McCarthy Surname Meaning, History & Origin

McCarthy Surname Meaning

McCarthy is the anglicized form of the Gaelic Mac Carthaigh or son of Carthach, a personal name meaning “loving.”   The name is Irish rather than Scottish despite the fact that the “son of” prefix is mac rather than the more common o. 

There are several other forms extant, including Carthy and Carty.  Another variant, McCartney, comes from a Scottish family founded by Donal, a grandson of the first McCarthy king of Desmond.

McCarthy Surname Resources on The Internet

McCarthy Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Munster)
  • to America, Canada, England, Argentina and Australia

Ireland.  The origin of the MacCarthy clan begins with Carthach in the 11th century, a rival to the semi-legendary Brian Boru.  Carthach’s son, Muiredach mac Carthach, was the first to assume the name of MacCarthaigh.  This family, driven out of Tipperary, established themselves as the leading clan in Munster.  The MacCarthy Kings of Desmond can be traced from 1118 to 1596.

The MacCarthys divided over time into four main branches:

  • MacCarthy Mor in south Kerry
  • MacCarthy Duhallow in northwest Cork
  • MacCarthy Riabhach/Reagh in Carbery in southwest Cork
  • and MacCarthy Muskerry on the Cork/Kerry border.

The MacCarthy Reaghs were said to have founded the monastery of Timoleague in 1240.  They had their principal seat first at Kilbrittain castle and then at Springhouse near Bansha.  This Springhouse estate was considered at the time to be the largest cultivated farm in Europe.  Later these MacCarthy Reaghs regrouped at Oakmount near Skibbereen.

It was the MacCarthy Muskerry who built Blarney castle in 1446.  Cormac MacCarthy put off Queen Elizabeth’s demand for allegiance with his “fair words and soft speech” – which was how the Blarney stone acquired its reputation for imparting eloquence to those who succeeded in kissing it.

The MacCarthy families opposed the English encroachments until the 17th century when, like the other Gaelic families, they lost almost everything.  The last of the MacCarthy Mors was Finian MacCarthaigh, known to the English as Florence MacCarthy, who spent the latter part of his life in custody in London whilst his lands were distributed amongst his relatives and the English colonists.

Some MacCarthys managed to hold onto their lands at this time, but later lost out because of their support for the Jacobite cause.  Justin MacCarthy founded the Irish Brigade in the service of the French King; others left for America.  And more McCarthys departed for America and for Canada in the 19th century.

Even so, McCarthy remains a common surname in Ireland, with about half of the McCarthys to be found in county Cork today.  Morty McCarthy’s book Dowtcha Boy is an anthology of present-day Cork slang.

America.  The McCarthys in Early American History by Michael J. O’Brien was published in 1968.

Virginia.  The first arrivals would appear to have been Charles and Owen McCartie.  They came to Virginia in 1662, it is thought from Kinsale in Cork, on the Plaine Joane.  Dennis McCarthy was recorded in Old Rappahannock county records in 1675 and Daniel McCarty in Westmoreland county records thirty years later.  Daniel and his descendants were prominent in Virginia local politics in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Elsewhere.  There were McCarthy arrivals during colonial times into Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York.  However, the largest influx was into Massachusetts.

Thaddeus McCarthy first appeared in Boston records in 1666.  Captain William McCarthy was the best-known Boston shipowner of his day.  The numbers of McCarthys in Massachusetts increased markedly in the 19th century. McCarthys in the 20th century included William McCarthy who became head of the Teamsters union in 1988.

Heading West.  A number of McCarthys headed West.  Eugene McCarthy for example, a contractor during the construction of the Northern Pacific railroad, moved to Montana.  His son helped to map the Glacier National Park.  Two well-known 20th century politicians with roots in the Midwest were Senator Joseph McCarthy from Wisconsin and Senator Gene McCarthy from Minnesota.

Canada.  McCarthys who made it to Canada in the first half of the 19th century included:

  • Timothy and Ellen McCarthy from Cork who settled in Nepean township, Ontario in 1823.
  • Michael and Catherine McCarthy from Limerick who settled in Bathurst, New Brunswick in 1828 (their descendants later moved to Maine).
  • Timothy and Jane McCarthy from Cork who settled in Port Neuf, Quebec in the 1830’s.
  • Daniel and Abigail McCarthy from Cork who settled near Peterborough, Ontario in 1838.

The most successful turned out to be D’Alton McCarthy of the McCarthy Reaghs who had arrived in Canada in 1845.  He made his reputation as a barrister and Queen’s Counsel.  His son moved their fledgling legal practice to Toronto in the late 1870’s.  It is now McCarthy Tetrault, Canada’s premier law firm.

Argentina.  John and Mary McCarthy and their five children had emigrated from Ireland to Argentina on the SS Dresden in 1889.  Their descendants, members of the Argentine Makarte family, later served with distinction on Irish merchant vessels during World War Two, something that was recently acknowledged by a ceremony at the Irish embassy in Buenos Aires.

