O'Connor Surname Meaning, History & Origin

O’Connor Surname Meaning

O’Connor comes from the Gaelic O’Conchobhair (descendant of Conchobhair), meaning “hound of desire.” In Irish legend Conchobhar was a king of Ulster who lived at the time of Christ. O’Connor clan members claim descent from later Conchobhars of the 11th century.

O’Connor comes out in a number of different forms today, the principal ones being, in addition to O’Connor, Connor, Conner, and Connors.  It was English pressure or prejudice which caused the “O” in O’Connor to disappear in many cases. 

O’Connor Surname Resources on The Internet

O’Connor, Connor and Connors Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland
  • to Spain, America, Canada, Caribs (Trinidad) and Australia

Ireland.  The O’Connor or O’Conor name has been borne by six distinct septs in different parts of Ireland, of which four have survived in considerable numbers:

  • the O’Connors of Connacht
  • the O’Connors of Kerry
  • the O’Connors of Corcomroe (in north Clare)
  • and the O’Connors of Offaly.

The O’Connors of Connacht were the most important of these septs. Their chief Turlough Mor O’Conor, who ruled in the early 12th century, was also the King of Connacht and the High King of Ireland. The three main branches of these O’Conors – the O’Conor Don, the O’Conor Sligo, and the O’Conor Roe – all descended from Turlough.

Clonalis in Roscommon was the ancestral home of the O’Conor Don (it is still in their hands today) and Ballintober castle their stronghold from the 14th to the 17th century. Owen O’Conor, who took up arms against Cromwell, was the last master of Ballintober. His family were impoverished and left a residue of their lands at Ballinagare (the same fate befell the O’Conor Sligo). They remained steadfastly Catholic during the period of harsh Penal laws.

Later Ballinagare O’Conors were men of letters and Charles Owen O’Conor in the late 19th century was President of the Royal Irish Academy and author of The O’Conors of Connacht.

The O’Connors of Kerry derived their name from a different Conchobhar. Their chiefs were called Hycain air Cairuidhe, a contraction of O’Connor Kerry of Carrigafoyle castle (their fortress). They are the most numerous of the O’Connors in Ireland today, from their base in Kerry and the adjoining counties of Cork and Limerick.

The Conner/O’Connor family of Cork may have been a branch. The O’Connor side of this family was strongly implicated in the 1798 Rebellion and later supported the Irish cause from England and Australia. Other O’Connors made names for themselves in America.

The O’Connors of Corcomroe (the clan Corc) on the north Clare coastline fared no better than the other O’Connor septs in the 17th century. As one early account put it:

“They were forced to become tillers of the fields for alien hosts in miserable huts constructed in the shelter of the cloud-supporting hills of Burren.”

The O’Connors of Offaly, the fourth of the surviving septs, had lost most of their estates by the mid 16th century. The name has continued in the county as O’Connor-Morris.

Today Cork, Kerry, and Dublin account for the main numbers of O’Connors in Ireland today. Only 10% call themselves Connor or Connors as opposed to O’Connor.

America. An early O’Connor in America was in the service of Spain.  Hugo O’Conor had left Ireland as a young man in 1750 to join the Spanish army. At the time he was just following in the path of his grandfather Daniel who had been an army officer there in an earlier era. They sent him to Mexico and he was made acting governor of Texas in 1767 (the locals called him El Capitan Colorado because, it was said, of his flowing red hair). He later founded Tucson in Arizona and there is a statue of him there today.

James O’Connor, another victim of English prejudice, left his native Sligo for Norfolk, Virginia in 1794. A newspaper publisher back in Ireland, he was the owner and editor of the Norfolk Herald until his death on 1819.

Thomas O’Conor, said to be one of the rebels of 1798, departed Roscommon for New York City in 1801, also to pursue an interest in journalism (he started The Shamrock, the first Irish-American newspaper). His son Charles O’Conor was arguably the greatest lawyer of his time and the first Catholic ever to have been nominated to be President of the United States.

Little is known of the circumstances which caused Richard O’Conner to leave his native Westmeath for Maryland around 1715. Son Richard Conner headed out to the western frontier and joined up with Moravian missionaries in Michigan. One son Henry, an Indian trader, remained there.

“Henry, called Wah-be-sken-dip by the Indians, was renowned for his great strength. He was a superior interpreter and trader. He fought with Harrison in the battle of the Thames and was present at the death of Tecumseh.”

