From Chickeen and Slugs to Death before Dishonor: A Closer Look at The History and Meaning of the Ryan name
Every few years, the knock comes on the door (or, as technology continues to infringe, the email drops in the inbox) signifying that the time has come for participation in the latest Census.
It is a tradition established over many hundreds, and possibly thousands of years: the first Censuses are purported to have been taken by the Romans in the first millennium BCE although, according to research by the Smithsonian Institution at least, our modern understanding of the Census — the gathering of detailed statistics of the number of people in a given place at a given time, collated to give national and regional level data that might prove valuable to everyone from governors to genealogists — dates at least as far back as Iceland at the beginning of the 18th century.
In the US Census of 2000, one particularly interesting dataset was the total ranking of old Irish surnames in modern America.
In that report, a total of eight old Irish surnames were listed inside the top 400 most common surnames in the USA: Murphy (58), Kelly (69), Ryan (177), O’Brien (234), Walsh (265), McCarthy (348), O’Connor (385) and Doyle (391).
In this piece we will focus particularly on the Ryan name, taking a closer look at its fascinating history and lore, as well as its spread throughout modern culture, including its appearance as one of the most popular forenames (or given names) throughout the English-speaking world today.
The Ryan History
Probably deriving from the old Gaelic word for king, Rí, Ryan likely comes from word ríain which is oen held to mean “little king”.
The first thing to say about the Ryan name is that (like many an Irish surname) it comes in many shapes and forms.
For example, while listed as separate names in phone books and birth certificates, Ryan and O’Ryan are effectively one and the same from a historical perspective, with only quirks of data collection and daily usage distinguishing one from the other.
In addition to that small change, Ryan comes in many other variations, including Riain, Mulryan, O’Mulryan and Ruane as well as the Irish derivations (or perhaps more accurately, originations) Ó Riain, Ó Riagháin, Ó Maoilriain and Ó Ruaidhín.
According to the 1876 book Irish Pedigrees, published by the genealogist John O’Hart, there were at least two distinct branches of Ryans around Ireland.
It might be important to note that O’Hart’s methodologies were criticised by many.
For one thing, he was, uniquely for the time, given that Ireland was still firmly part of the British Empire, staunchly in support of the Catholic and Gaelic traditions, and he was seen by many as seriously biased towards Catholic and Gaelic narratives.
For another, and this one is more problematic, he took an unrealistically literal reading of the Bible and other texts from religion or folklore, leading him to declare that all Irish people were directly descended from Milesius, the ancient king of Spain, who was also directly descended from Adam.
However, much of his research into more recent generations is still seen to offer great value, and he pointed to two distinct sets of Ryans from different parts of Ireland.
The first, variously both Ryan and Mulryan (and their old Gaelic equivalents), came from the counties of Limerick and Tipperary, particularly located in the old place of Owney, an area that straddles the modern boundaries of those two counties. According to the histories, these Ryans/Mulryans did not come to Limerick and Tipperary before the 14th century, but when they did they quickly ascended to powerful positions in the region.
The second clan, which was exclusively Ryan rather than Mulryan, came from places in the modern counties of Carlow and Kilkenny, in the south of Leinster.
It may be of interest that these two places — the boundary area of Limerick and Tipperary in the province of Munster on the one hand, and Carlow-Kilkenny in the province of Leinster on the other — are separated by no more than 60 or 70 miles in the southern part of Ireland, so it’s not at all beyond the bounds of possibility that the two septs possess a single origin, but the histories and annals would suggest that they were distinct, at least for a long time into history.
When the great Irish emigration began in the Famine years of the 1840s, there were few parts of the country (outside the fairly well-to-do Pale around the capital of Dublin) that escaped the specter of hunger, disease and death.
In those years, and indeed for many generations going forward, including, most recently, the great waves of emigration of the 1980s and early 2010s, people from all over the country, right across the north, west and south of Ireland, le in their droves to survive (and occasionally prosper) elsewhere.
Britain was oen the first port of call, but for countless people, the United States was the promised land, and as the US census of 2000 suggested — with almost 140,000 Ryans in America — very many members of these old families from Munster and Leinster had le to set up home in the States.
The Ryan Coat of Arms
One of the most enduring aspects of old Irish families is the area of heraldry, or coats of arms to signal one’s identity.
As the website of the government body English Heritage states:
Heraldry is about showing people who you are. In England it started in the later 1100s, when knights began to wear helmets which covered their faces, and they couldn't be recognised. So they began to paint unique combinations of colours, shapes and animals, called their 'arms', on their shields and banners. Only one person was allowed to use these arms, so when people saw a knight wearing them in a battle or tournament, they could tell who he was.
