Ryan Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Ryan Surname Meaning

Ryan is the 8th most common surname in Ireland.  The name has also spread across the English-speaking world (as well as becoming a popular choice as first name).

The main source of this name was the old Gaelic O’Maoilriain (descendant of Maoilriain), the name of a Munster sept in Tipperary and Limerick.  O’Maoilriain abbreviated and anglicized over time to Mulryan and then to Ryan.  A smaller and separate Leinster sept in county Carlow, O’Riain, also became Ryan. 

Ryan Surname Resources on The Internet

Ryan Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Tipperary)
  • to America, Canada and Australia

Ireland.  The first record of O’Maoilriain as a sept name occurred in Tipperary sometime in the 14th century, the time they settled in Owney, the mountainous land along the borders of Tipperary and Limerick.

Their family influence grew rapidly as did their numbers, so that it became a common saying in Tipperary:  “One could hardly throw a stone down a street in Tipperary without hitting a Ryan.”

In the 1640’s, the Ryans joined in the rebellion of the Catholic Confederacy, but were defeated by Cromwell.  Old clans such as the Ryans of Solohead were attainted, forfeiting their hereditary lands and receiving in return poor lands west of the Shannon.  Eamon Ryan (Eamon an Chnoic), the poet and outlaw, was captured and killed.

A number of Ryans, driven into exile during the 18th century, found service in the armies of France, Spain and Austria.  Many joined the Church, in Ireland or being posted abroad.  Others simply emigrated in search of a better life.  British rule was resented in Ireland, a sentiment expressed in Darby Ryan’s ditty, The Peeler and the Goat.  

Tipperary.  The name Ryan is still very common in Tipperary.  Among the Ryans born there in the 19th and 20th century have been:

  • Darby Ryan, the songwriter and patriot (born in Bansha)
  • Patrick Ryan, Archbiishop of Philadelphia (born in Thurles)
  • William P. Ryan, journalist and founder of The Nation (born in Templemore)
  • Tony Ryan, co-founder of Ryanair (born in Thurles)
  • and Matty Ryan, jeweller and racing enthusiast (born in Thurles).

Elsewhere.  The name has also spread across Ireland, to Dublin and elsewhere.  One family history tells of Ryans who had settled in Clare after the siege of Limerick in 1690.

Then there was the remarkable 20th century Ryan family of twelve children from Tomcoole in county Wexford who were known as “the Ryan dynasty.”  They included politicians, farmers and priests, whilst many of the women married into medicine or  politics.

England.  Many Ryans crossed the Irish Sea to London and industrial Lancashire in search of work during the 19th century.  Some made it in the professions, notably journalism –  such as William P. Ryan, editor of the Daily Herald and A.P. Ryan, literary editor of The Times.

Others struggled to make a living, as this Victorian account of a family reveals:  “The Ryan family settled in an area around Blackfriars.  After he married, Michael Ryan at different times ran a fish shop, a greengrocers, and a laundry.  Everything was washed by hand, in big tubs in a washhouse at the back of the house and then ironed with old flat irons heated on a stove.  There was always a smell of wet washing everywhere.”

The travails of a fictional Ryan family in Liverpool were described in Lyn Andrew’s 2001 novel  My Sister’s Child.

America.  Revolutionary War records reveal many Ryans who fought on the American side.  Among early Ryan settlers were:

  • William Ryan (son of John Ryan), born in Amherst county Virginia in 1755.
  • a Ryan family of Westmoreland county, Virginia who later moved to West Virginia and Kentucky.
  • John Ryan, who was in New Jersey in the 1770’s and whose family then settled in Crawford county, Pennsylvania.
  • another John Ryan of Barbour county, West Virginia in the 1780’s.  Two of his sons migrated to Ohio.

19th Century Arrivals.  There was a much larger Ryan influx during the 19th century. William and Nancy Ryan arrived in 1839 and settled in Rockford, Illinois (their story is recounted in Martha Ryan’s 1992 book A Long Way from Tipperary).

Another Ryan family, who came to America at the time of the potato famine, ended up in California in 1851 during the Gold Rush boom.  Michael and Catherine Ryan owned the Ryan House Hotel as a stripping-off place for miners.

Among the many Ryans in New York City was first generation John F. O’Ryan, who rose to be a US army general during World War One.  Ryan’s Hope was a TV soap of the 1980’s which revolved around the trials and tribulations of a large Irish-American family in New York City.

A real “rags-to- riches” story was that of Thomas Fortune Ryan, the Wall Street financier who died in 1928 as the 12th richest man in America.  Despite certain myths regarding his background, he was neither orphaned nor penniless as a child in Virginia’s Piedmont district and his ancestry has been traced back to Protestant Anglo-Irish settlers in the 1600’s.

