Nolan Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Nolan Surname Meaning

The Nolan surname is derived from the Gaelic word nuall meaning “shout” or “howl” and the suffix áin meaning “one who.” Thus Nualláin would mean someone who howls or shouts.

One explanation for this derivation was that the shouting or howling referred to that eerie blood-curdling war-cry that was such an integral part of early Celtic warfare. Alternatively, the name might have come with the first chief of the clan in Carlow who held the hereditary office of herald to the Kings of Leinster.

The O’Nualláin name may have been first used in Ireland as far back as the ninth century, or even possibly earlier. It became O’Nolan and Nolan with the arrival of the English. Other name variants have been Nowlin, Nowland, and Nolen. The Nolin spelling has French-Canadian roots.

Nolan Surname Resources on The Internet

Nolan Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Carlow)
  • to America, Canada and Australia

Ireland.  The Nolans held the barony of Foherta, the modern barony of Forth, in Carlow. According to the Annals of Ireland, it was the chief family of Foharta Osnadhaigh who adopted the name of O’Nualláin.

They were pushed southward in Carlow around Templepeter by the Anglo-Norman incursions in the late 12th century. Donnell O’Nolan was recorded by the English as the O’Nolan chief in 1394. Sub-sects – such as those at Ballykealey, Shangarry, and Kilbride – emerged.

The Nolans of Loughboy were Kilkenny merchants who may have originated in Carlow. They settled in Galway and Mayo. The Nolans in Kerry were descended from Luke O’Nolan of Carlow who had resettled in Laios in the mid-1500’s. Two other Gaelic septs, the Ó hUllacháins and the Ó hUltacháins, had also started to use O’Nolan or something close to it as the English rendering of their name by this time.

A number of Nolans came to prominence during the Irish Nationalist times of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They included:

  • the Fenian agitator John Nolan (called John ‘Amnesty’ Nolan)
  • the Galway landowner John Philip Nolan
  • the Fenian Parliamentarian Joseph Nolan
  • and the Ulster priest Father John O’Nolan.

Father John O’Nolan’s genealogical work, updated at a later date by Art Kavenagh, was published in 2000 as The O’Nolans, History of a People.

Outside of Dublin, the largest number of Nolans reside today in Carlow.

America. The John Nolan who lost his Enniscrone estate in Sligo as a result of the Cromwellian confiscations is thought to have been the John Nowlin in Isle of Wight, Virginia in 1643. These Nowlins later became Nolens. Pierce Nowland also lost his estates, this time in Tipperary, at the time of Cromwell. Six of his sons emigrated to Maryland in the 1670’s. James Nowlin from Carlow was in Virginia by about 1700.

The best-known early Nolan was probably Philip Nolan from Belfast, the man who came to Spanish America in the 1790’s and made three trading expeditions into the territory that was later to become Texas. In 1801, however, he was captured and killed by the Spanish authorities.

More Nolans arrived in America during the 19th century. Many stayed in the Eastern cities, some ventured West. Among the latter were:

  • two Nolan brothers from Wexford, Matthew and Patrick, who came to America in the 1840’s. Both worked in the coal mines in Pennsylvania. Patrick later headed west to Minnesota to farm. But he died young because of black lung disease incurred in the mines.
  • two more Nolan brothers, Andrew and John from Galway, who arrived around the same time. In the 1850’s they headed west and settled in Wisconsin.
  • and James Nolan from Galway who came in 1851. James first moved to Ohio but later settled to farm in Illinois.

Canada. The names Nolin and Nolan were to be found in French Quebec by the 1660’s. There were also Nolans from Ireland in the Newfoundland fishing fleet who ended up in the Canadian Maritime provinces in the late 1700’s.

Gervasio Nolan, probably of French origin, was born in Saint Charles, New Brunswick in 1792 and migrated to New Mexico when it was still Spanish territory. He married a very young bride in Taos in 1828 and was the forebear of the Nolans of New Mexico.

Two notable later Nolans in Canada were:

  • Louis Nolan, who was born in Ontario in 1818 to an Irish soldier in the British army. Nolan’s “claim to fame” came with the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War. It was he who relayed the order to charge and he who, like others, was killed in the charge.  
  • and Paddy Nolan, a migrant from Limerick to the Canadian West in 1889 who was an early frontier lawyer. His fame as “the greatest wit in the west” led to many stories and legends about his criminal law practice in Calgary.

Australia. Early Nolans in Australia were convicts. Michael Nowland from Dublin, for instance, was imprisoned and sentenced to death for supposedly stealing a horse. His sentence was later commuted to life and he was transported in 1790 to Australia on the Scarborough. He married a fellow convict from the Lady Juliana and, after an initial spell on Norfolk Island, they settled in Wilberforce, NSW where they raised nine children.