As time went by, the importance of this identity only grew.
We know from studies in evolutionary psychology that the state of belonging — to a family, a group, or tribe — was critical to one’s survival, so it follows that we are hard-wired to embrace anything that gives us a solid sense of identity.
For the Ryan family, the coat of arms, or crest, was a simple red shield including three griffin heads.
The griffin was a mythological animal that combined the head, breast and claws of an eagle with the torso and rear legs of a lion, in effect representing the strongest elements of two types of beast: birds and mammals.
Intelligence, power and bravery are central elements of the griffin, and the triple representation of the griffin on the Ryan coat of arms underscores this sense of courage and honour.
Indeed, the motto of the Ryan family is the Latin phrase “malo mori quam foedari”, which can be translated as “It is better to die than be dishonored”.
The Ryan Nicknames
As with many common Irish surnames, in times before detailed records were kept or technology made that task straightforward, old local matters had to be organized in old local ways, the nickname was a key distinguishing feature of families everywhere.
It’s not unusual in parts of Ireland, even today, to be asked whether you’re part of, say, the “Paddy Bawn” or the “Willie Larry” set of a particular clan or family.
And it is interesting to note the prevalence of nicknames to distinguish one Ryan from another, particularly in those parts of Limerick and Tipperary where the name was so widespread.
Indeed, the website of Ireland’s National Folklore Collection, dúchas.ie, boasts a fascinating set of old papers, journals and histories that has in recent years been scanned, digitized and made available to the world.
Among those are the Schools’ Collection, a project undertaken countrywide in the 1930s as part of the newly independent Free State’s objectives of re-establishing Irish lore and history.
Contained in one notebook, gathered by children from Knockcarron in County Limerick, right on the Limerick-Tipperary boundary, is a long list of nicknames used to identify various extensions of the Ryan family in that particular district.
Some are fairly normal and typical ways of distinguishing one person from another by adding, for example, a father’s first name, a mother’s maiden name or a particularly noticeable feature of one person — giving you the likes of Ryan Kelleher, Ryan Kevin or Ryan Bawn (or bán, meaning white).
Others, though, hint at perhaps funny local stories.
What sort of local incident led to the branch of the Ryan family known as the Ryan Chickeens?
Was it because of one man’s small orchard or another’s particular skill that we got the Ryan Apples and the Ryan Metals?
And what exactly happened that one part of the family became known as the Ryan Druichtíns, translated as slug?
All stories that, unfortunately, are forever likely to remain untold.
The Ryan Name and Famous People
Some of those almost 140,000 American Ryans have gone on to court great success and recognition across their various vocations.
Perhaps the most well-known is the Hollywood actress Meg Ryan, who made many a man (and woman!) weak at the knees in one of the most famous scenes in movie history, sitting in a café across from Billy Crystal in the 1980s romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally.
That film propelled her to become the leading romcom lead actress of her generation, with starring roles following in Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail, both opposite Tom Hanks.
Other famous American Ryans include Paul and Matt.
Paul, a Republican politician, served as the 54th Speaker of the House of Representatives from 2015 to 2019. He represented Wisconsin in Congress for 20 years and was the Republican Party's nominee for Vice President in the 2012 election, when he was running mate to Mitt Romney but eventually lost out to Barack Obama’s second term.
Matt, meanwhile, holds one of the least wanted records in American sports history, having watched a record Super Bowl lead slip through the hands of his team, the Atlanta Falcons, in 2017. Quarterback Ryan had played brilliantly to help his Falcons team open up a 28-3 second half lead, but everything fell apart for him thereaer as the New England Patriots — with another great old Irish name at QB, Tom Brady — came back to win 34-28 in the most memorable comeback (and collapse) in the history of American football.
Over recent decades, the Ryan name has also become even better known as a given name.
Just like Meg Ryan did for men, the actors Ryan Reynolds and Ryan Goslings have done for women all over the world through movies such as The Proposal, The Notebook and La La Land.
Indeed, according to some research, Ryan is currently the 57th most popular name for boys in the United States.
This may well be inspired by a winning mix of the influence of those famous faces who carry the name added to that old Irish meaning, “little king”.
Whatever the future holds, there is little doubt that the name Ryan will continue to go from strength to strength, both in its ancient Irish heartlands and all the parts of the world where Ryans have traveled, carrying with them in their hearts that old motto of honour and courage.