Phelan Surname Genealogy

The Irish surname Phelan derives from the Gaelic O’Faolain, descendant of Faolain which itself comes from the Gaelic faol meaning “wolf.”The usual pronunciation was “Fee-lan.” But in some parts of Kilkenny it could be “Fay-lan” or even “Way-lan.” Thus both Phelan and Whelan have emerged as anglicized surnames.
Select Phelan Resources on The Internet

Phelan Ancestry

O’Faolain was
the Irish sept
that held sway in SW Ireland
before the arrival of the Normans. Their chiefs were Princes of
the Decies, an ancient title. Faelan mac Cormac was recorded as
succeeding his father as chief in 966. One account of the time
described them as follows:

“Two gentle chiefs whose names I tell
rule the Decies. I affirm it. O’Bric, the exactor of
tributes, and with him the wise and fair O’Felan. In Moylacha of
the fertile slopes rules O’Felan for the benefit of the tribe.
Great is the alloted territory of which O’Felan holds possession.”

O’Faolain was the first Irish chief to fall in resisting the invading
Normans in the 1170’s. Soon most of his territory was
lost. Some O’Faolains managed to stay in Waterford while a branch
of the sept moved north into SW Kilkenny. John Phelan was Bishop
of Ossory in Kilkenny at the time of the Catholic resurgence under
James II.

The early anglicized forms were Felan and Faelan. These names
would become Phelan in Waterford and Kilkenny. The Whelan
spelling was also to be found there and extended as well into Wexford
and Carlow. Many Phelans emigrated in the 19th century.

More recently the old O’Faolain spelling has had a revival. Sean
O’Faolain, born John Whelan, was a 20th century short story
writer. Nuala O’Faolain was a TV producer and writer who made a
name for herself through her memoirs.

Phelans made
their mark in the South and in the American West.

South. John
Phelan – a grand nephew of James Phelan, the Bishop of Ossory
arrived in America in 1793 and later settled in Alabama. His sons
became politicians in neighboring Mississippi, James being a senator in
the Confederate Congress during the Civil War. Another family of
Phelans started out in Pennsylvania and ended up in Arkansas.
Some Phelans were also in Texas by the 1840’s. Being Catholic
they were sympathetic to the Mexican cause. From this origin have
come the Hispanic Felans of Texas.

West. Edward
Phelan from Derry was an early settler in Saint Paul,
Minnesota. Many locations are named Phelan there because of his
initial land claims. However, he fled the town because of a
dispute and was killed by one of his companions while enroute to
California. James Phelan from Laois did make it to
California. He became wealthy during the Gold Rush.

“Phelan kept his head while all about
him people were losing theirs. Instead of striking out
immediately for California, he drew up a careful plan.
Instinctively he knew the surest fortune to be made in the gold rush
was in ‘mining the miners.’ Most, he knew, would arrive in
California with cash in their pockets needing to buy supplies for
mining. Accordingly he bought a vast store of preserved food,
rope, tents, shovels, picks, nails, guns, knives – anything the miners
would need to begin prospecting in the wilds of northern California.”

He made his fortune. His son James Phelan was mayor of San
from 1897 to 1902 and later California Senator.

Canada. Thomas Phelan had
left his home in Waterford and emigrated to Canada in the 1830’s.
He was orphaned when his mother died of cholera during the crossing and
his father was killed in a railway accident before Thomas and his
sister had even made it to Montreal.

He survived there and
his grandson Thomas Patrick (TP), having begun by selling newspapers
and apples on the Grand Trunk Railway, founded Canada Railway
News (Cara) in Toronto in 1883 to get more fully into the food
distribution business. Cara prospered, made the Phelans rich, and
stayed with the family for
over 120 years.

However, the
Phelan dynasty started to crumble

at the end of this period. The death of an aging and weakened
Phelan at eighty four in 2002 unleashed a frenzy of family
feuding. Cara continued to
struggle until 2013 when Fairfax, a financial holding company,
what had become a restaurant business and the Phelan family stake was
to 36%.

Australia. Many Phelans
started coming to Australia in the 1850’s, following the famine in
Ireland. Among them were:

  • James and Honora Phelan who came to Adelaide in South Australia
    on the Phoebe Dunbar in 1852.
  • Laurence Phelan and his wife Julie from Kilkenny who came to
    Melbourne in the 1850’s, drawn by the gold discoveries in
    Victoria. Their eldest son William was born in Ballarat in 1869.
  • and Thomas and Mary Phelan from Ballyristeen in Waterford who
    arrived in Melbourne on the Abyssinian
    in 1859.

Phelan Miscellany

If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for
further stories and accounts:

Phelan Names

John Phelan was Bishop of Ossory in Kilkenny in the 1680’s.
James Phelan was mayor of San
Francisco from 1897 to 1902.
E.J. Phelan, born in Waterford,
was Director General of the International Labor Office from 1941 to

Select Phelans Today

  • 5,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in Lancashire)
  • 4,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 13,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)



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