McElroy Surname Meaning, History & Origin

McElroy Surname Meaning

The two commonest spellings of the name are McElroy and McIlroy.  It is both Irish and Scottish in origin.  The root in each case is the Gaelic Mac giolla Ruaidh, composed of the elements Mac, meaning “son of,” giolla being “youth”, and ruaidh being “red haired” – hence “the son of the red haired youth.”  Some think that McElroy is Irish in origin and McIroy Scottish in origin.

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McElroy and McIlroy Surname Ancestry

Scotland.  The name McElroy was first found in the 14th century in Dumfriesshire as Michael McGilrey a tenant in Thornhill.  Michael McYliroye was the baillie of Ayr in 1500. The name also cropped up in the parish of Ballantrae in Ayrshire.  One family line began with the marriage of Hugh and Esther McElroy in Wigtown in 1712.

The proximity to Ireland meant some emigration there over the years, either as plantation settlers in the 17th century or as soldiers to fight for Cromwell or later for William of Orange.  In Ireland their name seems to have become McIlroy.

Ireland.  MacElroy in Ireland originated at Ballymacelroy on the east side of Lough Erne in county Fermanagh. Ballymacelroy was also to be found in Tyrone and Antrim. The name cropped up in the old Annals:

  • in 1476 the chief Donal died and was replaced by his son Brian
  • and in 1492 Ballymacelroy was destroyed by the O’Neills.

The spelling became Gilroy in Connacht.

In 1990 the McElroy/McIlroy spellings were fairly evenly divided in Northern Ireland, 53% being McElroy and 47% being McIlroy:

  • Fermanagh and Tyrone remained important counties for McElroy, although the name extended as well into Monaghan and the southern parts of Armagh and Down.  Clogher in Tyrone recorded 61 McElroy families in the census of 1860.
  • McIlroy was more localized, to Antrim and Belfast and to the northern parts of county Down near Belfast.  Sir William McIlroy of Hilden was well-known in the early 20th century for his expertise on flax.

The McElroy and McIlroy names were both found in county DownThe earliest record there was of a John McGylboy who was the Canon of Dromore around the year 1406.  It was said that there were two McElroy branches, the “red” and the “black” McElroys. More recent numbers have included:

  • Archibald McIlroy, the local JP and writer who went down with the Lusitania in 1915.
  • and James McElroy the acclaimed fiddler.

Rory Mcilroy the golfer was born in Holywood, county Down. His grandfather Jimmy had repaired cranes in the Belfast docks where the Titanic was built.


America.  There were reports that the McElroy name had appeared in Maryland land grants as early as 1659, either as indentured servants or being transported there.  John McElroy was born in Cecil county, Maryland in 1690, married there, and then moved to Wake county, North Carolina sometime in the 1720’s.  Later descendants spread across the South.

The McElroy name first appeared in Pennsylvania in 1717. Some of these McElroys settled in Bucks county. William McElroy was recorded in Doylestown in 1749 and Sarah McElroy was the subject of a fatal duel in 1798. Other McElroys in Pennsylvania migrated to Virginia, to Kentucky (in 1830), and later to points south.  John McElroy’s 1901 book The History of Scotch Irish McElroys in America covered these lines.


Two McIlroy lines, both said to have been of Scottish descent, were in Arkansas by the early 1800’s:

  • Daniel McIlroy, born in Virginia in 1756, fought in the Revolutionary War, being captured during the Battle of Long Island.  His grandson Daniel settled in Randolph county, Arkansas in 1813. By 1889 his son Hemmet was the oldest living settler of Randolph county.
  • while John Paul McIlroy, born in North Carolina in 1787, was believed to have been the forebear of the McIlroys of Dalton in Randolph county.

Canada.  Henry McElroy and his family from county Down were one of the military families that first settled Richmond, Ontario near Ottawa in 1818. Three years later William McElroy and his family from Armagh came to Ontario, moving around several times before settling in Oshawa.  Three of his sons later moved to Waupun, Wisconsin.  Meanwhile Samuel McElroy and his family came to Dundas county, Ontario from Ballymoney in county Antrim sometime in the 1840’s.

Australia.  Matthew and Alice McElroy from Tyrone were assisted immigrants who arrived in Sydney with their three children on the Adam Lodge in 1837.  Matthew, a cooper, died in Sydney in 1878 at the age of seventy-eight.  Another Mathew McElroy, from Liverpool, was in NSW earlier in the 1820’s as a road contractor but ended up in prison for debts.

Stephen and Margaret McElroy came to Sydney from Derry on the Margaret in 1842.  Four years later they started a long trek on bullock train with a mob of sheep across the Blue Mountains, through Victoria, and finally arriving in Penola, South Australia where they settled.

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McElroy and McIlroy Surname Miscellany

McElroys and McIlroys in County Down.  Both the McElroy and Mcilroy names appeared in county Down.  The earliest record was of a John McGylboy who was the Canon of Dromore around the year 1406.  Six McIlroy families were recorded living in Kilkeel parish in the 1659 census.  The table below lists some names in the 18th century:

Name Parish Event Date
Elloner McAlroy Saintfield marriage to Leonard Dobbin 1709
James McElroy will probated 1751
John McElroy Seapatrick a Protestant at Banbridge 1766
Alexander McIlroy Kilkeel leased land from Lord Annesley 1781
James and John McIlroy Drumgooland flax growers 1796

Among later names in county Down were:

  • Archibald McIlroy, a JP from the Drumbo parish.  He later emigrated to Canada but was killed when the Lusitania was sunk in 1915.
  • and James (Gus) McElroy of Drumnaquoile.  Born in 1892, he was a renowned fiddler and still performing with his three sons on his 80th birthday in 1972.