Meanwhile James Ryan arrived in Milwaukee from Ireland sometime in the 1850’s.  His son Patrick started an earthmoving company in Wisconsin in 1884.  Four generations later came Paul Ryan, the Republican Vice-Presidential nominee in 2012 and later Speaker of the US House of Representatives.

Equally or perhaps better known today is the fictional Jack Ryan of Tom Clancy’s novels, as portrayed by Harrison Ford in films such as Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger.

Canada.  Ryans have made their presence felt in Canada most noticeably in the Maritime Provinces.  John Ryan, a Loyalist from New England, started the first newspaper in New Brunswick in 1784.  There were Ryans from Ireland in Pouch Cove and Calvert, Newfoundland by 1800; and Ryans from Ireland in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick by the 1830’s.

In the 1850’s James Ryan, the son of an Irish immigrant, started a fishery and shipping business in Bonavista, Newfoundland.  It grew into a large mercantile empire, making him one of the wealthiest people in Newfoundland.  James died in 1917, but his family carried on the fish trade until 1952.

The Divine Ryans was a 1999 film based around a Ryan family who ran a funeral parlor in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Australia.  The first Ryans in Australia were undoubtedly convicts.  John Ryan, a silk-weaver convicted of theft, was onboard the First Fleet convict ship to Australia in 1788.  Many left no trace.

Two who did leave family were Ned Ryan, the so-called King of Galong Castle who was transported in 1816, and Catherine Ryan, who was transported for manslaughter in 1829.  Ned Ryan’s story was recounted in Max Barrett’s 1978 book King of Galong Castle.

Many Ryans later came as settlers, including the following from Tipperary:

  • Daniel and Mary Ryan on the Glenswilly in 1840.  They were pioneers of the Monaro region of NSW.
  • David and Honora Ryan on the Argyle in 1852.
  • Michael and Johanna Ryan on the Raja Gopaul to Queensland in 1852.  They settled in Rockhampton.
  • Henry and Catherine Ryan on the Rodney to South Australia in 1854.
  • while Thomas and Brigid Ryan came to New Zealand on the Fernglen in 1876.  They settled in Petone.

There were also a number of Ryan arrivals from Limerick.

Among the first generation Ryans was Thomas Ryan, the son of an illiterate laborer, who educated himself as a lawyer and rose to become Prime Minister of Queensland.  A statue in Brisbane commemorates him.

Ryan Surname Miscellany

Ryans and Mulryans.  Ryan is amongst the ten most numerous surnames in Ireland, with an estimated population of 27,500.  Only a very small proportion use the prefix “O.”

The great majority of Ryans are really O’Mulryans.  But this earlier form of the name is now almost obsolete. Even in the census of 1659 in county Limerick, Ryans outnumbered Mulryans by about four to one.  Today there is not one O’Mulryan in the telephone directory.

The Ryans of Owney.  The sept of O’Mulryan was located in Owney, which forms two modern baronies on the borders of Limerick and Tipperary.  In this wild country there is the ruined Ryan castle of Killoscully and, further south across the Keeper mountains in Follaclug in the parish of Hollford, local tradition has it that the celebrated poet and outlaw Eamon an Chnoic (Ned of the Hills) is buried.

A monument to the Ryans can be found in a secluded corner of a ruined 12th century Cistercian monastery at Abington across the border in Limerick.  The Ryans had saved the monastery from destruction in the 16th century and the inscription there reads:

“The most noble William Ryan, chief of the country of Owney and head and prince of the ancient family of Ryans, caused the monument to be erected to himself, his wife, and his children.

The honor of his posterity and praise of his ancestors caused William Ryan to construct this graceful work.  Alas, how much nobility proved in peace and war, how much holy faith, virtue and distinguished fame are enclosed in this sepulchral monument of the Ryans.  If it should be asked why that which is not destined to die should be shut up, the bones alone are covered in the earth but the other parts that know not death will enjoy perpetual day.

The praise, virtue, glory and honor of the Ryan race will live forever in this honored name.  AD 1632.”

The story of the Ryans of Owney has been told in M. Callanan’s 1935 book Records of Four Tipperary Septs.

Eamon an Chnoic.  In the 1640’s Eamon Ryan, a Tipperary landowner, was dispossessed by Oliver Cromwell’s forces.  He was from Cnoc MaothailI (the bald hill) in Teampall Beag.  A tenant of Ryan’s, a widow, was also dispossessed of her cow by one of Cromwell’s agents.  Eamon an Chnoic defended her and in the argument he killed the agent.

