McGrath Surname Meaning, History & Origin

McGrath Surname Meaning

The McGrath surname is derived from the Gaelic MacGraith and the personal name Craith, meaning “grace” or “prosperity.”  It is a view traditionally held that MacCraith was a name bestowed upon the descendants of Ahearne, the brother of Brian Boru.  The McGrath clan did find a place as the hereditary poets and bards of the subsequent O’Brien princes of Thomond.

The name is found throughout Ireland.  The “th” in McGrath is generally silent.  The alternative spelling of McGraw came from county Down in Ulster and is common in America.

McGrath Surname Resources on The Internet

McGrath and McGraw Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Donegal and Waterford)
  • to America, Canada and Australia

Ireland.  From the O’Brien starting point of Thomond, the McGraths separated into two main septs:

  • one in an area known as Termon McGrath in Donegal in the northeast
  • and the other in Waterford in the southwest.

Donegal.  The McGraths of Termon McGrath were recorded in the Annals of Ulster from the time of their first chieftain in 1290 to the siege of Castle McGrath by Protestant forces in 1641 and the subsequent confiscation of their lands by Cromwell.

Seán mac Ruaidhri Mac Craith was a writer of the clan who flourished in the 14th century.  But perhaps the best known of these McGraths was Bishop Miler McGrath who started life as a Franciscan friar but then abandoned his faith to become the wealthy Protestant Archbishop of Cashel in Tipperary. He died in 1622 at the ripe old age of one hundred.

Waterford.  During the 1300’s some McGraths followed their O’Brien patrons southwest to Dungarvon and Lismore in Waterford.  By the side of the sea they set up an Augustinian monastery and later built the Abbeyside castle to protect it.  In the old monastery graveyard there was an ancient slab of stone which stated:  “Donald McGrath was buried here in 1400, having died on March 17th in his seventieth year.”  

Abbeyside castle itself survived, albeit in a dilapidated state, until 1916.  The McGraths in Waterford suffered at the time of Cromwell, none more so than the McGraths of Sleady castle.

By the time of Griffiths Valuation in the mid 19th century, McGrath was prominent:

  • in Tipperary (with 17% of the numbers)
  • followed by Waterford (with 11%).

The spelling was divided 75% McGrath and 25% Magrath, although the Magrath spelling share is much lower today.  McGraw was a spelling variant that was found in limited numbers in county Down in Ulster.  

America.  The spelling in America divides approximately 50/50 between McGrath and McGraw.  McGraw’s relative popularity may have come from the numbers in upstate New York who could have followed the spelling of Samuel McGraw who came to Cortlandville township from New Haven in 1803 and gave his name to the township of McGraw.

McGraws.  Patrick McGrath came to upstate New York from Limerick and his family became McGraws.  Son James McGraw founded the famous book publishing company of McGraw-Hill in 1885 and successive McGraws have headed this company since that time.

The ancestry of Tim McGraw the country singer does trace itself back to county Down in Ulster.  His forebears left there for Kansas in the 1850’s.  The family had moved to California by 1900 which was where the baseball pitcher Tug McGraw was born and then his son Tim.

Magraths.  The Magrath name came to America with John Magrath who had taken part in the 1798 Rising in Ireland, been captured, and then escaped.

He made it to South Carolina where he prospered as a merchant in Charleston.  His son Andrew became a prominent lawyer there and had the distinction of being the last Confederate Governor of South Carolina (from 1864 to 1865).

Canada.  McGraths from Waterford, along with a number of other Waterford families, emigrated to Newfoundland in the late 18th century.  McGrath descendants can still be found today fishing off Fogo island, one of the few Catholic Irish settlements on the northeast coast of Newfoundland.

A later arrival was Daniel McGrath of Lismore in Waterford (from the Clanaboy McGraths) who came to Montreal and died there in 1860 at the splendid age of 109.  His son Thomas was an alderman in Montreal.

Australia.  Some McGraths caught up in the 1798 Irish Uprising ended up as rebels shipped to Australia as political prisoners. 

Later came McGrath free settlers.  Many arrived from the Tipperary area.  Patrick McGrath came with his family from Tipperary to the Darling Downs region of Queensland in the 1860’s.  They settled in the Laidley area.  McGrath Crossing was named after them.

An earlier arrival had been Darby McGrath from Waterford who had come to Australia as a convict in 1834.  After his release he followed his brother John to Brisbane in the late 1840’s.  Hw was described there as an “unscrupulous Irish land speculator.”  He was able to hide his convict origins, was successful in his land dealings, and was later a horse breeder.

McGrath Surname Miscellany

Termon McGrath.  Termon McGrath lay in the barony of Tirhugh in South Donegal. The territory incorporated the modern town of Pettigoe and the ancient pilgrimage island and lake of Lough Derg.  It was said that the Termon was under the divine protection of the local St. Davog (Dabhog) and of the hereditary McGrath chieftain.

The McGrath clan was the hereditary Corabs of this pilgrimage island, controlling the routes in and out of the island and thereby gaining revenues from the pilgrims making their way there from all over Europe.  Nearby was Termon Castle (or Castle McGrath) and Carraig McGrath, the inauguration site of the McGrath chieftains.

