Duffy Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Duffy Meaning
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).

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Duffy Ancestry

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
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

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
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
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
, 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
  • 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.


Duffy 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 nineteenth century they were here and there slowly
lifting their heads.  Even while the penury was sorest old social
distinctions were cherished, and 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.

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

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

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

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

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.”


Select 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.

Select Duffy Numbers

  • 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)


Select 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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