He was outlawed and went on the run with a price of £200 (a lot of money then) on his head.  After hiding in the mountains in the winter where he was destroyed by exposure, he took refuge with an old lover of his who hid him in her house for a time.  It is said that the agents looked for him at her house but that she successfully hid him under her dress.  Presumably the dress was hanging up or thrown on a bed, but that she wasn’t wearing it at the time.

Subsequently, he took refuge with a neighbor who killed him for the reward while he slept.  Posterity doesn’t record the names of either his faithful girlfriend or his treacherous neighbor.

Eamon was a Gaelic poet.  The following is an English version of one of his pieces.

  • “Who is that outside
  • That has fever in his voice
  • Smashing at my locked door?
  • I am Eamon of the Hill
  • That is drowned wet and cold
  • From forever-walking mountains and glens.
  • My tragic fair one, and my chosen one,
  • What should I do with you
  • But to put you safe under my skirts?
  • And that [gun]powder would blow back thickly on you
  • And we will be extinguished as one.
  • I am far outside under snow and under ice
  • And without boldness or any spirit.
  • My ploughland without a mark, my grassland without seed
  • And these not in my ownership in any case.
  • I have no friend, and this is a regret to me
  • That I called early and late
  • And that I must go overseas east
  • Where I have no ties.”

The Peeler and the Goat.  The Peeler and the Goat was a ditty written by Darby Ryan sometime in the 1820’s.  The song was reportedly inspired by police officers (Peelers) taking a number of goats into “custody” for creating an obstruction on the road.

It runs as follows:

“A police officer finds a goat roaming the streets of Bansha  and, presuming her to be either a loiterer or a prostitute, announces that he will soon send her off to prison.  The police officer and the goat argue over the circumstances of the arrest and whether or not the police officer would actually be able to get a conviction for a crime not committed.  At the end of the song, the goat accuses the police officer of being drunk and asserts that if she had enough money to purchase illegal liquor for the police officer then she would have been allowed to go free.”

The song continues to be popular in Irish pubs and bars.

Ryans For and Against Spain

Tomas O’Ryan

The family of Lieutenant-General Tomás O’Ryan y Vayquez had been in Spain since the 18th century. Specializing in engineering and administration, Tomás was given many responsible appointments in Spain’s overseas military establishments, often being sent abroad by the Minister of State for War, General O’Donnell.  He was in France when Queen Isobel II was exiled.  She entrusted the care of her 13 year-old son, who later became King Alfonso XII, to him.

With the restoration of the monarchy, O’Ryan was summoned to Madrid to be made Field Marshal and aide to the King.  His descendants are still in Spain, although the O’Ryan surname died out there in 1946.

W.A.C. Ryan

William Abbot Charles Ryan, born in Canada, came from a long line of soldiers who had fought all over Europe in the Napoleonic and Peninsular wars.

In 1868, during a trip to Washington, he had met up with the leader of the Cuban insurgents who were planning to overthrow their Spanish rulers.  Ryan sold his business and went off to fight for Cuba.  His task was to ferry men and military supplies between New York and Cuba.

After completing many successful expeditions, the Spaniards captured his corvette Tornado and Ryan and his men were executed and their heads paraded through Santiago.  There was an outcry in New York and much embarrassment in Madrid.  He was only thirty when he died.

Ryans in the Church.  Among the many Ryans who have distinguished themselves in the Church have been:

Cornelius O’Mulryan from Tipperary died in 1617 Bishop of Killale, Cloyne, and
He was the brother of the Owney
Edward Ryan died in 1819 Prebendary of St. Patrick’s,
Vincent Ryan died in 1845 First abbot of Melleray Abbey,
Dermot Ryan 1924-1984 Archbishop of Dublin
Archbishop Ryan Park in Dublin
is named after him.
Stephen Ryan from Clare 1826-1896 Bishop of Buffalo.
Patrick Ryan from Tipperary 1831-1911 Archbishop of Philadelphia (and
a great orator).
Abram Ryan from Virginia 1838-1886 Chaplain of the Confederate Army.
James Ryan from Tipperary 1848-1923 Bishop of Alton.
John A. Ryan from Minnesota 1865-1945 Catholic theologian/early
advocate of minimum wage.
Finbar Ryan from Cork 1881-1975 Archbishop of Port of Spain,

My Sister’s Child.  A fictional Ryan family in Liverpool was portrayed in Lyn Andrew’s 2001 novel  My Sister’s Child. The plot of this novel runs as follows:

“For the inhabitants of Liverpool’s Milton Street a steady income and a roof over their heads are luxuries.  The Ryan family have barely grown accustomed to such things when a fire destroys their father Jack’s modest coal haulage business, leaving Jack broken and his family facing ruin.

