Rooney Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Rooney Surname Meaning

Rooney is an Irish Ulster name from more than one Gaelic root.  The main root O’Ruanaidh, meaning “the descendant of the champion”, is to be found in county Down, as is the alternate O’Runaidhin. This Rooney name later spread into north Leitrim and Donegal.

Then there were the Rooneys of county Fermanagh, from the Gaelic O’Maolruanaigh which was anglicized to Mulrooney and Macarooney and later to Rooney. The village of Roslea in Fermanagh was named by the English from slat-mul-rony or territory of the Rooneys.

Rooney Surname Resources on The Internet

Rooney Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Down)
  • to England, America and Australia

Ireland. The O’Rooneys were a county Down sept based in the modern parish of Ballyroney. Their name appeared frequently in the ecclesiastical annals of Dromore. However, these Rooneys are chiefly remembered as poets – starting with Ceallach O’Rooney, recorded as the chief poet of Ireland in 1079, and going through Eoin O’Rooney in the 14th century to William Rooney in the late 19th century.

One family line in county Down began with the birth of Patrick Rooney at Downpatrick in 1789.  Two of his grandchildren emigrated to America at the time of the Great Famine.  Still, there are many Rooneys today in county Down, including the young Rooney Family which performs traditional Irish music around the country.

There was another pocket of Rooneys at Roslea in Fermanagh near the Monaghan border, in Clones parish. Hugh Rooney was apprenticed as a cooper there at the time of the 1798 uprising. His descendant Hugh, born in 1880 and known as Master Hugh, wrote his memoirs of the area in 1970.

By that time, because of emigration, the Rooney numbers there were much fewer than they had been in the past. At the time of the famine, one Rooney family had departed Roslea for Prince Edward Island in Canada in 1847. Many more crossed the Atlantic in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

England. The 19th century saw a major Irish migration across the Irish Sea to England where there was work in the new industrial cities. Lancashire took the greatest share of Rooneys. Patrick and Julia Rooney, for instance, came to Liverpool with their children in 1835. These Rooneys generally encountered harsh working conditions and anti-Catholic sentiment, but built their families.

Wayne Rooney the footballer, whose grandfather was born in Bootle, is the most well-known Rooney in England today.  He now stands second in the list of England’s goal scorers, behind Harry Kane, but ahead of Bobby Charlton and Gary Lineker.

America. There were early sightings of Rooneys in America in Virginia. A Rooney was said to have been among those massacred by Indians at Fort Seybert in 1758. Another Rooney, Alexander, died in an Indian raid in 1781 near his home at Leading Creek in Randolph county.

The Rooney distribution in America today reflects the later Irish immigration into New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. Although their numbers are less than those in England, their success rate has perhaps been higher.

Art and Dan Rooney who have run the Steeler football franchise are Pittsburgh’s best-known citizens; while Frank Rooney who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania made a lot of money through the various businesses that he developed.

Patrick Rooney had initially intended to come to New York from Ireland in 1835. However, after a treacherous voyage, he ended up in Quebec. He and his brother Michael made their home in the Gatineau valley. When Michael died in 1857, his widow Catherine took eight of their nine children across the border into Minnesota.  They made their home in Padua in what came to be known as Rooney’s Settlement.

Australia.  Three Rooney brothers – John, Jacob and Matthew – came to Queensland from Armagh in the 1860’s and set up a building and timber-milling business at Maryborough.  They were so successful that they dominated the north Queensland building industry until the early 1900’s.  In 1984 Rooney’s Bridge in Townsville was named in their honor.

Rooney Surname Miscellany

The Rooneys As Poets.  Being a poet, although prestigious, was not easy and each chieftain probably only had one among his retinue.  Therefore the Rooney poets had to travel afar in search of a sponsor.  Though their origins are firmly in Ulster, the name is found extensively in other parts of Ireland and is as common in Leinster and Connacht as it is in their native territory.

In the 19th century the poetic tradition was carried on by John Jerome Rooney, the Irish-American jurist and verse writer, and by William Rooney.  William was born in Dublin and educated by the Christian brothers.  He became a journalist, language revivalist, and poet.  His poems include The Men of the West, Ninety Eight, and An tSean Bhean Bocht.

Even today the poetic urge emerges regularly among the Rooneys. For example William Rooney of Milltown, New Jersey is in the International Poetry Hall of Fame, as is Eugene Rooney of New Market, Maryland.