James McElroy of Drumnaquoile.  In 1972 there was an 80th birthday celebration in Castlewellan for the fiddler James McElroy.  Traditional musicians came from all over the county and a large crowd of guests from other parts of Ireland, England and America.  It was obvious that this man and his family were held in high regard.  But then the musical McElroys of Drumnaquoile were indeed a legend in these parts.

Old James McElroy learned the fiddle from his uncle Frank of Legannany and he in turn taught many young fiddlers around county Down. He acquired the nickname of Gus at an early age because he used to imitate the local stage comedian Gus McCormick.  He was so good at it the name stuck.  He was good also at mimicking animal sounds.  Once he used this trick to make two dogs fight each other.  He would also call cows in from the fields by mimicking a calf.

Gus played the fiddle for the usual ceili dances and the Polka Mazurka and Highland Fling.  Gus and his sons were always ‘wild for dancing.’  When not playing music themselves, the McElroys would travel all over for a dance or a céilí.

His son Dan was still farming the original McElroy holding at Drumnaquoile, now completely livestock-based. All the McElroys have memories of an agricultural lifestyle that has now
completely disappeared – growing barley, potatoes, flax; harvesting the flax and putting it in water holes to rot; cows calving and calves dying; their mother made butter at home and travelled on the bus to Newcastle to sell it around the doors. They were all born in the same tiny bedroom ‘beyond the low room.’

Henry McElroy and the 1798 Uprising.  Henry McElroy was born in 1774 in Drumgooland parish in County Down.  As a young man he lived through the 1798 uprising.  He and his family were Protestant Episcopalians and were loyal to the Government in Dublin at the time.

But other McElroys were not.  There was a record of the McElroys near the Mournes being taken as suspects.  Hugh and John Mcllroy had been among the Protestant Dissenters (i.e. Presbyterians) listed for Drumgooland in 1775.  Most of those who took part in the uprising were either Presbyterians or native Irish. Richard McElroy of Kilkeel parish sold his home in 1800 and was thought to have left for America.

Sarah McElroy of Bucks County.  Sarah McElroy of Bucks county in Pennsylvania was a very beautiful and popular young woman.  In 1798 she was the occasion of a fatal duel between two army officers.

In the burial ground of St. James’ church in Bristol, a stone marks the grave of Captain John Sharp of the Tenth United States Infantry, the challenger.  Nearby is the grave of Sarah who died unmarried.

Reader Feedback – McElroys from Baltimore to Texas.  Very interesting. William McElroy, in Lavaca county, Texas in 1847, was from Alabama.  I believe his father was Archibald McElroy from Baltimore who moved to North Carolina and to Tennessee.

Anthony Harrell McElroy (haltx1@live.com)

Reader Feedback – McIlroy to McElroy?  My father was born in Maryhill near Glasgow in Scotland in 1915.  His father emigrated to America and settled in Pittsburgh.  He sent money home in order to have his wife Mary bring herself and son Henry and daughter Honoria to America. By 1922 or so they had enough money to travel.

The story I heard was that my dad and his mum and sister had to first travel to Liverpool in order to get on a boat to America.

At some point they had to change the spelling of their name, from McIlroy to McElroy.  I think they were Protestant in Maryhill.  Did they change the “I” to an “E” for religious acceptance?

Tom McElroy (tommcelroy.mail@gmail.com)

James McElroy and His Three Wives.  James McElroy who arrived in Australia on the James Fernie in 1856 was married three times and he apparently outlasted all three of them.

The first was named Margaret and they lived at Ballymore in county Armagh. She must have died by 1856 as he departed for Australia with his son by her, James, and with his second wife Rachel nee Trouten.  They settled in Maitland, NSW and raised nine children.  Then Rachel died. James married a third time, to Susan nee Armstrong.  However, a year after their marriage Susan McElroy drowned in the Hunter river.

Reader Feedback – Matthew McElroy in Liverpool, NSW.  I am searching for my ancestor Matthew McElroy, baptized in 1794 in Dundalk Louth, who was transported to NSW. in 1817 on the Chapman.  He was married to Sarah McGoveran in 1824 by the Rev. Thierry in St. Mary’s church in Sydney.  They had one daughter Mary Ann, born in 1822, and lived on York Street in the 1828 Census.

Matthew was a contractor of the Parramatta roads and earned his pardon in 1821.  He was friends with a Michael Dwyer (a policeman buried at Waverly cemetery with his wife) and a Michael Conroy.  They lived in Liverpool, NSW.

I am having a hard time to find his and wife Sarah’s burial date. No one seems to know. Mary Ann married a John Tindall in 1839 the All Saints Roman Catholic church in Liverpool.

Regards, Janet Pritchard (jpritcha@nor.com.au)

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McElroy Names
  • John McElroy was the Jesuit priest who founded Boston College in 1857. 
  • Neil McElroy was President of Procter & Gamble and US Secretary of Defense under President Eisenhower. 
  • Jimmy McIlroy was a well-known Northern Irish footballer of the 1950’s and 1960’s. 
  • James McElroy of Drumnaquoile was an acclaimed fiddler from county Down.
  • Rory McIlroy is a professional golfer from Northern Ireland, the first ever to win four majors by the age of twenty five.
McElroy Numbers Today
  • 6,000 in the UK (most numerous in Antrim)
  • 7,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 6,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)
McElroy 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.

Ulster in NE Ireland covers the counties of Derry, Antrim, Down, Tyrone, Armagh, Fermanagh, Cavan, Monaghan, and Donegal.  Here are some of the Ulster surnames (excluding the Scots Irish surnames) that you can check out.

BradyKaneMcCormickMcGuinness
CassidyLennonMcCoyO'Neill
CorcoranMaguireMcElroyQuinn

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