Gallagher Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Gallagher Surname Meaning

Oral tradition has it that the Gallaghers can trace their lineage back to Niall Naoighiallach, Niall of the Nine Hostages, in the fifth century.  The earliest written reference is an 11th century Gaelic fragment which translates roughly as follows:

“For there was a son of this Maol Cabha that we have mentioned, helping the father’s brother, i.e. the king of Ireland, do battle, i.e. Ceallach, son of Maol Cabha, from whose line are the descendants of Gallchubhair.”

The Gaelic Gallchubhair incorporates the elements: gall, meaning stranger or foreign; and cabhair, meaning “help” or “support.”  Gallchubhair was anglicized to Gallagher.  Variants are Gallaher and, for many in Scotland, Gallacher.

 Gallagher Surname Resources on The Internet

Gallagher, Gallaher and Gallacher Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Donegal)
  • to Scotland, England, America, Venezuela, Australia and New Zealand

Ireland.  The O’Gallagher sept was originally from Donegal on the west coast of Ireland.

Donegal.  Their main base was the barony of Tin Hugh in south Donegal (near present day Donegal Town) and there were outposts in Banagh (east Donegal) and Raphoe (SW Donegal).  They were noted mainly for their churchmen and their soldiers.

In the 1590’s the Rev. Redmond O’Gallagher befriended the survivors of the Spanish Armada.  He was forced to disguise himself as a shepherd in order to escape the Catholic persecution.  However, he was eventually captured and became one of Ireland’s most prominent Catholic martyrs.  Some suggest that a little Spanish blood may have got into Gallaghers at that time.

The Gallaghers also acted as marshalls for the O’Donnell sept and contributed soldiers in their battles. Some ended up in county Cork after the battle of Kinsale.  Others were driven from their lands during the Cromwellian transplantations, to Mayo and neighboring counties.  A number found employment as mercenaries in various places.

Even so, Gallagher remains the most common name in county Donegal today.  In 2007 a gathering of 1,488 Gallaghers at Letterkenny in Donegal broke the record for the largest gathering of people with the same surname.  Donegal accounts for just over 30% of all Gallagher families in Ireland, with sizeable numbers also in neighboring Mayo and Sligo.

Donegal and the west coast of Ireland in general was the worse hit by the deteriorating economic climate of the nineteenth century, culminating in the potato famine.  This led to mass emigration.  Many headed for Liverpool, or to America, Australia or New Zealand.  As a result, there are now more Gallaghers living outside Ireland than within.

Elsewhere.  There was a Gallaher family prospering as corn millers at Templemoyle near Derry in the early 19th century.  From this family in 1840 came Tom Gallaher.  He opened his first business when he was 17 year old, selling Irish roll pipe tobaccos.  He subsequently built up the Gallaher tobacco empire and became known in later life as “the tobacco king.”  His relatives continued to live in Glen House in the nearby village of Eglinton until the 1950’s.

England and Scotland.  As the Industrial Revolution gathered pace in England and Scotland, Irish immigrants – including many Gallaghers – came.

The following family history may be typical of their experience. Peter Gallagher brought his wife Anne and his trade, shoemaking, with him when he arrived in Liverpool in the 1860’s.  They both sadly died young (Anne from smallpox from which she had not been vaccinated).  Their son Thomas married and became a stoker for the Navy.  The numbers of Gallaghers then multiplied.  And some of these later family members are to be found spread abroad in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Celtic football club represented the focal point for Irish Catholics in Glasgow.  Some Gallaghers made this team.  Patsy Gallagher scored for Celtic in the 1912 Scottish Cup Final.  And Charlie Gallagher was part of the Lisbon Lions squad which won the 1967 European Cup Final.  That same year, he became the first Scots-born player to play for Ireland (his father had come from Donegal).

Willie Gallacher was one of the leading figures of the shop stewards’ movement in wartime Glasgow (the “Red Clydeside” period) and a founding member of the Communist party.  He served for two terms as a Communist MP.

America.  The earliest arrival may have been Barnabas Gallagher who came from county Down to Pennsylvania in 1770.  Hugh Gallagher was an early settler in Clearfield, Pennsylvania around 1800.  Many more Gallaghers arrived in Pennsylvania during the nineteenth century.  They were to be found in particular in the Hazleton and Wilkes Barre area of the state.

William Gallaher grew up in Illinois where he met with Joseph Smith and became one of the first members of the Mormon sect.  He made the long trek west with other Mormons to Salt Lake valley.  Other Gallaghers, attracted by the mining and other opportunities, also went West:

  • Neil Gallagher tragically lost his life in 1880 in a mineshaft accident in Nevada; while another Gallagher family headed later for the Butte copper mines in Montana.
  • Father Hugh Gallagher, who had edited a Catholic paper in Pittsburgh, took up that work in San Francisco where he directed its first Catholic weekly, the Catholic Standard; while Eliza Gallagher and her five children arrived in Washington state from Canada in the 1890’s

Edward Gallagher, born in San Francisco, was an vaudeville actor in the early 1900’s, half of the Gallagher and Shean duo.  His wife Helen Gallagher, a former Ziegfield girl, co-founded the Gallagher’s Steak House chain.

Caribbean.  The Gallagher name is known in Venezuela from the man who brought the first printing press to Caracas in 1808.  Matthew Gallagher from Ireland had been printing in Trinidad under Spanish rule and later under British rule.

Australia.  Penal transportation to Australia began in 1789 and the Irish, including many Gallaghers, suffered here.  The first to arrive may have been Elizabeth Gallagher on the Anne 1 in 1801.  Particularly harsh seems to have been the life sentence meted out to a 17 year old errand boy from Donegal, Charles Gallagher, for house stealing.

Earlier Gallaghers were joined by Gallagher free settlers seeking to escape the potato famine.  For some, a sense of injustice continued.  Norm Gallagher was a militant trade unionist during World War II and, like his namesake in Glasgow, a committed member of the Communist Party.

New Zealand.  The Gallagher name in New Zealand has been particularly prominent with the national rugby team.  Dave Gallaher had arrived with his family in 1878 from Ramelton in Donegal.  He became the first captain of the All Blacks.   Frank Gallagher played on the 1924 team.   And John Gallagher, who came to New Zealand as a teenager, represented the All Blacks in their winning 1987 World Cup team.

Gallagher Surname Miscellany

Gallchubhair.  The name Gall (-a-) chobhair (the “a” was not used in Gaelic but implied) in the context of foreign helper translates properly as “the foreigner that helped.”   “Foreign helper” would translate as Cabhaireoir gallach. Gall meaning foreigner is distinguished from gale meaning local.

In Gaelic the aspirations on consonants are merely accents. Originally the “c” and “b” in Gallchubhair were aspirated.  It was only in the 1950’s and 1960’s that it was substituted to make it easy to print the language on typewriters.  The sounds of the consonants vary depending on the individual usage.  Thus “Bh” can be “V” or “W” and there is some regional variation in the pronunciation also.  “Ch” is a special sound to Gaelic and also has slight variations depending on usage and region.

The Gallaghers in Clan Wars.  Many Gallaghers accompanied Red Hugh O’Donnell on his rampages through Connacht.  For example in 1494 William O’Gallagher was killed when O’Donnell, king of Tyrconnell, laid siege to Sligo castle.  In 1497, following a battle at the Curlew Mountains in Sligo Eoin and Toirdhealbhach O’Gallchobhair, sons of Tuathal O’Gallchobhair, were taken prisoner by the McDermott’s.  They were released the following year after payment of a large ransom.

The same Eoin was the father of Eamonn O’Gallchobhair (died 1534), the first recorded chief of the sept.  In 1522 war broke out between the O’Donnells and the O’Niells.  O’Donnell was supported by four clans, the O’Boyles, O’Dohertys, Sweeneys, and O’Gallaghers.  A mass grave, believed to contain a number of Gallaghers and other dead, lies near Letterkenny in Donegal.

Reader Feedback – Barnabas Gallagher in Pennsylvania. Are you aware that the Chester county tax records list Barnabas as a “freeman” in the 1768 roll?  That makes his presence earlier than the 1770 date which derives from a supposition in another family tree and of which I have always been suspicious.

Richard Gallagher (

Gallagher Emigrants in the 1860’s

Derry to Philadelphia

  • Hugh & Annie Gallagher, Churchill P.O., 2/1864, Mohongo, 5/1864
  • Neil Gallagher, Churchlil P.O., 3/1864
  • Francis Gallagher, Socker, near Letterkenny. 5/1864 + Sarah 12, child 10, child 8, child 4.
  • Ann Gallagher, Inniskil, Churchill P.O., 3/1865, Lady Emily Peel, 5/1865
  • Nancy & Hannah Gallagher, Gortin, Churchill P.O., Stadacona, 4/1865
  • Charles Gallagher, Gartan, Churchill P.O., 4/1865. Mohongo, 8/1865
  • Sarah Gallagher, Socker, Letterkenny P. O. 6/1866
  • Fanny Gallaher, Churchill P.O., 5/1867, Village Belle, 7/1867
  • Nancy Gallagher, Gortin, Churchill P.O., 2/1868 Stadacona, 5/1868
  • Margaret Gallagher, Churchill P.O., 6/1868, Village Belle, 8/1868
  • Unity & Ellen Gallagher, Meenawilligan, Churchill P.O., 7/1868, Minnehaha, 9/1868
  • Mary Gallagher, Drumsallagh, Churchill P.O., 3/1869, Minnehaha, 4/1869

Plymouth to New Zealand

  • James Gallagher, 30, ploughman, Hydaspes arrived 30 Sep 1869
  • Patrick Gallagher, 24, ploughman, Hydaspes arrived 30 Sep 1869
  • Catherine Gallagher, 22, general servant, Hydaspes arrived 30 Sep 1869
  • Hugh Gallagher, 28 yrs, ploughman, + wife Mary, 25 yrs & son Edward, 7 weeks, Ramsey arrived 17 Jun 1870.

The Tobacco King.  Even on his death bed, Tom Gallaher’s father knew his son was destined for great things.  “I’m leaving you nothing,” he told the schoolboy, “”You have brains, so you don’t need money.  You will make plenty.”  In the years ahead, the young Gallaher grew into one of the richest men in Ireland.  Known worldwide as the “tobacco king,” he went about everything with a hard-headed determination which established his empire.

In 1857, at the age of just 17, he set up in business for himself in his one-room accommodation on Sackville Street in Derry.  Here he ate, slept, and produced his products.  Beginning each morning at 5 am and working through until 10 pm, he would twist tobacco on a hand-spinning machine, package and then deliver it in person to his growing band of regular customers.

In 1863 he took the decision to move to Belfast to tap a larger market.  The series of buildings ultimately constructed there used an estimated eight million bricks and incorporated many innovative machines.  To supply his tobacco, he purchased plantations in Kentucky and Virginia.

As forthright as his father, he was never overtly popular with either staff or business associates.  One of his habits was to stroll round the factory with a stick in hand with which he would tap any employee he felt wasn’t working hard enough.

“There is no royal road to fortune.  You must work.  You must start out with a central fixed idea and never take your mental gaze from it,” he often told people.

Gallaghers to Montana.  Michael Gallagher was born in 1892 on a small farm in county Donegal.  He came to New York in 1912 and worked as a conductor for a streetcar company.  Then, along with several others who had come from Ireland, he decided to go to Montana where there was work in the copper mines in Butte and land was available for homesteading in the Flathead Valley.

Farming was the thing they were most interested in and they could work in the mines in the winter for money to use to improve the farmland.  Michael bought some acreage around Charlo and also homesteaded land bordering that which he had bought.  Many Irish families had settled in that valley, including a brother Francis.

Helen Loretta Gilruth became Michael’s wife in 1918 and they raised a family of four boys and eight girls.  In the early 1940’s the family sold the farm and moved to Butte where his first cousin James and Mary Loftus Gallagher were living.  Near the end of the war they went to Seattle where they lived until the end of their lives several years later.  All the remaining members of the Gallagher family still live in Washington state.

Dave Gallaher, All Black Captain.  Dave Gallaher was the first captain of New Zealand’s All Black rugby team, then called the “Originals,” during their tour of England in 1905.  He was killed on the Western front at Passchendaele in 1917.

He is much revered in New Zealand rugby, as the following poetic tribute suggests:

  • “Through the mists of time, a figure stands tall,
  • An All Black legend from Donegal,
  • He played with power, poise and pace,
  • An iron man with an honest face,
  • Smart as a fox, he soon rose to fame,
  • A soldier’s instinct, in a magnificent game,
  • Hard as nails, strong and fast,
  • A superhuman with an unlikely past,
  • The name of Gallaher, still rings aloud,
  • A century on from the ‘Original’ crowd,
  • Dave was a hero, a leader of men,
  • His men would follow again and again,
  • A family man respected by all,
  • A tragic loss with an heroic fall,
  • A Nation inspired, history made,
  • An Irish Kiwi in Belgium laid,
  • One hundred years later, his presence still felt,
  • A child inspired wears a Tag Rugby belt,
  • His gift to Rugby is still very clear,
  • Ireland’s gift to New Zealand still held so dear.”

Such was the esteem that Dave Gallaher held.

Gallagher Names

  • Rev. Redmond O’Gallagher, who befriended the survivors of the Spanish Armada, became one of Ireland’s most prominent Catholic martyrs.
  • Tom Gallaher, born near Derry, became known in the early 1900’s as the “tobacco king” for his expanding tobacco empire.
  • Bill Callagher, founder of the New Zealand Gallagher Group, devised the first electric fence in the 1930’s.
  • Rory Gallagher from Ballyshannon in Donegal was an acclaimed blues guitar player.
  • Noel and Liam Gallagher, born in Manchester, are the lead singers for the group Oasis which broke through in the 1990’s.

Gallagher Numbers Today

  • 43,000 in the UK (most numerous in the West Midlands)
  • 26,000 in America (most numerous in Pennsylvania)
  • 32,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

Gallagher 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.


Click here for return to front page

Written by Colin Shelley

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *