Whelan Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Whelan Surname Meaning

The Irish surname Whelan 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 “Way-lan.”

Thus both Phelan and Whelan emerged as anglicized surnames.  There are more Whelans than Phelans around today. Other surname variants have been Whalen and Phalen. Whalen is more common in America.

Whelan Surname Resources on The Internet

Whelan and Whalen Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Munster)
  • to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

Ireland.  O’Faolain was the name of an 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. The early anglicized names were Felan and Faelan. These names would become Phelan and Whelan in Waterford and Kilkenny. The Whelan name also extended into Wexford, Carlow and Wicklow in SE Ireland.

Martin Whelan, born in Carrickbeg (Waterford) in 1846, emigrated to America in the 1880’s and a West Waterford man named Pax Whelan led the anti-treaty forces in Dungarvon town in 1920. From Carlow came Sir Thomas Whelan, alderman and lord mayor of Dublin in the 1830’s. His son Edward joined the British army but died in India in 1854. Griffith’s Valuation showed 96 Whelan occupiers and tenants of land in Wicklow in 1854.

Billy Whelan, born in Dublin, was one of the Manchester United footballers killed in the Munich air crash of 1958. In 2006 a railway bridge in Dublin was renamed in his honor. Ronnie Whelan, another footballer from Dublin, was part of the dominant Liverpool side of the 1980’s.

America. Early Whelan emigrants included Whalen emigrants to America who had come to Virginia from Ireland in the 1770’s. There was Solomon Whalen and there was Patrick Whalen, the latter marrying Susannah Leach in Virginia in 1777.

Both Whalens moved to Kentucky in the early 1800’s. Solomon Whalen and his sons Solomon and Henry began to appear in the tax rolls of Harrison county, Kentucky in 1803. The family built their log cabin at Havilandsville in 1835 and the Whalens were to remain there until Squire Whalen’s death in 1931 at the ripe old age of ninety six.

The Whalen spelling, perhaps because of pronunciation, has continued to predominate in America. Whalens outnumbered Whelans by almost three to one in the 1920 US census and remain more numerous today.

Canada. Canada also has more Whalens than Whelans, although the spelling in the early days may have been quite flexible.

Johanna Whalen was born in Newfoundland in 1786 and moved with her husband to Prospect, Nova Scotia sometime in the 1810’s (on an island called Betty’s island after their daughter Betty). John Whalen was born in the province in 1833 and became a farmer in Chester, Nova Scotia.

Edward Whelan arrived in Nova Scotia with his mother as a young boy from county Mayo in Ireland in 1831. Growing up, he made a name for himself as a newspaper man, founding his own paper in Charlottetown, PEI. He later moved into politics and was one of the backers of Canadian confederation in the 1860’s.

Australia and New Zealand.  Charles Whalan, a convict on the Third Fleet in 1791, made good in the NSW Corp and through his friendship with Governor Macquarie.

Thomas and Bridget Whelan left their home in county Clare at the time of the potato famine in 1849 for Melbourne. They started out in the Victoria goldfields and later moved back to Melbourne, while some of the family crossed over to Otago, New Zealand.  Adam Whelan came to Melbourne on the Schonberg in 1855.

Martin Whelan arrived in New Zealand from Laois in 1864. He married Elizabeth Walsh in Auckland a year later and they made their home in the Bay of Plenty.

Whelan and Whalen 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.

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

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

Other surname variants have been Whalen and Phalen.  Whalen is more common in America.

Some Whelan/Whalen Emigrants.  These were some of the Whelans/Whalens who left Ireland in the 19th century for pastures new:

  • Patrick Whalin, born 1738 in Ireland, married Susannah Leach, and emigrated to Montgomery county, Virginia
  • Solomon Whalen, born 1749 in Ireland, and emigrated to Harrison county, Kentucky
  • John Whalen, born 1790 in Kilkenny, married Mary Walsh, and emigrated to Nova Scotia in Canada
  • Patrick Whalen, born 1795 in Cork, married Bridget Murphy, and emigrated to Ontario (Carleton county) in Canada
  • Patrick Whalen, born 1816 in Tipperary, married Deborah Collins, and emigrated to Canada (Kincardine) in Canada
  • Robert Whalen, born 1826 in Ireland, married Ellen McGraw, and emigrated to Ohio
  • Martin Whalen, born 1830 in Waterford, married Ellen Power, and emigrated to New York
  • John Whelan, born 1830 in Ireland, married Margaret Power, and emigrated to Hudson county, New Jersey
  • Adam Whelan, born 1832 in Tipperary, married Mary McInerney, and emigrated to Melbourne, Australia
  • Thomas Whelan, born 1832 in Limerick, married Catherine Boyle, and emigrated to Iowa
  • Thomas Whalin, born 1848 in Laois, married Margaret McComiskie, and emigrated to Scotland

The Whalen spelling predominated for emigration across the Atlantic.