Another son William, also an Indian trader, was an early pioneer in Indiana. His original brick home in Fisher, Indiana still stands.

Later came O’Connors fleeing the potato famine in Ireland, among them being:

  • Maurice O’Connor from Kerry, who arrived in 1847, at first to find his lost wife who had come over earlier. Maurice settled in Vermont and worked on laying track for the new railroads being built in New England.
  • Patrick Connors who left Ireland at 12 with his family on the Patrick Henry in 1850.   He settled in Westchester county, NY. Son Michael worked in road construction and travelled around a lot.
  • and Michael and Felix O’Connor, brothers from Sligo, who came to Boston in 1858. They changed their name to Connor to avoid an Irish stigma.

Canada. O’Connors from Ireland came to Newfoundland soon after the British had taken control from the French in the 1760’s. Michael and Peter Connors were fish merchants from Cork who decided to stay in Lawn after the summer fishing. There were soon a number of other Connors families – many of them from Kerry – to be found in Placentia Bay, Harbor Grace, and the Trinity Bay area. Timothy O’Connor came to Clattice Harbor in the early 1800’s.

Newfoundland with its fishing had appealed to the displaced Irish who sought not only political and religious freedom but a means of economic survival. Some Connors did move away to New York in the early 1900’s. Chuck Connors the actor came from one such family.

Other Connors came to Nova Scotia, PEI, the Niagara peninsula, and the Ottawa valley. Daniel O’Connor was an early settler in Bytown near Ottawa, arriving there in 1821 from Cork. He became a local magistrate. O’Connor Street was named after him. Cassie O’Connor was the fictional heroine of Hazel McIntyre’s Lament in the Wind. She fled the famine in Ireland for a new life in New Brunswick.

Caribbean. There is an O’Connor line in Trinidad. It is said that they are descendants of Daniel O’Connor of Sligo, an officer in the Irish brigade, and more directly from James Lynch O’Connor, a medical officer in the British army, who was posted there in 1817.

Australia. Joseph Connors had been transported to Australia in 1832 for the political crime of “whiteboyism.” After he received his ticket of leave in 1840, he was a stockman on many of the cattle runs in the Monaro district of NSW. He married in 1847 and they had a large family. There are many descendants.

Daniel Connor arrived in Western Australia in 1850 also as a convict. He died in Perth in 1898 as one of the richest men of the colony. His son Michael, who became a local politician, adopted the name of O’Connor in order to distance himself from his convict father.

Another rags-to-riches story was that of Daniel O’Connor who had come to Sydney from Tipperary with his parents in 1854.  His up-and-down life ended with his death in an asylum in Sydney in 1914.  A life also ending badly in Australia was that of civil engineer C.Y. O’Connor from Meath.  His great achievements had been the Freemantle harbour project and the Kalgoorlie water supply scheme.  But, unnerved by public attacks on him on these projects, he took his own life in 1902.

O’Connor Surname Miscellany

The O’Conor Dons – High Kings of Ireland and Kings of Connacht.  Sir William Betham, the Ulster King of Arms, completed an O’Conor pedigree in 1823.  This pedigree listed no fewer than eleven High Kings of Ireland and twenty six Kings of Connacht over time.

The greatest O’Conor chief was probably Turlough Mor O’Conor, the High King of Ireland in the early 12th century.  He built stone bridges and had a fleet of ships on the Shannon and in the Atlantic.  He maintained a mint to coin silver money and he plundered every part of the country, as was the custom.  His son Rory, who tried but failed to repel the Norman invasion, was the last High King of Ireland.

The chiefs of the O’Conor sept were also recognized as the Kings of Connacht until the late 15th century. Cathal Crovedearg (Charles of the Wine Red Hand), the half-brother of Rory and another son of Turlough Mor, emerged as a powerful King of Connacht.  The last four of these kings were:

  • Toirdhealbhach Og Donn mac Aodha meic Toirdhealbhaigh, who died in 1406
  • Cathal mac Ruaidhri O’Conchobhair Donn, who died in 1439
  • Aodh mac Toirdhealbhaigh Oig O’Conchobhair Donn, who died in 1461
  • and Feidhlimidh Geangcach mac Toirdhealbhaigh Oig O’Conchobhair Donn, who died in 1474.

The coronation or inauguration stone of the O’Conors can still be seen at their ancestral home of Clonalis in Roscommon.

