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Clan History

History of the Ryan Clan

Ryan is in the top ten of most common Irish surnames. There are over 30,000 people of the name all around Ireland. The Ryan name has spread across the globe as Irish emigrants left home to seek adventure or a new life.

The exact origins of the name are lost in the highways and byways of time, but there are many suggestions regarding how, when and where it originated.

My Ryan born mother told us that her Wexford branch of the family was the ‘royal Ryans’. We scoffed and smirked at this, but there may be some truth in this aspiration to nobility. The Leinster family of this name is said to be the descendants of Cathaoir Mor a King of Leinster from the second century or Cormac the son of King Nathi of Leinster in the 4th century. The location associated with the Leinster Ryans is the barony of Idrone in County Carlow, but to-day they are to be found throughout the province including the neighbouring county of Wexford.  In Irish Gaelic the name is O’Riain, which may derive from ‘rí’ meaning king which fits with its noble origins.

However, it is the province of Munster in south western Ireland and particularly the counties of Tipperary and Limerick that are most commonly associated with the family name Ryan. The baronies of Owney and Arra in North Tipperary are especially linked to the name. Open your eyes on any street or locality in these counties and you’re sure to be only a stone’s throw from a Ryan! So, be careful about throwing stones in the area. Indeed, so numerous are their numbers that as they have similar first names, they are distinguished from one another by the addition of a nickname or epithet. Examples include Red Pat (for his hair colour) or the addition of their home address or townland to the surname to identify them - such as Ryans of Ballyhere or Knockthere.

It is suggested that a branch of the Leinster Ryans moved from Idrone to Owney following the expansion of the Anglo Normans in Leinster in the 13th century. This branch was known as O’Maoillriain, anglicised as Mulryan. The origin of this is usually broken down into the two syllables of ‘maoil’ and ‘riain’. The former may be derived from words which mean ‘bald’, ‘tonsure’, ‘devotee’,’ heroes’, ‘worshippers’, ’illustrious’; the latter from an old word for water or a name such as Righan or the words ‘sluggish’, ’dilatory’, ‘administrator’ or indeed  ‘King’ or ‘prince’. Some suggest that its meaning is lost in the passage of time and is not known. If you put the two syllables together you can arrive at variations such as ‘worshippers of water’, which has a nice melodic tone; 


or ‘bald prince’ which is a bit near the bone. You can work out some of the other possibilities yourself, depending on the characteristics of you own clan members. The Mulryan version of the name is very rare these days and not found in Tipperary. Its incidence in other parts of the country is said to derive from different names entirely including (O) Mulrine of Donegal.

The Munster Ryan family crest is frequently shown as three silver griffin heads on a red shield. Perhaps this is appropriate to the noble origins as the griffin is said to represent courage and bravery.


The Munster Ryan motto is Malo More Quam Foedari - ‘I would rather die than be dishonoured or disgraced’ or in short ‘death before dishonour’.

County Clare also features in the Ryan history. Following Cromwell’s confiscation of lands from the Tipperary and Limerick families in the late 1600s, many clan members found a home across the River Shannon in County Clare.

Paddy Ryan’s Dream

While we can ponder and mull over the actual origins of the name Ryan, we should not be surprised if it inspired music. The reel Paddy Ryan’s Dream surely provided a few moments of nostalgia and memories for many an emigrant when it was played by the Sligo fiddler Michael Coleman and many others.

Play it or listen to it:


Relax and enjoy the tune which is available on other instruments too and think about your own Ryan ancestors and what they might have contributed to the world’s heritage.