Charles Whalan, A Convict Who Made Good in Australia.  Having been caught poaching trout when he was about fourteen years old, Charles was sentenced in London in 1787 to seven years transportation in Australia.  He was eventually shipped there two years later on the Albemarle. By 1793 Charles, well educated, was able to join the NSW Corp and he became Sergeant of the Governor’s Bodyguard of Light Horse serving Governor Lachlan Macquarie.

Macquarie trusted him implicitly and Charles became close to him.  One of his sons was even named Macquarie and Governor Macquarie was his godfather. But the young boy died at the age of four.  The Governor noted in his diary:

“The rains all over the colony were both savage and severe.  They marked the passing of my poor little godson, Macquarie Whalan, son of our faithful Sergeant Whalan.”

Charles and his sons received generous land grants from Macquarie. The Whalan suburb of Sydney in fact takes its name from James Whalan, his eldest son, who was granted 300 acres at Mount Druitt.

Reader Feedback – Mary Whelan, Australian Immigrant.  I am trying to find a Mary or Mathilde Hennessy who married a Martin Whelan. Martin immigrated to Australia from St Johns, Kilkenny in 1865 on the Trebolgan and his daughter Margaret Whelan came there from Feinan, Kilkenny in 1865 on the Wallasea. What happened to Mary Whelan nee Hennessy?

Marica Christoforou (marieac54@gmail.com).

Squire and Allen Whalen of Havilandsville, Kentucky.  Whalens have been resident in Havilandsville, Kentucky since the early 1800’s.  The following article appeared about them in the Lexington Herald-Leader of January 13, 1957.

“We found Allen Whalen, a keen-witted 87-year-old, topping his patch of chewing tobacco which was goring in the vegetable garden.  He had many memories of Havilandsville in the earlier days.

His father, Squire Whalen, built his own log cabin in the woods here about 1835.  He built his own flatboats, too, and shipped the produce of his farm downriver to Cincinnati.  Once when he received three cents a pound for his tobacco crop he considered it an excellent price. One of the best-remembered things he told his son was how, as a young man he once went to the creek to haul water. Glancing behind him, he saw following his cow, horse, dog and cat – all his earthly possessions – and was the proudest man in the world.

Squire Whalen died in 1931 at the age of 96.  Before he died he told his son many anecdotes about Havilandsville and the northeastern corner of Harrison county it served.”

Dave Whelan and Football.  Dave Whelan had two bites of the footballing cherry, as a player for Blackburn Rovers and as an owner of Wigan Athletics.  In-between there was a very successful business career.

In his autobiography Playing to Win, Whelan credited the Wigan Boys’ Club for turning him from a feckless rebel with criminal tendencies into a lad determined to go on the straight and narrow and make it as a footballer. He signed for Blackburn Rovers in 1953 and made his debut for the Rovers in 1956.  The highlight of his footballing career came in 1960 when he and Blackburn Rovers made it to the FA Cup Final.

However, just two minutes before half-time, the right shin of Norman Deeley, the Wolves’ outside-right, met Dave Whelan’s left shin and there was a loud crack.  Whelan was carried off and ten-man Blackburn lost the game.  At 23, Dave Whelan’s top-level career was effectively over.

With the £400 compensation he received following his injury, he made a fresh start as a market trader in Blackburn.  Soon he bought a small grocery business which was rapidly parlayed into a discount business and eventually sold to a supermarket chain for £1.5 million.  For his next trick, he transformed a local sports shop, JJ Bradburn, into JJB Sports, one of Britain’s biggest sports retailers.

In 1995 David Whelan turned his eye towards his primary love, football, and took over as Chairman of then struggling Wigan Athletic.  His involvement began when a director asked him to loan the club £760 to cover the players’ wages for the week: “And bingo, I was in.”

His investment saw Wigan rise through the ranks, culminating in their promotion to the top drawer, the English Premiership, in 2005.  He invested heavily in providing the public of Wigan, including the supporters of the town’s rugby team which he helped rescue from financial ruin, with a stadium fit for high level sport.

Whelan and Whalen Names

  • Sir Thomas Whelan was Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1831.
  • Edward Whelan, a Prince Edward Island newspaper man and delegate to the Quebec conference in 1864, was one of the fathers of the Canadian Confederation.
  • Philip Whalen was a West Coast poet and Zen Buddhist close to the Beat generation of the 1950’s.
  • Dave Whelan bought JJB Sports, a Wigan sportswear company, in 1971 and was a successful owner of the Wigan football and rugby league teams.

Whelan and Whalen Numbers Today

  • 10,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 6,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 24,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)


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Written by Colin Shelley

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