The O’Conor Don chiefs have extended down to the present day and to Desmond O’Conor Don who inherited the title in 2000.  At that time the Irish Times wrote: “It is generally acknowledged that the holder of the title would be the foremost claimant to the Irish throne if one were proposed.”

Impoverished O’Conors.  Denis O’Conor was nephew and heir to Major Owen O’Conor, the last master of Ballintober castle in Roscommon.  He had taken up arms against Cromwell and had mortgaged his lands to finance a troop of cavalry for the cause of James II.  When that cause failed, Owen was captured and imprisoned in England where he died in 1692.

Although living in poverty, Denis retained the dream of recovering his ancestral lands.  With the help of his uncle he fought a law case in Dublin in 1720.  Tradition has it that he was so impoverished that he walked to Dublin barefoot.

The result of his action was that he was restored to a small portion of his ancestral lands, approximately 500 acres of boggy land around the village of Ballinagare in Roscommon.  There he built a small house, Ballinagare House, which soon became a rendezvous for the ill-fated Catholic gentry of Connacht.  It was said that “his hospitable door was never shut against those in misfortune or distress.”

An ancient gravestone was found in a wood in Ballinagare in 1917.  It read:

“For his ancestors and father and grandfather have buried, who were to faith and virtue much addicted, and to religion and fatherland most constant but who for the defence of both were reduced, despoiled, dispersed. This monument was erected by Denis O’Conor of Ballinagare in 1735.”

His son Charles wrote in 1756:

“My poor father was finally cast on the shore on a broken plank (a reference to the poor lands re-granted him in 1720). I have succeeded to him.  This is the plank which from it is now hoped I may be driven by a Penal Law.  I struggle to keep my hold and if I am left nothing to inherit but the religion and misfortunes of a family long on the decline, the victim is prepared for the sacrifice resignedly indeed though not willingly.”

O’Connor and Variants.  O’Connor comes out in a number of different forms today, the principal ones being, in addition to O’Connor, Connor, Conner, and Connors.  The table below gives the approximate numbers in these various spellings around the English-speaking world today.

Numbers (000’s) O’Connor Connor Conner Connors Total
Ireland   42    3    –    2   47
UK   29   20    2    2   53
America   29   10   19    7   65
Canada   17    2    1    5   25
Australia   15    5    2   22
New Zealand    3    1    4
Total  135 40 22   18  215

The Conners/O’Connors of Cork.  The Conners of Cork have sometimes claimed that they were descended from Rory O’Conor, the last High King of Ireland.  This is unlikely.  They may have been Kerry O’Connors or even possibly English Conners (as they were Protestant).

The first record of these Conners was Cornelius Conner, a churchwarden in Bandon, Cork in 1681.  It was his son Daniel, a merchant in Bandon, who established the base of the family’s wealth and purchased various estates in Cork – including Manch House in Ballireen with its 4,200 acres of land.  The Conners remained squires of Manch House through the 18th and 19th centuries.

Arthur Conner of this family, being pro-Irish, changed his name to O’Connor.  He joined the United Irishmen in 1798 and was arrested, tried for high treason, imprisoned several times, and deported to France in 1803. There he became a general in Napoleon’s army.

Arthur’s elder brother Roger also joined the United Irishmen.  This led to him serving a term of imprisonment in Scotland.  His home Dangan castle burned down after he had given it a suspiciously high insurance cover. He was tried for robbing the Galway mail train and in his defense claimed that he “had just wanted to obtain from the mail some letters incriminating a friend.”  In later life he was “a sportsman and a spectacular spendthrift.”  In fact he was outrageously eccentric and took to writing imaginary annals.

Roger’s elder son Francis became a general in Simon Bolivar’s war of liberation in South America.  He lived onto old age in Bolivia.  His descendants there continued with the family tradition of tinkering with their genealogy.  Only one child of his marriage – a daughter – actually did survive.

Younger son Feargus was a barrister in England and a supporter of the 1832 Reform Bill.  A man with lots of energy and the gift of the gab, he formed a committee of radical unions which led to the setting up of the “physical force” Chartists.  He was subsequently imprisoned for seditious libel.  He began to deteriorate mentally and in 1852 was declared insane and put in a home.  It was said that when he was buried in Kensal Green in London, fifty thousand people attended his funeral.

One line of these O’Connors extended down to Australia where Richard O’Connor became a well-known Sydney barrister and judge.  Richard had heard stories of his forebears’ escapades in 1798 and supported the Irish cause from afar. 

