Griffin Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Griffin Meaning

Griffin is a surname primarily of Irish origin.  It derived from the Gaelic word for gryphon, the mythical Celtic beast with the head of one animal and the body of another (normally an eagle and a lion). One powerful warrior was called Griobhan because he was feared in the same way as a gryphon. That name evolved as a clan into O’Griobhtha or O’Griofa. This clan was prominent in SW Ireland. The anglicized version was first Griffey and then more commonly Griffin.

Griffin might have Welsh origins, a variant of Griffith from the old Welsh name Gruffydd. Griffin in the west of England could have been brought there from Wales, in the east of England from Breton settlers.

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Griffin Ancestry

Ireland.  The principal O’Griobhtha sept in Ireland, first recorded in the early 14th century, were the chiefs of Cinel Cuallachta, a territory in the southeast part of the barony of Inchiquin in county Clare. Their fortress was Ballygriffey castle in Dysart parish.  

“Ballygriffey castle is still in a fairly good state of preservation, even though the roof has fallen in and part of the upper floor has collapsed. There are many defensive features to be seen – including a shot hole and an internal wall on the upper floor which could be defended if attackers penetrated that far into the castle.”


By the time of the 1659 English census, the spelling had become Griffin and they could be found primarily at Inchiquin and Bunratty in county Clare. The name had also spread to Coshma and Limerick city in county Limerick and to the Kerry baronies of Corkaguiny and Truaghanacmy.

A 19th century descendant of the Clare Griffins was the writer Gerald Griffin. He was born and grew up in Limerick.

Coshma in Limerick had its own Ballygriffin hamlet. In Kerry Murtagh Griffin, the clerk of the Common Pleas in Dublin, purchased lands near Killarney in 1700. In his will of 1712 he directed that these lands be sold for his Catholic heirs as they could not legally inherit them. Michael Griffin was recorded as living at Rossanean in 1776.


Wales. The Welsh
name Gruffydd tended to become either Griffith or Griffiths in Wales, not Griffin. Griffin ap Owen was recorded as a Sheriff of Anglesey in the early 1300’s; and there were Griffins (otherwise Penngruffwynds) at Penrith in Pembrokeshire in the 1600’s. But there are few Griffins in Wales today.

England. The Griffin name appeared at an early time in the east of England and then later in larger numbers in the west of England.

East of England.  Some think the name was brought there by Breton settlers.

The earliest mention was a knight named Richard Griffin who was resident at Gomundley in Leicestershire in the mid-1200’s.
His son Sir John married the Favell heiress in Northamptonshire and their descendants later held Dingley and Braybrooke in that county:

  • Edward Griffin was created Baron Griffin of Braybrooke in 1688, yet died in the Tower of London in 1710. The male line then died out thirty years later.
  • but John Griffin, an army officer and later Field Marshal who had adopted his mother’s maiden name in 1749, began a new Baron Braybrooke line based at Audley End in Essex.

The Griffin name also surfaced in Norfolk. Gabriel Griffin was recorded at Greenhoe in 1550; while Benjamin Griffin, the actor and playwright, was born in Yarmouth in 1680.

West of England.  The Griffin name here was first introduced into the English counties bordering Wales and then spread into neighboring counties.

There was a Griffin line in William Shakespeare, with his grandfather Richard having married Alys Griffin in Warwickshire in the mid-1500’s. Some scholars have argued that Alys was descended from a line of Welsh nobility, but there is no proof to this assertion.

There were also Griffins at Fenny Compton in Warwickshire from the 1600’s. Later Griffins operated a lime and cement works at Stockton in the 19th century.

The Griffin name appeared in Stroud in Gloucestershire in 1599 when John Griffin acquired what came to be known as Griffin’s mill. It was to stay with his family for almost two hundred years.
Meanwhile one family line in Somerset dates from around 1575
when William Griffin was born in West Pennard.

Many Griffins in Lancashire may have come from Ireland.

AmericaSome claim that the brothers Edward and John Griffin who arrived in America in the 1630’s were from Wales. But this has not been substantiated. Edward who came on the Abraham ended up in Flushing, New York, John on the Constance in Simsbury, Connecticut. Edward Griffin had the more hair-raising experiences.  

“Edward bound for Virginia landed east of Chesapeake Bay and settled on Palmer Island. In 1638 armed emissaries of Lord Baltimore attacked the settlement and took Edward captive. However, he managed to escape to the Dutch colony at New Amsterdam. When the Dutch authorities determined the truth of his captivity, they allowed him to stay in the colony.”


