Flanagan Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Flanagan Surname Meaning

The Irish surname Flanagan derived from the Old Gaelic word flann meaning “red” or “ruddy.” From this source came the Old Gaelic septs by the name of O’Flannagain (or “descendant of the ruddy one”), of which there were a number in Ireland. Flanagan is the main anglicization of this name. The name has also appeared as O’Flanagan and Flanigan.

Flanagan Surname Resources on The Internet

Flanagan Surname Ancestry

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

Ireland. The Flanagan sept of Connacht is believed to have been descended from one Flanagan who was of the same stock as the O’Connors and whose line held the hereditary office of Steward to the Kings of Connacht. Their main home was in Roscommon, between Mantua and Elphin, and they were known as the chiefs of clan Cathal. Donough O’Flanagan of this line became the Bishop of Elphin in 1303.  

There were also minor septs of the same name in other parts of the country, at Toorah in NW Fermanagh (dating from the 14th century) and at Ballybrit in Offaly. Some descendants are still evident in these areas.

But today the surname is most often found in Roscommon and westward in Clare, Galway and Mayo. Clare in 1762 was the birthplace of Theophilus O’Flanagan who was a leading figure in the Gaelic revival movement of his time.

America. There were early Flanagan arrivals in New Jersey:

  • one arrival, according to family lore, consisted of three brothers who came in 1732. The main line went through James Flanagan and his son Whittle of Red Hill in Louisa county, Virginia. Whittle’s grandson James Flanagan moved to Texas in 1843 where he was a close friend of Sam Houston. He elected Senator of Texas in 1870.
  • another line began with Robert Flanagan in Hunterdon county in the 1740’s and continued later in the 1830’s in Tucker county, West Virginia where Ebenezer Flanagan was an early settler.
  • then there was John Flanagan who came to Philadelphia from New Jersey in the 1740’s.

A Flanagan line in Kentucky began with John Flanagan who was born in North Carolina around 1768 and moved to Russell county, Kentucky in 1810. Another John Flanagan arrived in Philadelphia from Ireland in 1802. He later moved his family to Peoria, Illinois – then on the western frontier – where his son John, a judge, built Flanagan House, an imposing mansion on the hill.

Father Edward Flanagan was a Roscommon native who came to America in 1904 and in 1917 established the Boys Town orphanage in Nebraska, an institution made famous by the 1938 Spencer Tracy film.

England. Flanagans came to England and a good number of them were to be found in the port city of Liverpool.

Elizabeth Flanagan married Charles Hamilton in Liverpool in 1775. In 1847, at the time of the Famine in Ireland, John and Ellen Flanagan came to Liverpool where John found work as a dock laborer. Catherine Flanagan was born in Liverpool in 1829 and her sister Margaret in 1843. They earned notoriety as the Black Widows of Liverpool for poisoning their victims in order to gain insurance money.

The best-known Flanagan in England, however, was not Irish but the son of Polish Jewish immigrants in London. Bud Flanagan took his name from a sergeant major he served under during World War One.

Australia. Roderick Flanagan came out to Australia as a boy with his parents from Roscommon in 1840. He made his mark in Melbourne as a journalist and as an early historian of Australia until his early death from TB at the age of 34.

Thomas Flanagan stole food to feed his family during the Great Famine in Ireland in 1847. For this crime he was transported to Tasmania along with his brother John. Later he was able to bring out his wife and eight children to start up a new life as a tenant farmer. His line descended to Arch Flanagan, a man who survived the Burma Death Railway during World War Two and later wrote about it. He had two very talented literary sons, Martin and Richard.

The brothers Michael and Patrick Flanagan from Drogheda in county Louth were lured to Victoria by gold rush fever in 1857. They moved onto the New Zealand goldfields in the mid-1860’s. By 1870 they had migrated to California. Their letters home to Louth, covering the period from 1864 to 1909, were published in 1997 and provide an insight into Irish life abroad at that time.

Another Flanagan – Tom Flanagan from county Clare – also came to the Victorian goldfields in the 1850’s.  He later moved to Western Australia where in 1893 he and his two partners discovered at Kalgoorlie what turned out to be the richest goldfield ever in Australia.  But Tom died a pauper six years later and it was not until almost a hundred years later that his grave was marked with a fitting headstone.

Flanagan Surname Miscellany

The Flanagans of Clan Cathal.  This line is said to have begun with a brother of Inrachtach who featured in the O’Connor blood line.

It was four generations later that the Flannagan name first appeared.  Eight generations later came Diarmaid O’Flannagain. From this line came Donough O’Flanagan who was Bishop of Elphin from 1303 until his death four years later.  Of him, it was said in The Annals of Clonmacnoise:

“He was a man famous for his hospitality, devotion, and other good parts belonging to his function throughout all Europe; one that never refused anyone whatsoever, neither for meat nor clothes; one that maintained, protected, and made peace between the inhabitants of the province of Connacht; one full of wisdom and good delivery to maintain anything he took in hand; one charitable and free-hearted towards all men.”

The Flanagans of Red Hill in Virginia.  According to family lore, three brothers from Roscommon left Dublin in 1732 to arrive at “some woodland and some sandy hills” at a place called Abescon Beach (apparently near present-day Atlantic City, New Jersey). Ambrose the eldest was said to have headed for Virginia, Whittle the middle brother to North Carolina, while James the youngest remained in New Jersey.

The recorded line follows James the elder, son of Ambrose, who first appeared in Louisa county, Virginia in 1747.  The house that he built, Red Hill, is still standing.  James died there soon afterwards and his son Whittle inherited the place. Whittle moved to Alabama with his son Ambrose in 1815.  However, the house remained in family hands through his daughter Elizabeth and her offspring until the present day.

Reader Feedback – John Flanagan in Philadelphia.  I, as seems likely, am a descendant of a John Flanagan and his son also John who were in Philadelphia.  They are present in early records in this city and it states that in around the 1740’s John had arrived from New Jersey (likely just across the river). I tend to think John’s family branch came through France, the family having left Ireland in 1688). So the date of 1802 in Philadelphia is a little different.

This is also a note about the Flanagans of Toorah of the 13th-14th century. They were, it seems, likely to have been in this area much earlier.  This was a “headwater” and passage to the sea. Who controlled this area controlled the trade on the island.  This seems likely to have been the family’s original family seat, with later moves to Elphin and Waterford through the expansion of trade networks consolidated by monasteries along the major waterways.

Kevin P. Flanagan (Kvflanagan@gmail.com)

Flanagan House in Peoria, Illinois.  There are two versions as to how John Flanagan Sr. acquired the land in 1824 in Peoria, Illinois on which the Judge John C. Flanagan Residence was later built.  One version was that it was purchased from the Native Indians in the area for the proverbial blankets, trinkets, and beads.  Another version has it that he simply paid cash to a local land developer.

John Flanagan Sr. contracted typhus during a business trip south and died in 1832. It was left to his wife Jane and his son John C. Flanagan, a Philadelphia lawyer, to develop his site.  The young John became so entranced by the beauty of the Illinois River Valley that he decided to settle and become the local judge there.

His home was one of the first brick homes in the area and was the largest and grandest in Peoria at that time.  The house was commonly referred to as the “mansion on the hill” by locals. It had wrought-iron detail at the front and rear porches that came from France. Guests would travel up from the bluff on a tree-lined drive that encircled the house.  When the house was completed in 1847, Peoria – it should be remembered – was still a rough frontier town with mainly log cabins as homes.

John C. Flanagan and his two daughters lived there – the elder one after she had become sick with lead poisoning and the younger one after her husband had died. Peoria Historical Society acquired the house in 1962 and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

The Black Widows of Liverpool.  Catherine Flanagan and Margaret Higgins were Irish sisters in Liverpool who were convicted of poisoning and murdering Margaret’s husband Thomas.  They were suspected of other deaths as well.

The women would collect a burial society payout, a type of life insurance, on each death, and it was eventually found that they had been committing murders using arsenic for the purpose of profiting off of the insurance money.

Though Catherine Flanagan evaded police for a time, both sisters were eventually caught and convicted for one of the murders. They were hanged on the same day in 1884 at Kirkdale prison in Liverpool.

Modern investigation of the crime has raised the possibility that Flanagan and Higgins were known or believed by investigators to have been only part of a larger conspiracy of murder-for-profit – a network of “black widows.”  But no convictions were ever obtained for any of the alleged conspiracy members other than for the two sisters.  Angela Brabin’s 2003 book The Black Widows of Liverpool explored this possibility.

Chaim Weintrop Becomes Bud Flanagan.  Chaim Weintrop was born to Polish Jewish immigrants in the East End of London in 1896.   At the age of thirteen he managed to secure free passage on a ship sailing to America.  There he worked in various jobs before returning to England in 1915 to enlist in the war.

The war was to prove the turning point in his life.  His sergeant major in the Royal Field Artillery in Flanders was called Flanagan, thereby providing him with the name he would use for his stage performances and adopt as his persona.  And it was in a café in Flanders that he met the man with whom he would form a lifelong comedy partnership, Chesney Allen.

Apparently the mean sergeant major named Flanagan seemed to have had it in for Winthop and when Driver Winthrop was wounded in 1918 and left the service, he retorted to Flanagan: “I’ll remember your name as long as I live.”  He adopted Flanagan as his stage name a year later.

The two Flanagans did meet up later in London, where sergeant major Flanagan was working as a barman, and they were reconciled.  Flanagan and Allen went onto stardom when their popular song Underneath the Arches was released in 1932.  

Arch Flanagan and the Burma Railway.  Arch Flanagan was a descendant of Irish convicts who had come to Tasmania in the 1840’s. His own father Pat was a fettler.   He himself was a survivor of the Burma Death Railway during World War Two and lived to be 98, long enough to see the success of his two sons.

He was one of Dunlop’s Thousand, that now near-mythical group led by Weary Dunlop who lived and died on the Burma Death Railway.  He was a survivor of that, of cholera, of the hell ships that took POW’s to Japan, and of being a slave laborer in a coal mine under the Inland Sea at the war’s end.

Arch could not in fact face recalling these horrific times until he was in his 70’s. Then he collaborated with his son Martin, an author and journalist, in a version of his war-time experiences.  It was during the writing of the story that Arch warned his son against inflating the facts.  Be humble, he said.

In the book, Arch’s war years were followed by Martin’s reflections.  Standing on the Hintok cutting, the son realized he still could not imagine what it was like for his father in these prisoner-of-war camps.  And that made it even more important for Martin, when writing about that trip and the characters he encountered there, to get the shades and shadows right.  This was a difficult undertaking, one that permeated his writing in The Line.

It was Martin’s brother Richard, the Rhodes scholar and award-winning writer, who would expand on his father’s experiences in his 2013 novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This book won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2014.

Flanagan Names

  • Theophilus O’Flanagan a leading figure in the Gaelic revival movement of the late 18th century. 
  • John Flanagan was a three-time Olympic gold medalist in the hammer throw – in 1900, 1904, and 1908. 
  • Father Edward Flanagan founded the orphanage known as Boys Town in Nebraska, made famous in the 1938 film starring Spencer Tracy. 
  • Bud Flanagan, born Chaim Weintrop to a Polish Jewish family in London, was a popular English music hall and vaudeville entertainer from the 1930’s onwards. 
  • Richard Flanagan is a novelist from Tasmania, considered by many to be the finest Australian writer of his generation.

Flanagan Numbers Today

  • 12,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 10,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 17,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

Flanagan 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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