Phelan Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Phelan Surname Meaning

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.

Phelan Surname Resources on The Internet

Phelan Surname Ancestry

Ireland.  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.

America.  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 en route 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 Francisco 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 P.J. Phelan at eighty four in 2002 unleashed a frenzy of family feuding. Cara continued to struggle until 2013 when Fairfax, a financial holding company, restructured what had become a restaurant business and the Phelan family stake was reduced 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 Surname Miscellany

O’Faolain Origins.  Legend has it that the original Faoláin from whom the Phelan surname is derived was nineteenth in descent from a younger brother of Conn of the Hundred Battles who reigned as the High King of Ireland for thirty five years until his death in 157 AD.

Numerous members of the Ó Faoláin sept were rulers over the years of the Decies tribe which settled in what today is county Waterford. They were in fact one of the original ancient septs of Ireland.

Phelans and Whelans.  Both Phelan and Whelan emerged as anglicized surnames.  There are in fact more Whelans than Phelans today.

Numbers (000’s) Phelan Whelan
Ireland    7   14
Elsewhere   15   26

Other surname variants have been Phalen and Whalen.

Some Phelan/Phalen Emigrants.  These were some of the Phelans/Phalens who left Ireland in the 19th century for pastures new:

  • John Phelan, born 1790 in Kilkenny, married Mary Phelan, and emigrated to Quebec (St. Scholastique), Canada
  • James Phelan, born 1822 in Laois, married Mary Gaynor, and emigrated to New York City
  • James Phelan, born 1828 in Kilkenny, married Bridget Mooney, and emigrated to Scott county (Cedar Lake), Minnesota
  • Nicholas Phalen, born 1828 in Kilkenny, married Margaret Welsh, and emigrated to Mendota, Illinois
  • Laurence Phelan, born 1835 in Kilkenny, married Julia Meaney, and emigrated to Victoria (Ballarat), Australia
  • William Phelan, born 1845 in Laois, married Sophia Soloman, emigrated to England and changed his name to Fielding
  • and Edward Joseph Phalen, born 1848 in Waterford, married Mary Dunn, and emigrated to Kingston, New York

James Phelan and San Francisco.  In the mid-1890s, San Francisco was said to be one of the most notoriously boss-ridden, corrupt cities in the country.  In 1896, the reform Democrats nominated Phelan for the office of mayor.  With virtually no previous political experience, campaigning for an end to corruption, home rule, and civil service reform, he was elected and twice re-elected.

Despite the opposition of the party machines, he successfully led the campaign for the adoption of a new city charter in 1900.  During his mayoral terms, he also worked for municipal ownership of public utilities, public improvements, and beautification of the city. Phelan was also directly involved in a water dispute when in 1901 he proposed damming the Hetch-Hetchy valley to secure a source of fresh water for the city.

The San Francisco fire of 1906 brought Phelan back into public service.  He was chosen to be President of the San Francisco Relief and Red Cross Funds and it was to him that President Theodore Roosevelt personally sent the $10 million collected for the relief of the fire victims.  He also took an active part in the graft prosecutions at that time.  And he was appointed President of the United Bank & Trust Company.

Well known as a patron of the arts, he would later entertain guests at his spacious country estate near Saratoga, Villa Montalvo, that he had had built in 1912.

Reader Feedback – Philadelphia Phelans?  Would love to know about the Philadelphia Phelans. We’re a large clan and my direct ancestors have resided here for centuries.

Kevin Phelan (

The Phelans of Toronto.  Boats, booze and business have been a volatile and often poisonous mix for Toronto’s wealthy Phelan family which controlled Cara for more than 120 years.  The Cara story was in fact documented in a film Proud Waves Break by Gail Regan, the daughter of the aging chairman of the company, P.J. Phelan.

The film detailed her father’s alcoholism, dementia and his chronic inability to grapple with succession which for years denied her the leadership role she felt she had earned.  She painted the image of Cara as a place of dark secrets and denial, and her father as a modern Job, imprisoned by the bottle and beset by a multitude of ills.  But others saw the aging P.J. Phelan as a corporate King Lear, surrounded by feuding children, and wandering about in mental disarray.

The family squabbles continued.  Both sides have accused the other of stretching the truth, particularly regarding the care and treatment of their father during the period around 1995 when his health collapsed and the sibling feuding rose to fever pitch.

In 2003 Paul David Phelan, the great-great grandson of the company’s founder, rejected an offer of $7.50 a share for the 47 per cent of the company that he and supporting shareholders didn’t own.  In the end his two sisters, Gail and Rosemary along with a niece, who had a controlling share of the stock, clinched the deal by raising their bid to $8 a share.

Father Joe Phelan.  Joe came from a large and talented family in Waterford.  Born in 1919, he was the fourth of five boys and there were two sisters as well.  The eldest Theobald became an Olympic athlete and later a medical officer with the 8th army in the Western Desert in World War II.  The youngest, Billy, was part of a team of surgeons in a Dublin hospital; while Tim and Dominic both became successful businessmen.

Those who saw Joe’s rugby caps and athletic trophies knew that he was a considerable athlete himself.  But all that was given up when he offered himself to the Plymouth Diocese and set sail for the English College in Portugal, in 1937.  During the war he came home once to Waterford, the plane he should have been on was shot down by the Luftwaffe.  His first mass was at Ferrybank, Waterford, and he was appointed to the parish of St. Edward Peverell, in Plymouth.

Joe was a much-loved priest in Cornwall and Dorset, as well as in Devon. He lived onto 81, dying in 2000.

Many were the stories told about Joe.  One evening, getting dark, he was summoned to the front door of the presbytery to be confronted by two local villains, one with a knife.  Although well in his 70’s, Joe moved fast, a right jab putting the knife-wielding villain down.  His accomplice fled.  Joe was summoned to meet the Chief Constable who presented him with a scroll of merit and also a small statue of a laughing policeman.  However, later when Joe was away, the villains returned, pinched his TV and video, and to Joe’s annoyance knocked the block off the statue of the laughing policeman.

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 1948.

Phelan Numbers 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)

Phelan 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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