The McGrath chieftains remained in possession of this territory from the 12th century until the eventual confiscation of McGrath lands by Cromwell in the 17th century.

The Story of Sleady Castle.  Philip McGrath was called Philibna Tsioda (Silken Philip meaning polished or elegant). He had built Sleady Castle in Waterford in 1628 for his new wife Mary.  It was an elegant four-story structure.  However, he died only five years later and it was his wife and his three daughters – Margaret, Catherine and Mary – who were to inhabit the house. In the summer of 1641 the mother had invited three English officers to be her guests at Sleady castle.

While the officers visited with Mary and her daughters upstairs the servants who had accompanied them to Sleady Castle were visiting with the servants of the castle. The servants of Sleady Castle decided to treat their visitors to whiskey at a nearby public house. They persuaded Mary’s brother-in-law that one of them would stay behind to watch the lowered drawbridge until they returned.

No sooner had they left than the kitchen maid, who had been left to guard the drawbridge, placed a light in one of the flanking towers. This was a prearranged signal to one of the local bandits who inhabited the woods near the castle. The bandits soon entered the castle and took as much plunder as they could carry and also took the three officers as hostages.

The bodies of the officers would not be found for another twelve months but by the fall of that year the Rebellion of 1641 was raging throughout the country. The McGraths were treated as traitors because of their suspected involvement in the disappearance of the three officers. Eventually a decree of forfeiture went forth against the McGraths that affected all their property. These were confiscated by the Government and apportioned among strangers.

The Jolly Merchant.  The McGrath poetic traditions may be said to have been extended to the 18th century entertainer Aindreas MacCraith who became known as An Mangaire Sugach (The Jolly Merchant).  The following are some translated lines from The Boatman’s Hymn that were attributed to him:

  • “Bark that bore me through foam and squall,
  • You and the storm are my castle wall,
  • Though the sea shall redden from bottom to top,
  • From tiller to mast she takes no drop.”

McGraths and Magraths in Griffith’s Valuation.   Griffith surveyed the landowners in Ireland between 1848 and 1864. The following was his numbers for McGrath and Magrath by the leading counties at that time.

County McGrath Magrath Total
Tipperary    456    146    602
Waterford    329     43    372
Kilkenny    153     60    213
Limerick    172     33    205
Down    140     60    200
Dublin     91     94    185
Clare    148     35    183
Cork    120     35    155
Elsewhere    981    384   1,365
Total   2,590    890   3,480

McGraths and McGraws in America.  According to Doug Currie, the author of the book A Genealogy of the McGraws of Truxton, McGraws from Tipperary had come to New York as McGraths in 1850 but were recorded as McGraw in the 1855 New York state census.

It is possible that the nearby town of McGraw, then known as McGrawville, might have had some influence in the change in spelling.  John, his son, did use McGrath on the headstones of his wife Ellen and his children who died of the cholera epidemic in 1883.  But John’s son, John J. McGraw, the famous manager of the New York Giants at the beginning of the 20th century, maintained the use of the McGraw version of the surname.

Some commentators have also said that McGrath immigrants had not liked the Americans pronouncing the “th” when to them it was silent.  McGraw was closer to their pronunciation.

Reader Feedback – McGraths in New Brunswick.  My family immigrated to Canada around 1834 to a village called Barnaby River in the province of New Brunswick. Lore has it that they came from Cork.  Little is known of who they were, other than it is said they were two brothers.

If there any resources that can be forwarded to me it would be greatly appreciated.

Daryl McGrath (

McGrath Rebels Shipped to Australia.  Some McGraths involved in the 1798 Irish Uprising ended up being shipped to Australia as political prisoners.

Name Trial Shipped on
Annesley McGrath 1800 in Dublin (life term) Hercules
James McGrath 1801 in Kildare (seven years) Hercules
James McGrath 1805 in Dublin (seven years) Tellicherry
Michael McGrath 1805 in Kildare (seven years) Tellicherry
Peter McGrath ? in Limerick (life term) Atlas

Michael McGrath from Waterford remained rebellious against British rule in Australia.  At one stage he was found guilty of harboring a bushranger.  Then he was transported to Port Macquarie for an alleged burglary.

He had married a fellow convict Elizabeth Somerville in Australia and had seven children with her.  But seeing no hope of release, he asked his friend James Ward to take care of his family.  This he did, marrying Elizabeth and having a further five children with her. James was later transported to Norfolk Island where he died in 1837.

McGrath Names

  • Miler McGrath was a 16th century Franciscan friar who converted to Protestantism and became the wealthy Archbishop of Cashel.
  • James H. McGraw founded the McGraw-Hill publishing company in 1885 with his life savings.   
  • John McGraw, known as “little Napoleon,” was famous in baseball circles as a player with the Baltimore Orioles and as the long-time manager of the New York Giants. 
  • Ali McGraw was a well-known film actress of the 1970’s. 
  • Glen McGrath was the premier fast bowler in the Australian cricket team in the early 2000’s.

McGrath Numbers Today

  • 15,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 22,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 41,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

McGrath 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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