They’re forced to turn to Conor, Jack’s brother from Ireland, a man whose noisy joviality seventeen-year-old Ellen Ryan suspects hides a mean viciousness.  She’s right and, with her mother sick and her half-sister Annie becoming increasingly feckless, it’s down to Ellen to fight Conor’s tyranny.  But when Annie disappears, leaving her baby on their doorstep, Ellen begins fear for herself and for the life of the innocent child she has learnt to love.”

Ned Ryan, King of Galong Castle.  Ned Ryan was born in Tipperary in 1786.  At the age of thirty he was sentenced to death for his role in the destruction of an infirmary which had been requisitioned by the militia for use as a temporary barracks.  For him and for twelve companions the death sentence was subsequently commuted to a fourteen year prison term in Australia.  They were transported on the Surrey 2 in 1816.

In 1825 Ned received his ticket of leave and had almost full freedom, although he was not at liberty to leave the colony.  Ryan tradition has it that he squatted at Illalong (near present day Binalong) but within a short space of time moved onto Galong, then far removed from civilization.

Ned’s wife Ellen and their children Anastasia and John joined him at Galong in 1847. The present day homestead was erected during the 1850s and a two-storey extension complete with crenellation at the eastern end about 1860.  These stone embellishments no doubt caused Galong to become known locally as the “Castle.”  The Ryans themselves always referred to it as Galong House.

With enterprise and determination Ned earned the reputation of being a hardworking but fair man who gave selflessly to nearly every cause.  He served on committees, his name appeared on almost every public subscription, and his presence was noted at community events.  Despite his gruff exterior he was without question an extremely generous man who was known to have supported some individuals for almost thirty years.  Galong Castle was called a “Castle” not because of its magnificence, but because of the princely hospitality extended.

More recently, Galong has been called “the paradise of the Ryans.”  Nearby Boorowa boasts 60 percent of its population as Irish and remains proud of its Irish Australian history.  A shamrock trail appears on the pavement of the newly refurbished main streets.  St Lawrence’s Church was commissioned by Anastasia Barry Ryan, niece to Ned Ryan.

Max Barrett’s 1978 book King of Galong Castle: The Story of Ned Ryan recounts the family history.

Lawrence Ryan in Michigan.  This is s a sad story.

Lawrence Ryan from Limerick had arrived in Michigan sometime in the 1850’s and was first recorded in the 1860 US census in Marquette county where he had been working as a copper miner.

He and his wife Mary, also from Limerick, were to have nine children.  By 1870 the family had moved to Negaunee, Michigan where Lawrence was working as a shopkeeper.

But disaster struck.  Lawrence died there of tuberculosis in 1871 at the age of fifty.  And all but one of the nine children died in the succeeding years of the same disease.  Only one son, Patrick born in 1866, survived.  Patrick moved to Detroit in the 1880’s and became a bookkeeper

Thomas Fortune Ryan.  Thomas Fortune Ryan was a true “rags-to-riches” story.

He was a Nelson county, Virginia native who became spectacularly successful as a Wall Street financier in New York and the wealthiest native-born Southerner of his generation.

His business interests embraced the Manhattan transit system, the American Tobacco Company, banking, the Equitable Life Assurance, the Thompson Sub-Machine Gun, railroads, Mexican rubber plantations and diamond mines in the Belgian Congo.

He was as well a prominent international art collector and a generous philanthropist.  He and his wife Ida paid entirely for the construction of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond, Virginia.

He even timed his death well.  He died in 1928, one year before the Great Crash.

Among his descendants is Virginia Fortune Ryan, born in 1933.  She married David Ogilvy, 8th Earl of Airlie, and became Lady Airlie.  She has been a Lady in Waiting to Queen Elizabeth.

Reader Feedback – Ryans from Tipperary to Victoria, Australia.  Great great grandmother Hanora Ryan and her sisters Mary, Alice, Ellen and Amy fled Tipperary for Victoria gold.  And they all owned hotels – a new style gold.

Paul Waterstreet (streeteralbury@gmail.com).

Ryan Names

  • Eamon O’Riain was a famous poet/outlaw of Tipperary in the early 18th century.
  • Patrick Ryan, Archbishop of Philadelphia in the late 19th century, was renowned for his oratory.
  • Patrick Ryan from Limerick won the Olympic gold medal for hammer-throwing in 1920 and held the world record in this event from 1913 to 1937.
  • Cornelius Ryan was an Irish-American writer best known for his World War 2 books, The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far.
  • Meg Ryan, born Margaret Hyra, is a popular Hollywood actress.

Ryan Numbers Today

  • 45,000 in the UK (most numerous in West Midlands)
  • 60,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 126,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland).

Ryan 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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