O'Hara Surname Meaning, History & Origin

O’Hara Surname Meaning

O’Hara is an Irish sept name. It was an anglicized form of the Gaelic O’hEaghra, meaning “descendant of Eaghra.” The O’Haras claimed descent from Eaghra (pronounced “Ara”) who was lord of Leyney in Sligo and died in 976. The meaning of the name Eaghra is not known.

O’Hara Surname Resources on The Internet

O’Hara Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Sligo)
  • to England, America, Canada and Peru

IrelandThe O’Haras has been strongly associated with county Sligo. They were closely associated with the O’Chadras from an early time and their chiefs alternated as rulers of Luighne. Their first record was that of Dermot O’hEaghra around the year 1350. At that time, the O’Haras were beginning to divide themselves into two groupings:

  • the O’Hara Buidhe (the brown-faced ones) who were based around Collooney
  • and the O’Hara Riabhach (the rough-faced or grizzled ones) at Ballyharry, a transposed spelling of Ballyhara.

In the 14th century a branch of the family migrated east to Antrim and settled in the area now known as Ballymena.

Until Cromwellian times the O’Haras were lords of Leyney from their castles at Castlelough and Memlough, as well as being large landlords in Sligo and nearby Mayo – at one time holding over 20,000 acres at Coopers Hill and Annaghmore. The Book of O’Hara is an 18th century document commemorating the O’Hara chiefs.

Those in Sligo who supported the English cause were ennobled as the barons of Tyrawley in 1706:

This line included two prominent officers in the British army, James O’Hara and his illegitimate son Charles O’Hara. The latter had the distinction of losing to both Washington and Napoleon.  

Also pro-British was Robert O’Hara of Raheen in county Galway. He was the father and grandfather of two notable British soldiers. Son Walter distinguished himself in the Napoleonic Wars before emigrating to Toronto in Canada in 1826. Daughter Anne Louisa married James Burke and their son Robert O’Hara Burke was the leader of the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition to cross Australia from south to north.

However, there were O’Haras on the other side as well – such as James O’Hara, a general on Washington’s side during the Revolutionary War, and Kean O’Hara, prominent in the 1798 Rebellion.

Many Irish, included O’Haras, left Ireland at the time of the famine or in the years after. In the 1860’s, one can trace one O’Hara family from Derry in Boston and another O’Hara family from Cavan in Australia. Others sought work in England and Scotland, or migrated to Canada or New Zealand.

Today, apart from Dublin, Sligo and Antrim remain the two regions where the O’Hara name is most concentrated.  

England and Scotland.  O’Haras migrated to the industrial towns of northern England and Lowland Scotland during the 19th century.

Early arrivals were Patrick O’Hara and his wife Catherine and two of his brothers who settled in Bradford, Yorkshire in 1831. Their descendants, through eight generations, are now spread over Yorkshire and further afield.

John O’Hara had left home in county Derry for Glasgow as a young boy at the time of the famine and was one of the founders of Glasgow Celtic football club in 1888.

America. James O’Hara came to America in 1772 and distinguished himself during the Revolutionary War, being appointed Quartermaster General by Washington. By the 1790’s he had become a prominent early American businessman, starting up a number of industries in Pittsburgh and investing in real estate there. He owned Schenley Park, which his descendants donated to the city of Pittsburgh in 1889.

Michael O’Hara arrived in Reading, Pennsylvania from Ireland with his parents as a child in the 1830’s.  A captain in the Civil War, he later settled in Schuylkill county in the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal mining country.  His son Patrick was a doctor there; while his grandson John became a famous writer in New York in the 1930’s.  John O’Hara would use his hometown of Pottsville and other Schuylkill county towns as settings for his stories and novels.

Kean O’Hara, a political exile after the 1798 Rebellion, came to America and settled in Kentucky where he became a notable educator. His son Theodore was a Confederate colonel in the Civil War and also a poet. His poem Bivouac of the Dead has been quoted thousands of times.

Lines like:

  • On games eternal camping ground their lonely tents are spread 
  • And glory guards with solemn round the bivouac of the dead.”

have been inscribed on granite and marble at Gettysburg and at hundreds of other other cemeteries all over America.

Many of these early O’Hara emigrants to America were affluent or well-educated; while later emigrants would be escaping famine and poverty at home. Boston was a favored destination for the new arrivals in the 1860’s – such as John O’Hara from Derry and another John O’Hara from Rush near Dublin.