Later arrivals were free settlers, such as James and Rosanna Nolan from Fermanagh (who arrived in Sydney on the Broom in 1842 and subsequently migrated to the Victorian goldfields) and John Nolan from Wicklow (who came to Sydney on the Berkshire two years later and settled in East Maitland, NSW).

Nolan Surname Miscellany

The First Nolan.  It is hard to determine with any degree of certainty when the Gaelic form of the Nolan family name, i.e. Ó Nualláin, was first used.

However, based upon Irish royal genealogies we do know that, around the year 1000, Mael Mórda O’Domnall, a son of the then king of Leinster, Donnchad macDomnall, married Luanmaisi Ingen Ceile O’Nualláin, a great great granddaughter of  Murchad MacNuallain, thus suggesting that the family name was being used as early as the end of the 9th century.

Further back in time, it is thought that the descendants of Eochaidh Fionn Fothairt, a 2nd century warrior prince, had started using O Nualláin as a family name.

The Nolans of Loughboy.  The following events give a time-line for the Nolans of Loughboy, Kilkenny merchants, who had gained possession of extensive tracts of land in Galway and Mayo in the 15th and 16th centuries:

  • In 1473, after a lightning fire had nearly destroyed Galway City, Michael O’Nolan rebuilt and ornamented the tomb of the ancient family of O’Nolan of Loughboy, Kilkenny at the Franciscan Friary churchyard in Galway.  The earlier monument to the O’Nolans had been erected there in 1394.
  • In 1500 Donell Oge O’Nolloghan (O’Nolan), goldsmith, was freed on condition that he supported his wife’s father.
  • In 1574 Donell Oge O’Hologhan (O’Nolan) was in possession of Carrowbrowne castle in Moycullen, Galway.
  • In 1582 Thomas Nolan (aka Tomhas Ó hUallacháin). a sub-sheriff in county Mayo, acquired land at Creagh on the Robe river.  When he died in 1628, he owned Ballinrobe castle in Mayo (inherited by his elder son Gregory) and Enniscrone castle in Sligo (inherited by his younger son John).
  • In 1642 John Nolan and his family were attacked and forcefully evicted from Enniscrone castle.  They departed soon after for the Virginia colony.  Other Nolans of this family were transplanted to Balinderry near Tuam in Galway.

Nolans were able to maintain significant landholdings in Galway and Mayo.  From these Nolans later on came John Philip Nolan, a Galway landowner of the late 19th century. He was an Irish nationalist campaigner who, however, lost his Parliamentary seat because of his support for Parnell. 

Nolans in Ireland Today.  A telephone directory survey in Ireland in 1992 revealed 3,900 Nolans.

Dublin, due to migration over the years, accounted for the main numbers, about 30%.

Carlow accounted for some 12% of the Nolans, Nolan being the fourth most common surname in the county. Nolan ranked number five and six in Kildare and Wicklow and was also common in Wexford and Kilkenny.

Reader Feedback – Michael Nolan and Little Annie Rooney.  I’m trying to find out information about Michael Nolan the writer of Little Annie Rooney. He was my great uncle. I’m hoping to trace my Irish side of my family with the hope of meeting them someday.  Richard Jowett (

Michael Nolan (1869-1910), billed as The Prince of Irish Comedians, was born in Ireland but by the age of 10 was a chorister at Bradford Catholic Cathedral. His professional career seems to have started at the Star Music Hall, Bradford in 1880 where he was taken under the wing of George Leybourne, the famous Lion Comique.

Nolan performances combined comic songs and patter with more sentimental songs like Your eyes have told me so. He was renowned for singing Irish ballads and had success in the UK and Ireland and in his later years toured Australia and South Africa. He also wrote songs for himself and others. Little Annie Rooney was his most famous song.

Philip Nolan, Texas Pioneer.  In 1791 Nolan obtained a trading passport from the Spanish governor of Louisiana and set out to trade with the Indian tribes across the Mississippi. In all he made three trading trips to Texas over the next six years. He is sometimes credited with being the first to map Texas for the American frontiersmen, although his map has never been found.  Nonetheless his observations were used by the Americans to produce their map of the Texas-Louisiana frontier in 1804.

After 1797 he was unable to obtain further passports to enter Spanish territory, so he visited Texas again illegally.  In 1801 a Spanish force of 120 men left Nacogdoches in pursuit of Nolan.  They caught up with him in what is now Hill county, Texas and killed him.  Nolan’s ears were cut off as evidence for Spain that he was dead.