He made his home in Flushing, Long Island. His descendants migrated to Westchester and Dutchess counties in upstate New York in the 1700’s. Paul Griffin’s 1995 book Annotated Bibliography of the Griffin/Griffen Family covered this line.

New England.  Unproven Welsh connections have also hovered around other early Griffin arrivals in New England:

  • Hugh Griffin from London who was an early settler in Sudbury in 1639.
  • Humphrey Griffin, a butcher, who came to Ipswich in 1641. Later Griffins migrated to New Hampshire.
  • and Matthew Griffin who came to Charlestown around this time. His kinsman Richard had settled in Concord.

Virginia.  A notable early line was that of Thomas Griffin, the son of a London merchant family, who had reached Virginia via Barbados in the early 1640’s. His son Leroy became a large landowner in Richmond county. The line led to Judge Cyrus Griffin, the last President of the Continental Congress in 1788, and to his son John, an early judge in Michigan territory.

William Griffin, possibly related, had come to Virginia as a young boy in 1638. Some of his descendants settled in South Carolina in the mid-1700’s. One line via William S. Griffin migrated to Tennessee in the early 1800’s and then to Arkansas.

Griffins in the South.  There were more Griffin numbers further south in the 19th century – in North Carolina, in Georgia, and in Mississippi in particular.

The Peter Griffin born in Ireland who married Elizabeth Owens in South Carolina in 1770 was the grandfather of Lewis Lawrence Griffin, a man from humble beginnings in Georgia who made a fortune with the Monroe railroad, lost it in 1840, and then made another fortune in Aberdeen, Mississippi.

John Thomas Griffin came to Georgia with his family in 1792. He was, as his son Thomas called him, a “dry-footed Baptist,” one who said “go down to the water” but never went there himself. The son Thomas Griffin was an early circuit preacher who rode the Mississippi territory along the Tombigbee settlements.

Jonas Griffin departed North Carolina, taking his young wife and family by boat, and settled in the Walnut Hills area of Mississippi territory in 1802. His son Francis purchased land on a high ridge
bordering the Mississippi river in 1831 and established his plantation there. The family history here was recounted in Mary Halloran’s 2009 book The Griffins of Magnolia Terrace.

William Griffin, born in Georgia, came to Moss Point, Mississippi in the 1850’s where he built a sawmill and became one of the wealthiest men in Jackson county. He sold his sawmill to his son-in-law in the 1870’s. His grandson Wyatt became the owner twenty years later.

Canada. Two Griffins of Dutchess county, New York – descendants of immigrant Edward Griffin – were Loyalists at the time of the Revolutionary War. Thomas and Obadiah Griffin escaped to Nova Scotia where they received land grants. Obadiah moved to Smithville, Ontario in 1814 where other Griffins from Dutchess county had previously settled. Justus Griffin’s 1924 book Ancestors and Descendants of Richard Griffin of Smithville covered the family line here.

Griffin Miscellany

Griffin Origins in Ireland.  O’Griobhtha, pronounced O’Greefa, was one of the many Gaelic surnames which assumed in their anglicized form those of English names of similar sound.  In this case, the earlier form of O’Griffy was almost entirely superseded by the English Griffin.

There is no doubt, however, that the great majority of Irish Griffins are really O’Griffys of Gaelic stock.  Their numbers in Ireland amount to over eight thousand.  Griffin stands seventy fifth in the list of the most common Irish surnames.  Griffins are chiefly to be found in Munster – in Clare, Limerick, Kerry and Cork.

Gerald Griffin’s Emergence as a Writer.  Gerald’s parents came from good families in the south of Ireland.  Thirteen children were born to them, nine boys – of whom Gerald was the youngest – and four girls. When Gerald was seven years old his parents moved to Fairy Lawn by the river Shannon about twenty-seven miles from Limerick.

However, ten years later in 1820 the family at Fairy Lawn was broken up.  His parents and several of their children emigrated to America.  Gerald was left behind under the care of an elder brother.

Boy though he was at this time, he conceived the bold project “of revolutionizing the dramatic tastes of the time by writing for the stage.”  With this idea in mind he wrote several plays, expecting to have them staged in London. When only nineteen years old he started on his quixotic journey – “a young gentleman totally unknown coming into town with a few pounds in one pocket and a brace of tragedies in the other.”