England.  Fewer McCarthy numbers crossed the Irish Sea to England than crossed the Atlantic.   Those who did settled in either London or Lancashire.

Two who made it in London in the early 20th century were Lillah MacCarthy, a popular dramatic actress of her day, and Sir Desmond MacCarthy, a London drama critic.  More recently, the McCarthy family, originally from county Clare, have been one of the great cornerstones of Irish music in London.

Australia.  Many of the Irish sent to Australia in its early years were political prisoners.  Denis McCarthy, for instance, was transported to Tasmania, following his capture during the 1798 rebellion. When he drowned in mysterious circumstances twenty years later, the Hobart Town Gazette described him as “a man with a speculative turn who had been the owner of three vessels and had acquired considerable land and other property.”

Another who prospered then was James McCarthy.  His early history is uncertain.  But in 1804 he received a land grant at Cranebrook in the Penrith region of NSW.  He proved very adept at farming the land; while his home became a center for Catholic services.  His name lives on locally in the McCarthy Catholic College.

A later arrival, but also revered in the Catholic community, was Dr. Charles McCarthy who emigrated to Sydney in 1884.  He was a surgeon, physician to Cardinal Moran, and also, during his time in Australia, an accomplished painter and sculptor.

McCarthy Surname Miscellany

MacCarthy Origins.  McCarthy, a variant of MacCarthy, means “son of love” and is the most common surname in Ireland which uses the prefix Mc or Mac (son of).

The origin of the name began with Cartach an Eoganacht Chaisil, a king who died in 1045 in a house fire deliberately started by one of the Lonergans.  Cartach was a contemporary and bitter rival of Brian Boru. The McCarthy clan were pushed out of their traditional homelands of the Golden Valley in Tipperary by the expansion of that sept in the middle of the 12th century.

Cartach’s son used the appellation Muireadhach mac Carthaigh. Muireadhach died in 1092.  His sons, Tadhg and Cormac, adopted MacCarthy as a proper surname.

MacCarthy Kings of Desmond

Date MacCarthy Relationship
1118-1123 Tadgh I eldest son of Muiredach
1123-1138 Cormac III his brother
1138-1143 Donogh III his brother
1143-1185 Dermod I his nephew
1185-1206 Donal I his son
1206-1207 Fingen IV his brother
1207-1229 Dermod II son of Donal I
1229-1247 Cormac IV his younger brother
1247-1252 Donal II his younger brother
1252-1261 Fingen V his son
1261-1262 Cormac V his younger brother
1262-1302 Donal III son of Cormac IV
1302-1306 Donal IV his son
1306-1310 Donogh IV his brother
1310-1326 Dermod III son of Donal IV
1326-1359 Cormac VI his brother
1359-1390 Donal V his son
1390-1428 Tadgh II his son
1428-1469 Donal VI his son
1469-1503 Tadgh III his brother
1503-1508 Donal VII his son
1508-1516 Cormac VII his brother
1516-1558 Donal VIII his son
1558-1596 Donal IX his son

The Fate of Poets.  Diarmaid MacCarthy of Cork was probably a graduate of the famous Blarney Academy of Poetry of which he later became president.  Alas, the 17th century was a cruel time for the arts.  The “Wild Geese” had fled and there was little money or regard for poets.

When Diarmaid’s horse died, there was no patron to pay for replacing it and so he was prevented from travelling.  He wrote a tragic poem about his fate, a fate shared by all of the hereditary poets at the end of the Gaelic era, including his kinsman Eoghan MacCarthy, also of Cork, a prolific poet in both Irish and English.

Daniel McCarty in Virginia.  A plaque in the old courthouse in Warsaw, Richmond County, lists the names of both Daniel and his father Dennis McCarty as being among the first prosecuting attorneys of that county.

Daniel McCarty is buried in the old Yeomico church cemetery in Westmoreland County.  The following inscription on his tomb is taken from an article by a Mrs. Elenor Griffith Fairfax in The Southern Churchman in 1888.

“Close to the base of the right and east gable is the rocky foundation of a vault, in size 15 by 18 feet. It is now a grassy mound with several cedar trees growing upon it.  Near the center of this bound is a grey stone much defaced by time.  It is only after repeated efforts that I have succeeded in marking out the inscription, which is as follows:

‘Here lyeth the body of Daniel McCarty, who departed this life the fourth of ___ 1724 in the forty fifth year of his age.  He was endowed with many virtues and good qualifications, but the actions proceeding from them bespeak their praise.

Here also lyeth the body of Thaddeus McCarty, youngest son to Daniel McCarty, who died the 7th of February 1731 in the 19th year of his age.'”

The Historical Atlas of Westmoreland County states that Daniel was born in 1679 in England, the son of Dennis and Elizabeth McCarty.  He was a captain in the colonial militia, a sheriff in 1710, and a justice in 1714.