Nolan is remembered in Texas as one of the first American traders to visit Texas.  Nolan river and Nolan county were named after him.  He was also the inspiration for the fictional Philip Nolan who appeared in Edward Everett Hales’ 1917 book The Man Without a Country, which was loosely based on his life story.

James Nolan Obituary 1911 – Dalton City, Illinois.  The following obituary appeared in the Bethany Echo of February 24, 1911:

“James Nolan, an aged and highly respected citizen of this place, died Saturday at one o’clock pm, after a sickness of three weeks.  He was born in Ireland in 1828 and when in young manhood came to this country and settled in Ohio.

About a half century ago he came west and settled in what is now Dora township, then a country thinly settled.  He had watched this country grow from a raw prairie to the beautiful farms we now have.  He bought land when it was low and at the time of his death was the owner of a large farm.

Several years ago he and his wife moved from the farm to town and enjoyed a rest from their years of hard labor.  He was a man well liked as he was of a very jovial disposition.  His death was due to old age accompanied by the grip.  His wife was buried just a week before he died.”

James had been born in Tipperary and had arrived in America at the age of 22 in 1851 aboard the Fanny from Galway.

A Nolan Story of Family Separation.  The story of Robert Nolan and his family was a particularly tragic one.  He and his wife and their five children were inmates of the Carlow Union Workhouse in the 1880’s.  Mrs. Nolan’s brother was resident in New York and had sent her one adult passage warrant.  She wanted to join him there and also to bring her eldest daughter who was just fourteen years old at the time.

She requested assistance from the Carlow Board of Guardians.  It was her ultimate intention to set up home in New York to provide for her husband, who was in delicate health, and for her other four children.  The Guardians sought guidance from the Local Government Board.

In August 1882 the Local Government Board wrote to the Board of Guardians in Carlow regarding the case of Mrs. Ann Nolan.  They stated that they were not in agreement with the proposed arrangements.  They did not approve of the separation of husband and wife and their children.  They were of the opinion that the successful reunion of the entire family in America was unlikely.

They recommended instead that Mrs. Nolan’s brother should receive the whole family together.  If Mrs Nolan’s brother agreed to take the family and the Guardians were willing to assist their passage, the Local Government Board would approve the expenditure incurred.

Some months later in January 1883, it was resolved that Robert Nolan and his family be assisted to immigrate.  His wife had already journeyed there.  The Local Government Board contacted the Carlow Board of Guardians requesting particulars on the Nolan family who were about to emigrate.

Unfortunately Robert Nolan died in the Carlow Workhouse on the 10th of March 1883.  It was then decided that the children be sent to their mother in New York, in the care of their eldest sister and that of a neighbor, Michael Walsh, who was travelling to New York with his wife and children at the same time.

Paddy Nolan, Irish Lawyer on the Canadian Frontier.  Paddy Nolan moved to Calgary in the Canadian West as a young lawyer from Ireland in 1889.  One-quarter of Calgary’s population at that time was Irish and Nolan saw the place as “Little Dublin.”

A pronounced individualist and extrovert, Nolan attracted unusual clients as well as uninhibited friends.  He became widely known as a hard-drinking lawyer with a sharp wit and a skill for defending the underprivileged class of society.  Among those he defended were bootleggers, drunks, horse thieves, disorderly persons, and prostitutes.

A well-known tale recounted how Nolan’s physical resemblance to Thomas Daly, the Minister of the Interior, often led to the two being confused for each other.  Once, after Daly had jokingly angered a legal client of Nolan’s by impersonating the lawyer, Nolan got his revenge by refusing to grant a patent to a prospective homesteader, insisting that the Ministry of the Interior would require a bribe in order to look at his file.

Nolan has been hailed by some as a great orator and a great defense lawyer.  These claims may be questionable.  What was not questionable was his size, close to 300 pounds in weight, and his drinking which became legendary over time.  It probably contributed to his early death at the age of fifty in 1913.  His story was told in Grant MacEwan’s 1987 book He Left Them Laughing When He Said Goodbye.

Nolan Names

  • Donnell O’Nolan was recorded as the Nolan clan leader in Carlow in 1394.
  • Bob Nolan, born Robert Nobles, was the Canadian-born country and western singer and actor of the 1930’s and 1940’s, a contemporary of Roy Rogers.
  • Sidney Nolan was Australia’s best-known painter of the 20th century.
  • Christopher Nolan is a British film-maker known for his Hollywood blockbusters.

Nolan Numbers Today

  • 16,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 19,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 34,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

Nolan 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.

Leinster in SE Ireland covers the counties of Carlow, Dublin, Kilkenny, Offaly, Laois, Longford, Louth, Meath, West Meath, Wexford, and Wicklow.  Here are some of the Leinster surnames that you can check out.




Click here for return to front page 

Written by Colin Shelley

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *