Flynn Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Flynn Surname Meaning

O’Flynn and Flynn are Irish surnames that derive from the Gaelic flann or floinn meaning “ruddy” and originally given as a nickname to someone with reddish complexion.

The O’Flynn name cropped up in a number of locations, most notably in Waterford, Cork, and Roscommon. There were also Ulster O’Flynns near Lough Neagh in southern Armagh. However, due to the local pronunciation, these O’Flynns became O’Lynns.  O’Flynn generally gave way to Flynn under English rule.

Flynn Surname Resources on The Internet

Flynn Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Cork)
  • to America and Australia

Ireland.  There ere early reports of the O’Flynns of Ulster. Cu Muighe O’Flynn, lord of Uladh, was recorded in the Annals as being treacherously killed by his brother in 1158. However, these O’Flynns later became O’Lynns.

Cork.  There were two unrelated O’Flynn septs in Cork. One was based at Ardagh castle near Skibbereen in west Cork. They were the lords of Arda and Ui Baghamma:

  • “O’Flynn Arda of the blooming woods,
  • A tribe of the purest degree;
  • Heir to the lordship is each man,
  • They are the clan of Ui Baghamma.”

The second sept in Cork, the O’Flynns of Muskerry, were based in East Muskerry in land extending from Ballyvourney to Blarney. One of the Flynn legacies in Cork is an Irish jig known as Top of the Cork Road or Father O’Flynn. Another is O’Flynn’s sausages.

Elsewhere.  Then there was an O’Flynn sept in Roscommon, seated at Kiltullagh and Kilkeevin near Castlerea. These O’Flynns were erenaghs of the Church of St. Dachonna near Boyle.

The largest number of Flynns are in the Dublin area today. The O’Flynn spelling has enjoyed a revival in Cork.

America.  Honora Mary O’Flynn was probably the first Flynn in America.  She came there involuntarily in the early 1700’s, being kidnapped and then possibly forced into slavery.

John Flynn from Mayo arrived in America with the British army around the year 1748.  Starting in 1753 he ran a hotel near Waterford in Saratoga county, New York that came to be known as Flynn farm.  This Flynn farm is still owned by the family.

Later Flynns.  Captain John Flynn from Roscommon came to America via New Brunswick in Canada where he had gone in the early 1830’s. His son Patrick was a well-known lumber dealer in Tyrone, Pennsylvania. Patrick and his wife Avesia raised thirteen children, many of whom became lumbermen themselves. Flinton in Pennsylvania was named after this family.

Another Flynn family was also involved in the lumber trade around this time.  Henry and Ellen Flynn had come to New York state from Ireland in 1830 and then moved on with their family twenty years later to Michigan.  Their son J.C. Flynn migrated to Arkansas, fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War, and later became one of the leading lumber merchants in Saline county, Arkansas.

Many more Flynns came at the time of the potato famine in Ireland and afterwards. William Flynn from Cork for instance arrived with his five children in 1847 after his wife had died. They settled in Troy in upstate New York.

There is a fictional account How I Survived the Irish Famine: The Journal of Mary O’Flynn which described for younger readers the daily life of twelve year Mary and how she and her family survived the famine and the subsequent journey by ship to America.

Flynns in the 1930’s.  Two notable Flynns in America in the 1930’s were on opposite sides of FDR’s New Deal:

  • Ed Flynn, the son of Irish immigrants ran the Democratic party machine in the Bronx. He was with Roosevelt when FDR was Governor of New York and was one of his most important advisors when FDR was in the White House.  
  • while John T. Flynn, the son of strict Catholic parents in Maryland, had become a journalist. He was initially a supporter of FDR and his policies. But after 1936 he became a critic, one of the first from the left. He later bitterly attacked Roosevelt in his book The Roosevelt Myth.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn stood to the left of these political operatives. She was a trade union activist and IWW union supporter during and after World War One. Later she joined the Communist Party. This led to her imprisonment in the McCarthy era. When she died in 1964 she was granted a state funeral in Moscow.

Australia. Jeremiah Flynn was a Catholic priest from Kerry who seemed to have spent his whole life arguing with the British authorities. He arrived in Australia in 1817 but was ordered to leave within six months. The fuss he made, however, convinced the Government in London in 1820 to allow the first official Catholic missionaries to be sent to Australia.

There were later two famous Australian-born Flynns:

  • the actor Errol Flynn
  • and the flying doctor John Flynn.

Errol Flynn was said to be the descendant of an Irish convict in Tasmania. His father, Theodore Flynn, became a prominent professor of biology at the University of Tasmania. Errol made his name when he departed Australia for America and Hollywood.

John Flynn’s grandfather was an Irish schoolmaster who settled in the Victorian goldfields; as was his father Thomas as well. John Flynn started out as a Presbyterian minister in the outback before founding the Flying Doctor Service, the world’s first flying ambulance.

Flynn Surname Miscellany

Ardagh Castle.  Ardagh castle stood on a hill between the town of Skibbereen and the fishing village of Baltimore in the southernmost point of Cork and indeed of Ireland.  The O’Flynns were in ancient times resident there as chiefs of the barony of Ibawn.

The castle is just a ruin now.   But the name has been preserved by a group of artisan food producers in the area.  Judy Wotton’s Ardagh Castle cheese has a local reputation.

Flynns and O’Flynns in Ireland Today.  A telephone directory survey in Ireland in 1992 revealed 5,250 Flynns and O’Flynns, of which:

  • 4,450 (or 85%) were Flynns
  • and 800 (or 15%) were O’Flynns.

Dublin, due to migration over the years, accounted for the main numbers, about a third.

But the traditional origins of the name were well represented, one in Cork and Waterford and the other in Roscommon, Leitrim and Cavan. There was also a prominent cluster in Westmeath.

The O’Flynn spelling was concentrated in county Cork.  In fact O’Flynns outnumbered Flynns by three to two in the county.

O’Flynns, Sausage Makers of Cork.  O’Flynns have been making sausages in Cork since the early 1900’s. William O’Flynn earned the company its first gold medal in the 1920’s.  But the business had faltered by the time that his grandson Declan, an ex-chef, and two of his brothers David and Stephen decided to make a go of it in 1994.

They started small, keeping to their father’s old customers. Declan summoned his family to find his grandfather’s old recipes, tucked away in attics and kitchen drawers in Cork. Gradually they expanded their array of sausages. Today they operate a thriving business at the English Market in Cork City.

Father O’Flynn.  A.P. Graves, an Anglo-Irish poet and songwriter and father of the poet Robert Graves, was the author in the 1880’s of the popular Irish jig Father O’Flynn. The words ran as follows:

  • “Of priests we can offer a charming variety,
  • Far renowned for learning and piety;
  • Still, I’d advance ye widout impropriety,
  • Father O’Flynn as the flower of them all.


  • Here’s a health to you, Father O’Flynn,
  • Slainte and slainte and slainte agin;
  • Powrfullest preacher, and tenderest teacher,
  • And kindliest creature in ould Donegal.
  • Don’t talk of your Provost and Fellows of Trinity,
  • Famous forever at Greek and Latinity,
  • Dad and the divils and all at Divinity
  • Father O’Flynn d make hares of them all!
  • Come, I venture to give ye my word,
  • the likes of his logic was heard,
  • Down from mythology into thayology,
  • Truth! and conchology if he’d the call.
  • Och Father O’Flynn, you’ve a wonderful way wid you,
  • All ould sinners are wishful to pray wid you,
  • All the young childer are wild for to play wid you,
  • You’ve such a way wid you, Father avick.
  • Still for all you’ve so gentle a soul,
  • Gad, you’ve your flock in the grandest control,
  • Checking the crazy ones, coaxin onaisy ones,
  • Lifting the lazy ones on wid the stick.
  • And tho quite avoiding all foolish frivolity;
  • Still at all seasons of innocent jollity,
  • Where was the playboy could claim an equality,
  • At comicality, Father, wid you?
  • Once the Bishop looked grave at your jest,
  • Till this remark set him off wid the rest:
  • “Is it lave gaiety all to the laity?
  • Cannot the clergy be Irishmen, too?”

Father O’Flynn became well-known in England as well at that time because a horse of that name won the Grand National steeplechase in 1892.

Reader Feedback – The First Flynn in America.  One of the first arrivals of an O’Flynn in America occurred prior to the Revolutionary War. Honora Mary O’Flynn, born around 1678, was kidnapped and forced into servitude in the colonies. She later became wife to William Logsdon.

Family lore ranges a bit.  But the gist of it circles around them being in-love, that William saved Honora from slavery.  Another story has it that Honora was forced to the colonies to be a wife and that William bought her. I think that story more accurately portrays the time period.

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John Flynn and the Flying Doctor Service.  The Flying Doctor Service began as the dream of the Rev John Flynn, a minister with the Presbyterian Church.

‘Flynn of the Inland’ lived in the outback for most of his life, setting up hostels and bush hospitals for pastoralists, miners, road workers, railwaymen and other settlers.  He witnessed the daily struggle of these pioneers living in remote areas where just two doctors provided the only medical care for an area of almost two million square kilometers.

In 1917 he received an inspirational letter from Lieutenant Clifford Peel, a medical student with an interest in aviation. The young airman and war hero suggested the use of aviation to bring medical help to the outback. For the next ten years, Flynn campaigned for an aerial medical service.  His vision became a reality when his long-time supporter, H. V. McKay, left a large bequest for ‘an aerial experiment.’  This enabled Flynn to get the Flying Doctor Service airborne.

The first flight occurred in 1928.  The De Havilland plane could carry a pilot and four passengers at a cruising speed of eighty miles per hour for a range of 500 to 600 miles.  In those days, not much territory was charted and so the pilots were forced to navigate by river beds, fences, telegraph lines and other familiar landmarks.

Despite those obstacles, the Flying Doctor Service flew 50 flights in its inaugural year to 26 destinations and treated 225 patients.  The following year the installation of a radio receiver would enable people living in isolation to call on the Flying Doctor to assist them in an emergency. Flynn’s dream had become a reality. 

Flynn Names

  • Fiacha O’Flynn, Archbishop of Tuam, was one of the first recorded of that name. In 1255 he was the emissary of the Irish church to England.
  • Edward Flynn was a prominent American Democrat politician of the 1930’s, a close associate of F.D. Roosevelt.
  • John Flynn was an Australian Presbyterian minister who founded the Flying Doctor Service, the world’s first air ambulance.
  • Errol Flynn was an Australian-born actor who starred in Hollywood swashbuckling roles from the 1930’s to the 1950’s.

Flynn Numbers Today

  • 21,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 27,000 in America (most numerous in Massachusetts)
  • 36,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

Flynn 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.

Munster in SW Ireland covers the counties of Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, and Waterford.  Here are some of the Munster surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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