Francis McCarthy to Australia in 1821.  Francis McCarthy was accused of “uttering unlawful oaths” in his native Roscommon.  This was a charge interpreted in the English courts as “making political agitation” or “taking part in a seditious conspiracy.”  The sentence therefore was harsh – 14 years transportation.

He had been tried and convicted in Cork and was then led to a blacksmith who fitted him with the standard four pound leg-irons, “the badge of infamy and degregation riveted upon me.”  He was then confined to a hulk left over from the Napoleonic wars where he was chained to a berth already occupied by rats, to await transportation on the John Barry.  He was twenty six years old, for that period unusually tall (five feet eight inches), with a shock of ginger hair and a bushy ginger beard.

One photograph of him in later life survives.  After he had served his sentence, he was described in the register of St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney as “a laborer of ruddy face.”  That he had been convicted of a political crime and married an ex-convict servant girl “of dark and pocked complexion” was considered at the time to be a further stain on his character.

Daniel McCarthy, An Early Settler in Canada.  Daniel McCarthy had been an overseer of an estate in county Cork. Forebears had tried unsuccessfully to make a life in Spain. Daniel and his wife Abigail opted for Canada.  They arrived there in 1838 and moved to a homestead near Keene, southeast of Peterborough in Ontario.

The 200 acres they had been granted by the Crown were rocky and covered in bush, some swampy as they were near the Indian river that flowed through Keene.  Their first priority was to build some sort of shelter until their log house was ready.  This was in the form of a shanty near the Indian river.  Legend has it that Abigail cried and wanted to return to Ireland immediately.

Daniel was instrumental in having funds collected to build a Catholic church in Keene, walking to Kingston with a petition to have such a church built.  The family donated some of the wood for the construction.  The church was heated by a box stove and lit by coal oil lamps.  There were sheds for horses at the back of the church.  Daniel took turns with the other men sleeping in the church on occasion after it opened in 1856, in order to protect it from the Cavan Blazers, an anti-Catholic group.

Gayle Nelson in her book Forest to Farm: Early Days in Otonabee describes Keene as it was in 1839. It had three taverns.  Roger Bates had built a stone tannery near the mill on the Indian river.  A carding and shingle mill had just opened on the river.  A five shilling fine was levied on anyone crossing the bridge in Keene faster than a walk, perhaps a comment on the condition of the structure.

William McCarthy, The Last of the Old-Style Teamsters. William McCarthy was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1919.  When he was fifteen, he stole a car and took Boston police on a high-speed chase until he ditched the car near the offices of Teamsters Local 25 and hid in the cab of a tractor-trailer cab.  When the driver returned, McCarthy talked him into taking him to New York City.  Two years later, he stole a blank baptismal certificate and faked his birth date so that he could qualify for a chauffeur’s license.  He joined Local 25 and worked for Benjamin Motor Express.

In 1946, after ten years at the wheel, he became business agent for Local 25, based in Boston, and its 7,000 members.  He quickly rose through the ranks, becoming president of the local in 1955 and a vice president of the national union in 1969.

The Teamsters were a corrupt union by this time.  Jimmy Hoffa and other Teamster leaders would make strategic alliances with organized crime in deals that benefited both the Mafia, who obtained sweetheart deals, and the union leaders who received kickbacks and other forms of assistance.  Four of the union’s presidents were to be indicted on criminal charges; three of them (including Hoffa) went to prison.

It was William McCarthy, the last of the old-style Teamster union leaders, who signed the consent decree in 1989 settling a Federal Government racketeering suit and allowing for a court-appointed trustee to supervise the first direct election of union officers.

McCarthy’s Bar.  There is in downtown Lexington, Kentucky a McCarthy’s Irish bar that has catered to the wealthy Irish horsemen who came to town to buy horses at the Keeneland Sales and other venues.

It was there before Pete McCarthy, a Tennessee lad, decided to write his travel book McCarthy’s Bar and go to Ireland to sample the pubs.  That book was successful and he decided to write a sequel, The Road to McCarthy’s Bar.  Here he followed the McCarthy name and the Irish diaspora across the globe.

McCarthy Names

  • Tadhg MacCarthaigh became the first king of Desmond (Cork and Kerry) in 1118.
  • Thaddeus McCarthy, a prominent Irish bishop in the late 1400’s, was beatified by the Catholic Church in 1896.
  • Glenn McCarthy was a flamboyant Texan oil tycoon, often called “the king of the wildcatters.”
  • Joseph McCarthy was the American senator who hunted down communists in the 1950’s, giving rise to the term “McCarthyism.”
  • Gene McCarthy was the anti-Vietnam US Presidential candidate in 1968.
  • Pete McCarthy was the author of McCarthy’s Bar, a popular travelogue of present-day Ireland.
  • Cormac McCarthy is an American novelist and playwright whose novel, No Country for Old Men, was an Academy Award winning film in 2007.

McCarthy Numbers Today

  • 10,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 32,000 in America (most numerous in Massachusetts)
  • 61,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

McCarthy 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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