffy ordered the shantytown where they had lived to be burnt and their bodies to be buried in the railroad fill. The men’s families were apparently never told of their deaths.

Recent research suggests that this Philip Duffy was originally from Tipperary (born there in 1783) and had come to the US in 1798.  He lived out this terrible incident and died in Philadelphia in old age in 1871.

Reader Feedback – Duffys in America from County Mayo.  Patrick and Bridget Duffy came to Fall River, Massachusetts from county Mayo.  Their son John William Duffy moved to New Hyde Park, New York; and his son John Patrick Duffy to Littleton, Colorado.

John Duffy (johnpduffy@aol.com)

Father Duffy’s Holy Well.  Father Duffy came to Newfoundland as a newly ordained priest from Ireland in 1833.  After two years he was appointed the first parish priest of St. Mary’s.

The church in St. Mary’s was in need of repair and Father Duffy decided that the best thing to do would be to build a new church on the beach where it would be more convenient for the parishioners.  But the site he chose didn’t suit John Hill Martin who owned a store and fishing premises on the beach and was also the local magistrate. He threatened to stop construction of the church.  Duffy went on building and Martin took him to court.

Father Duffy had to appear in court in St. John’s.  On several occasions he walked the whole distance to St. John’s only to be told that his case had been postponed.  This happened to him many times and he simply had to walk all the way back to St. Mary’s again. Finally, one day his case was heard and he was acquitted of the charge.

On his many travels to appear in court, Father Duffy used to stop off and rest in a little clearing where there was a steady spring of fresh drinking water.  The clearing was small, surrounded by trees and bushes and not far enough off the road to take him too far out of his way.  He could have a long drink of cold water and lie down on a grassy spot and rest his tired feet.  The area was just secluded enough and very peaceful.  He could listen to the birds in the trees as he rested and hear the tiny babble of the spring water on the rocks.

Other people soon learned about spot and stopped off there on their way back and forth the Salmonier Line. The spring always supplied cold, fresh drinking water.  Some people actually ascribed healing powers to the well and the popularity of the spot grew and grew. Soon it became the spot to visit and even to stay and picnic. People who never knew Father Duffy began to stop there.  They knew that this was his well.

News of Father Duffy’s well became so widespread that it became an historic landmark.  The provincial government eventually designated it a provincial park.

Reader Feedback – Duffys in Ontario, Ohio and New York.  James Duffy, a shoemaker, arrived in Canada from Ireland sometime in the 1840’s as his wedding to Mary Ann Woodburn in Byton, Ottawa was recorded in 1846.

James and Mary Ann had at least seven children.  One son Augustus moved south to Cuyahoga Falls in Ohio where he became a steel worker; two other sons, Alexander and William, migrated to New York state.  My line comes from William which also includes through another sibling Beula Duffey, better known as Johana Harris the concert pianist.

Mixhele Martin (jmarti35@columbus.rr.com)

Reader Feedback – Duffys in Charleston.  As with many Irish my great, great grandfather left Ireland during the famine.  He ended up in Charleston, South Carolina on a ship that supplied Fort Sumter in the 1850’s prior to the Civil War. He met my great great grandmother Annie.  He jumped ship and remained in Charleston where my father and four siblings were all born and raised. There is a large contingent of Irish Catholics in Charleston, which usually comes as a surprise to most people.

Sally Duffy  (drdffy@drsallyduffy.com)

Hubert Duffy’s Rocking Horses.  Hubert Duffy was born in county Mayo in 1854 and came to Liverpool in the early 1880’s.  There he married Elizabeth Dolan and they raised six children at their home on Comus Street.

Hubert’s trade was that of a rocking horse maker.  He made the original rocking horse called Blackie that sat in the window of Blacklers department store.  A second one is now in the Liverpool museum.  Hubert’s son Robert followed in his father’s profession.

Barney and Molly Duffy.  Barney and Molly, published in 2006, is a family account by Martin Duffy, the youngest of thirteen children who grew up in a tiny two-bedroom Dublin corporation house.  The story followed the family struggles alongside the young Irish nation’s struggles, from the violent streets of the 1916 Rising, the Emergency, the Troubles, and the toll of emigration.

This was how the author saw his book:

“My parents, Barney and Molly Duffy, were devoted to each other and to their children as they raised their family first in the slums of Summerhill and the Coombe and later in Crumlin.  It is the story of a working class couple who struggled to raise a family despite poverty and hardship – and did so with dignity and love.

My research has brought together stories and reminiscences from brothers and sisters who, through emigration and other reasons, had never gathered all these strands of the family life together.  My book tells the story of a Dublin that today’s generation could hardly imagine.”

Duffy Names

  • Muireadach O’Dubthaigh, a member of the Roscommon Duffy family, was the Archbishop of Tuam in the early 12th century who commissioned the famous Cross of Cong.
  • Father Eugene O’Duffy of Waterford was a famous 16th century preacher who always used the Irish language in his sermons.
  • Sir Charles Gavan Duffy was an Irish journalist and politician who emigrated to Australia in 1855 and became Premier of Victoria.
  • Eoin O’Duffy was chief of the Irish police after independence. He subsequently founded the fascist-style organization known as the Blueshirts.
  • Brian Duffy was a highly acclaimed English photographer of the 1960’s and 70’s.
  • Carol Ann Duffy was appointed Britain’s poet laureate in 2009.

Duffy Numbers Today

  • 18,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 16,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 26,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

Duffy 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.

Connacht in NW Ireland covers the counties of Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim, Galway, and Roscommon.  Here are some of the Connacht surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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