Canada.  Felix O’Hara from Antrim had come with the British army to America and in 1765 was one of the first English-speaking settlers in Gaspe, Quebec. He prospered there and on his death in 1805 left his sons substantial landholdings. Three of his sons – Oliver, Edward and Hugh – distinguished themselves in the region. There is still an O’Hara cemetery in the center of Gaspe.

The O’Hara Mill village in Madoc township, Ontario began with the arrival of James O’Hara (originally from Derry) and his wife Mary in 1823. Once the family settled there they planted strong roots and never moved again. They started a sawmill there in 1850 and their buildings and properties were passed through the years from children to grandchildren over a span of four generations. Their homestead is now part of an 85 acre conservation area.

Latin America. There is an O’Hara branch in Peru that was started by Bernard O’Hara Coor from Liverpool who went there to farm in the mid-19th century. He had eleven children, the third of whom, named Santiago, apparently became a national hero when he died fighting against Chile at the Battle of Miraflores in 1881.

O’Hara Surname Miscellany

The Book of O’Hara.  A famous manuscript known as The Book of O’Hara is still in existence and contains a full record of the chiefs of the clan.   The work, entitled Leabhar I Eadhra in Gaelic, has poems on the O’Haras from 1550 to 1700. The  modern version, edited by Lambert McKenna from the original manuscripts, contains 458 pages and was published in 1951. It includes English translations.

Charles O’Hara’s Misfortunes in America and France.  Charles O’Hara had been born in Portugal, the illegitimate son of General James O’Hara and his Portuguese mistress. Despite this handicap, he was able to make his name in the British Army, first during the Seven Years War and then as a General during the American War of Independence.

It was O’Hara who represented the British at the Yorktown surrender in 1781 after General Cornwallis had pleaded illness.  Jerome Greene, the US National Park Service historian, wrote that during the surrender O’Hara had extended Cornwallis’s sword.  Washington took the sword, symbolically held it a moment, and then returned it to O’Hara. Thus this most symbolic of war trophies remained in English hands.

A few years later, O’Hara was fleeing England for the Continent of Europe to escape his gambling debts. While in Italy he met the writer Mary Berry and began a long relationship with her.

In 1792 he was appointed Governor of Gibraltar, a post that his father had held.  However, he was defeated by Napoleon a year later at Toulon and had to formally surrender his troops a second time.  He was treated as an “insurrectionist,” was imprisoned in the Luxembourg Prison, and was threatened with the guillotine.  In the end he was to spend two years in prison in Paris before returning to Gibraltar.

In the Roland Emmerich film The Patriot starring Mel Gibson, O’Hara was played by Peter Woodward. This was criticized.  The real O’Hara, despite his Portuguese birth and English education, spoke with an Irish accent rather than the upper-class English voice portrayed in the film.

The O’Haras in Boston.  John and Margaret O’Hara and their eldest son Michael came to America from county Derry in the late 1850’s, first stopping off in Pennsylvania and later settling in Boston.  Eight more boys were born to the family in Boston.

They first lived in the North East of Boston and then, by the dint of hard work, were able to buy their own home in Charleston in 1874. While in the North End, they were next-door neighbors to Rose Fitzgerald who married Joe Kennedy and was the father of JFK.

Michael, the eldest son, became a printer.  William, like his father, worked for the city of Boston. He also served on the City Council. Brothers Richard and Bernard started an early milk delivery company in the city, having a contract with the main hospital in town.  The youngest was Edmund who was still living
in 2002, at the age of 91, in southern California.

Reader Feedback – Cyrus O’Hara in Ontario.  Trying to find more about my ancestry of O’Hara. My grandfather was Cyrus Joseph O’Hara and his father was Cyrus O’Hara of Ontario (estimated in the 1850’s). I have been unsuccessful getting back further than that.

Kevin O’Hara (kevino1@comcast.net).

O’Hara Emigration from Cavan.  Among others leaving Ireland were the O’Haras from Killinkere parish in county Cavan. Australia, as can be seen below, was their favored destination.

This was the record of one of these O’Hara families:

  • The eldest, Thomas, departed with his wife Sarah on the Florentia to Australia in 1853 and settled in the New England tablelands of northern NSW. They prospered there.  They raised eleven and there were at least eighty one grandchildren.
  • His sister Jane married William Sheils and they followed Thomas to Australia in 1855 two years later. Her husband died in 1859 and she married again.  From her two marriages there were a total of sixteen children and at least fifty six grandchildren.  Another sister Margaret accompanied Jane to Australia and married there. Martha married William Shiels’ brother John and they emigrated to New Zealand in 1866, settling in Lyttleton, South Island.
  • The youngest in age, Joseph, departed in 1867 at the age of 22 for Canada, marrying and settling in Grey county, Ontario where he started his own boot and shoe shop.

Who was left in Ireland of this family?  It seemed only James who died in Ireland, aged 32, in 1882, although no tombstone marks his grave.

Then there were their cousins in the parish who also emigrated:

  • The eldest two in the family were sisters, Margaret and Mary, and they both came to Australia in the 1850’s and married there, Margaret coming after the death of her husband.  Also arriving at that time was three younger sisters – Eliza, Matilda, and Sarah who married her first cousin Thomas O’Hara.
  • Samuel arrived in Australia with his wife on the Truro in 1855.  In the early 1860’s he joined his first cousin Thomas O’Hara and his sister Sarah on the New England tablelands in northern NSW.
  • John arrived in Australia on the John Vanner in 1863 with his wife and five children and four other relatives.  He later sponsored the emigration of his brother William and family in 1880.

There were apparently none of the siblings left in Ireland.

Interestingly, for both of these families, the women seem to have preceded the men in emigration.

John O’Hara and Glasgow Celtic.  John O’Hara had left home in Fauchin Vale, county Derry for Glasgow as a young boy at the time of the famine.  There he was very much a self-made man – starting out as a shoemaker and later finding a more prosperous trade, first as a life insurance agent and then as a wine and spirit merchant and running his own public house.

John worked with his brother Walfrid and other Irishmen in Glasgow in the formation of a football club, Celtic FC, in 1888.  He became its first Secretary and was instrumental in signing its first players, mainly from Edinburgh Hibernians.  He remained on the Board of the club until his death in 1905. An unmarked grave at St. Peter’s cemetery in Dalbeth was to be his final resting place. 

The Scarlett O’Hara Cocktail.  A popular drink commemorating the movie Gone With the Wind is the Scarlett O’Hara cocktail. Pour two ounces of Southern Comfort over ice into an eight ounce glass.  Fill with cranberry juice.  Squeeze one wedge of lime into the drink.  Stir, serve and drink a toast to O’Haras everywhere!

The Adventures of Jean O’Hara in Hawaii.  Jean O’Hara was a famous prostitute in Honolulu’s vice district during World War Two. She had been born in Chicago, the only child of strict Catholic parents.  Police records showed that between 1934 and 1938, prior to her arrival in Hawaii, she had already been arrested for prostitution three times.

She violated the rules there by working outside of Chinatown.  This landed her in jail for a period.  She made money by purchasing choice real estate and then selling at a substantial profit. When the neighbors discovered who was moving in they would invariably pitch in to buy her out. She thus made a fortune by openly flouting the rules.

In the end the police started to work with Jean O’Hara.  She was credited with inventing the “bull pen” system where a single prostitute would work three rooms in rotation: In one room a man would be undressing, in a second room the prostitute would be having sex, and in the third room the man would be dressing. With price controls circumventing the laws of supply and demand, O’Hara’s system sped up the process and allowed each prostitute to see many more johns every day.

After martial law ended in 1944, O’Hara’s book My Life as a Honolulu Prostitute was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  It led to the complete shutdown of all brothels in Honolulu.

O’Hara Names

  • Kane O’Hara was an 18th century Irish playwright and musician from Sligo. His burletta Midas, first performed in 1764, was a musical alternative to opera at that time. 
  • Theordore O’Hara was known as the poet soldier of the South after the Civil War. 
  • John O’Hara was a popular American writer of novels and short stories in the 1930’s and 1940’s. 
  • Scarlett O’Hara is the famous fictional protagonist of the book and film Gone With the Wind
  • Maureen O’Hara, born Maureen FitzSimons, was a red-headed Irish actress who starred in Hollywood films in the 1940’s and 1950’s. 
  • Joan O’Hara from Sligo was the popular Irish film and TV actress who died in 2007.

O’Hara Numbers Today

  • 12,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 11,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 14,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

O’Hara 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 *