His life in London during the first two years was life in a city wilderness.  It was a sad time. He could not get an opening for his dramas and he did not live to see his play Gisippus acted at Drury Lane in 1842.

But Gerald survived and eventually made his literary mark in London. He began a series of short stories, Anecdotes of Munster, which established his reputation and enabled him to give up his literary drudgery. No longer haunted by the failure he was able to return to Ireland.

Though broken down by poor health, he kept on working and produced his finest work, The Collegians, published in his twenty fifth year, which assured him of fame and and a little fortune. This novel gives a comprehensive picture of every phase and gradation of Irish life.

The Rise and Fall of Baron Griffin of Braybrooke.  Edward Griffin rose to prominence in English court circles during the Restoration after Charles II had come to the throne.  He was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Duke of York’s Regiment of Foot Guards and then served as Treasurer of the Chamber to the King from 1679 to 1685.  During that time he narrowly escaped drowning in the wreck of the Gloucester off the Yorkshire coast in 1682.

When Charles died in 1685 he served James II in the same capacity until his exile in 1688. He followed the King into exile and was with his son, the titular King James III, in France until 1708.

He was then captured on the Salisbury off Leith whilst on a mission to Scotland.  Taken prisoner, he was tried for treason in London and condemned to death.  He was reprieved shortly before the date set for his execution and spent the remaining two years of his life locked away in the Tower of London.

Edward Griffin, Early Emigrant to America.  Some have maintained that Edward Griffin was Welsh, either connected to early Welsh princes or to the Pengruffwnd family of Pembrokeshire in Wales.  There is no substantive evidence that either of these connections are true. Other reports have his family originating from Yorkshire.

More likely was the report that he was a constable in London and had killed a man in a tavern in the line of duty.  He was pardoned by the King in 1625 and subsequently held a trusted position as an agent in London before his departure for America, indentured to Captain William Claiborne, in 1635.

He ended up in Dutch New York in the 1650’s and converted to the Quaker faith.  He died there in 1698.

Lewis Lawrence Griffin.  Around 1810 a young man named Lewis Lawrence Griffin came to Georgia with his widowed mother and settled in Twiggs county.  This poor Georgian would become President of the Monroe railroad and the founder of the city of Griffin.

Griffin became a General in the Georgia militia after fighting in the Indian Wars against the Creeks. He served in the Legislature in 1829 and 1830. He lived in Monroe county and Macon, all the while amassing a large fortune with the Monroe railroad.  The general purchased 800 acres of land and planned a city at the crossing of his Monroe railroad and another line.

But not long after June 1840, when the city’s first lots were sold, a depression hit the nation and the Monroe Railroad and Banking Company collapsed.  General Griffin lost most of his fortune.

He then moved to Aberdeen, Mississippi.  There, he remarried, raised a family, ran a drugstore, and acquired another fortune.  He died in Aberdeen in 1867, survived by his wife and two children.  General Griffin’s ante-bellum home still stands across the street from Aberdeen’s city hall, owned and occupied by his grandchildren.

A Mississippi Family – The Griffins of Magnolia Terrace.  From a plantation ledger, an abandoned graveyard, a fragile manuscript, and old newspapers, author Mary Halloran has raised the bones of her ancestors and made them come alive in this memoir that traced the history of five generations of her Mississippi family.

In A Mississippi Family, Halloran painted a backdrop to the life the family lived.  The story began with the life and times of three men:

  • Jonas Griffin (1762-1815)
  • his son Francis Griffin (1800-1865)
  • and his son Judge John Bettis Griffin (1826-1903).

It ended with portraits of two remarkable women, Judge John’s daughters, Mary Lane Griffin (1858-1942) and Helen Knight Griffin (1864-1949).

The stories of these five people, whose fates and values shaped the lives of their children, capture the early history of the Mississippi Delta, Warren and Washington counties, and the town of Greenville.  Telling tales of river journeys and life on southern plantations, Halloran’s meticulous research has provided a record of her fascinating family saga at a crucial period in the history of the county, state, and nation.

Griffin Names
  • Sir Thomas Griffin was an English knight of the shires in the 14th century.
  • Cyrus Griffin served as the last President of the Continental Congress in 1788 prior to American independence.
  • Gerald Griffin was a notable Irish novelist of the early 1800’s.
  • Merv Griffin hosted the Merv Griffin Show on American TV from 1965 to 1986.
Griffin Numbers Today
  • 32,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 69,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 29,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

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