The Francie Rooneys in County Fermanagh (Roslea).  The Francie Rooneys had Hugh Rooney who was married to Catherine McMahon.  The children were Joe (married to Mary Connolly), Mary, Hugh, John, Margaret, James, Patrick, and Gerard.  Joe was a postman in Roslea.  Hugh sr. was a keen huntsman and cardplayer and was also the caretaker at Derrygannon Hall.

The hall was built in 1912, originally of corrugated iron with a concrete floor.  People wore clogs and had ceilies in the hall.  Tommy Flynn of Derryvolan used to play the fiddle. They also played cards during the winter months.

A hill of Frank Rooney’s was used to have a bonfire.  The first man to work a gramophone in the hall had only one record.  It played “Chick, chick, chicken, lay a little egg for me.”  The whole country for miles around went to hear it and dance around the bonfire.  They also played football in Derrygannon.  Hugh Rooney kept goal and John Rooney was a good footballer.  People from the Free State also played on the team.  Master Rooney also played and he was as well fond of shooting.

Skiittles were played on the road near the hall before a dance and many would go and practice on week evenings.  Sometimes they played for  money, a few pence.  100 points was a game. If you scored over the 100 with the final shot you went back to 50.  You had to finish on the even 100.  There were three middle skittles, one in front of the other numbering 10, 15, and 20 with the two side ones on each side numbering 5 each.  You had three shots each turn.

Most people in Packies’ younger days had a pony and trap to go to mass and he bought a pony with the first money he earned.

The Rooney Family.  The message from this Celtic Connections double bill was that traditional and tradition-based contemporary music was in good hands.  The first half gave us the marvelously talented siblings of the Rooney Family from county Down.  The four sisters and two brothers, aged from 12 to 20, presented an energetic mix of traditional and contemporary music with a couple of songs along the way.

The sequence of Irish and Scots jigs gave the Rooneys a chance to display their skill on flute, whistle, guitar, accordion, fiddle, and bodhran.  The highlight of their surprisingly long set was the bodharib duet featuring the eldest and the youngest of the family.

A Rooney Family Meets Prejudice in Northeast England.  A Rooney family – husband, wife, and five children – had left Ireland for England in 1839.  The 1841 census found them in Sunderland. All the children were at work then, John and James at the iron works, Patrick a laborer, Mary a confectioner, and Bridget a dressmaker’s apprentice.

In 1856, according to the family account, Patrick had gotten a local girl, Elizabeth Thompson, to use an old-fashioned expression, in trouble.  Whether it was Patrick himself who was unwilling to marry or whether Elizabeth’s family were opposed is unknown; but things were left to the last moment.   The circumstantial evidence suggests that the bride and groom took matters into their own hands and married in the face of strong parental disapproval.  Some sort of reconciliation seems to have taken place after the wedding as Elizabeth was able to return to Newbottle for the birth of the child which occurred only 24 days later.

It is not hard to imagine why there might have been opposition to their union.  As a future son-in-law Patrick must have appeared to Michael Thompson as a less than ideal prospect.  He was a general laborer, illiterate, Irish, and a Catholic to boot.  In contrast, Elizabeth was Protestant, the daughter of a tradesman, and to judge by her signature in the marriage book she had received a good education.

Rooney was written as Roney by the Registrar’s clerk. The spelling in the civil records regularly switched from one version to the other between 1859 and 1881.  After 1881 the Roney version disappeared, but Patrick continued to call himself George for the rest of his life.  He did so perhaps because he found anti-Catholic sentiment so strong in Sunderland at that time that he decided a good solid English name was the only route to getting on in life.

Patrick and Elizabeth raised a family and eventually prospered.  In 1881 Patrick achieved an ambition which must have seemed like an impossible dream when he first arrived in England – he became the tenant of a farm.  How he scraped together the wherewithal to take up the lease of Lake House farmhouse is unknown. But he did.

The Rooneys’ Treacherous Voyage to America.  In 1937 John Egan, grandson of immigrant Patrick Rooney, gave the following account of the Rooney’s journey and arrival in America:

“About the year 1845 there was a great famine in Ireland and the tribe or family of Rooney, to escape death by starvation, boarded a sailboat bound for New York City. When they had reached mid-ocean the old wooden vessel sprang a leak and all hands were forced to man the pumps in order to keep it afloat.

After a time, when all hope of ever seeing land again was gone, the captain sighted another vessel and hailed it.  When the vessel came alongside the captain explained his situation and asked if his passengers could be transferred from the sinking vessel.  The captain agree to do so and the transfer was made.  The ill-fated vessel sank in about 15 minutes. After the ship was underway someone inquired as to their destination and the captain answered, “Quebec.”

The Rooneys had no voice in the matter and were put ashore at Quebec, after nearly 50 days on the water.”

It would appear that John Egan had got his dates wrong.  It was probably 1835 instead of 1845 as the Rooneys were in Canada by 1842.

Rooneys from County Down to Kansas.  There have been differing accounts of Patrick Rooney’s departure for America in 1856.  One account reads as follows:

“Pat and Rosanna Rooney had been married and were living with their grandfather’s people in county Down.  Jobs were scarce because of the Great Famine which had been just a few years before.

They were invited to a dance one night and stayed until early morning.  When they got home, the door was locked.  Pat kicked it in and had a quarrel with his parents and they told him to leave. He went, sold a horse he felt was his, and bought a ticket for a sailing vessel to America. He lacked the five pounds,  enough to bring his grandmother, but no one could or would lend it to him.”

Another story has Patrick departing for America, leaving his wife who soon discovered that she was pregnamt.  On hearing the news, Patrick told her to wait until the baby was born.  Against his wishes she packed her few belongings and left for America.  The baby boy was still born.  Patrick cursed because the next three were all girls.  They made their home in Kansas.

Patrick’s step-brother Ned, a seaman, also came to America. One account has Ned coming with Patrick, another account has him arriving at a different time and homesteading in Michigan.  He drowned in Lake Michigan when a storm blew up.

Reader Feedback – James Rooney in Newfoundland.  I have been looking for our great grandfather who came from somewhere to Newfoundland.  James Rooney was born around the year 1824.  He married a local girl, fathered nine children and was buried in St. John’s, Newfoundland. According to a memoriam he was a man of cultivated intellect, a talented musician. a gas fitter by trade and on his death in 1886 was Manager of Newfoundland Gas Works.

Carolyn (

Art and Dan Rooney.  Two places have endeared themselves to Dan Rooney for reasons of fate and fortune.   Newry in county Down was the town his grandfather – also named Dan Rooney – left to make his way in the 1880’s in a decade during which home rule, land reform and political unrest characterized daily life in the busy Ulster market town.

Rooney ended up in Pittsburgh, an industrial hellhole in the 19th century.  Along with thousands of immigrants – Irish, Poles, Germans, and Slavs – the family worked in the steel mills and coal mines.  By the turn of the century they had opened Dan Rooney’s Saloon in the North Side where Art Rooney was born on the second floor of the building in 1901.

Over the 20th century, Pittsburgh’s fortune and outlook seemed to rise and fall with the success of its football Steelers which the family had owned since Art Rooney bought the franchise in 1933 for $2,500.  After a slow start which lasted over three decades, the Steelers finally came to dominate professional football with a vengeance in the 1970’s.

This was the tribute of Raymond Flynn, the former mayor of Boston and a longtime friend of the family:

“Dan Rooney makes you proud to be an Irish-American.  He’s never changed, no matter how successful he’s become.  He is always the same, down-to-earth just like his father Art who was a beautiful man. The Rooneys can walk among kings and popes and never lose the common touch.”

Reader Feedback – Catherine Rooney in California.  One of my great great grandmothers was Catherine Rooney, 1847-1905. She pops up in the United States census of 1860 living in Elk Grove, California. She was 13 years old, living in someone else’s family home, and was listed as a house maid.

I would love to know of course who her family was in Ireland and how she made it all the way to California from probably landing from Ireland on the East Coast of the USA before coming across the continent.

David Farrall (

Rooney Names

  • Ceallach O’ Rooney was recorded as the chief poet of Ireland in 1079. 
  • William Rooney was a noted Irish poet involved in the revival of the Gaelic language in the late 19th century. 
  • Art Rooney, the son of Irish immigrants, founded the Pittsburgh Steelers football franchise in the 1930’s. In his 41st season as owner, the club won the Super Bowl. 
  • Mickey Rooney, born Joseph Yule in Brooklyn in 1920, has been an American movie actor and entertainer since the 1940’s. 
  • Andy Rooney is a writer and humorist on American TV. 
  • Wayne Rooney from Liverpool has played football for both Manchester United and the England national team and has been a record goal scorer for both.

Rooney Numbers Today

  • 12,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 6,000 in America (most numerous in New York).
  • 12,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)




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Written by Colin Shelley

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