Timothy O’Connor in Newfoundland.  Anthony O’Connor recalled the following about his ancestor who first made the crossing to Newfoundland:

“My first ancestors sailed from county Cork in Ireland in the early 1800’s.  They came by wooden vessel, crossing the Atlantic to the nearest landmark – which was Newfoundland.  It was a vessel in full sail and they settled in what was known as the “Back Gulch” in Clattice Harbor, located on the western coastline of Placentia Bay.

This ancestor (my great grandfather Timothy O’Connor) and his wife (Sara Carter) built a log cabin two miles in from the sea.  They constructed an outdoor stone fireplace to cook on; one side was the oven, the other side was open.  A swing out kettle was placed in it for cooking purposes.  I saw the cabin’s foundation still standing in the early 1900’s as a young boy when my father took me there.

Other settlers moved in and Timothy and Sara had a son named Timothy who married Agness Ballard (my grandparents) and my grandparents had a son named Timothy Joseph (my father) who married first to Jane Ann Brewer (my mother).”

Early Connor Marriages in Halifax, Nova Scotia

Date Groom Bride
1777 John Connor Jane Glashing
1780 Timothy Conner Barbara Fancy
1781 Cornelius Connor Margaret Tomlinson
1783 Andrew Conner Elizabeth Lawrence
1783 Constant Conner Margaret Cody
1800 Peter Connor Mary Simpson
1803 Bartholomew Conner Margaret Connor
1809 Dennis Connors Anne Bartling
1816 George Connors Elizabeth Evans
1819 Patrick Connor Judith Reily

Charles O’Conor versus Boss Tweed.  When Charles O’Conor passed away in 1884, many seemed to concur in opinion with Samuel J. Tilden that O’Conor “was the greatest jurist among all the English-speaking race.”

He had reached the front ranks of the profession in 1846, not only in New York but in the whole of the United States.  Perhaps his most celebrated case occurred after the Civil War when Jefferson Davis was indicted for treason and Charles O’Conor became his counsel.

In 1871, he commenced with enthusiasm as counsel for the State of New York proceedings against William M. Tweed and others who were accused of frauds upon the City of New York.  He declared that for his professional services he would accept no compensation.

In the autumn of 1875 and while these proceedings were uncompleted, he was prostrated by an illness which seemed mortal and the Cardinal Archbishop administered the sacraments.  Slowly, however, he regained some measure of strength and, on February 7, 1876, roused by a newspaper report, he left his bedroom to appear in court, “unexpected and ghost-like” (according to an eyewitness), that he might save from disaster the prosecution of the cause of the State against Tweed.

Daniel O’Connor’s Up-and-Down Life in Australia.  Born in Tipperary, Daniel O’Connor came with his family to Australia in 1854, settling in Sydney.  He joined his father working in a butcher’s shop.  By the early 1870’s he had his own butchering business and had accumulated fourteen houses and £7,000 in the bank.  This was all lost through his speculation on goldmining shares.  But he bounced back and had regained his fortune by the end of the decade.

There followed a lengthy period in politics, serving in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly until 1904. On leaving Parliament O’Connor embarked on a world tour, visiting England and Ireland before heading to the United States.  He was in San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake and lost all of his belongings there.   He died at the Liverpool asylum in SW Sydney in 1914 and was buried in the Catholic section of the Waverley cemetery.

O’Connor Names

  • Turlough Mor O’Conor, chief of the Connacht O’Conors in the 12th century, also ruled as the High King of Ireland.
  • Charles O’Conor of Ballinagare was a leading Irish campaigner against the penal laws of the 18th century.
  • Feargus O’Connor was a popular and formidable Chartist orator in the 1830’s and 1840’s.
  • Flannery O’Connor was an influential author of the American South.
  • Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981 was the first woman to be appointed to the US Supreme Court.
  • Jimmy Connors was a leading American tennis player of the 1970’s and 1980’s.
  • Sinead O’Connor is an internationally acclaimed singer from Dublin.

O’Connor Numbers Today

  • 53,000 in the UK (most numerous in Cheshire)
  • 65,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 97,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland).

O’Connor 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.

Connacht in NW Ireland covers the counties of Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim, Galway, and Roscommon.  Here are some of the Connacht surnames that you can check out.


Click here for return to front page

Written by Colin Shelley

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *