researching Maley, Malley, O'Malley (and variants) worldwide
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So, you say you are an O’Malley!

(or O’Maley, Maley, Maly, Maille, Mhaille, Malia, Meliaor…)

What’s in a name?  Perhaps much more than you would expect.  While O’Malley is rarely found in the ancient names of Ireland, it is indeed a very old Irish surname. And like many other well-known Irish surnames, the name itself tells a story.

A great surname example is Considine. Consaidin O’Briain was a direct descendant of one of Ireland’s last famous kings, Brian Boru.  The surname literally means “Consaidin, descendant of Brian”, signifying his branch of the O’Brien tree.  And as time has gone on, that surname morphed in spelling to Considine.

Similarly, there is quite a bit of legend to the O’Malley surname.  One of the most notable O’Malley’s being Grace O’Malley, or in Irish, Gráinne Ní Mháille.  Grace was the famous chieftain, sea-queen, pirate, and well known woman of lore.  But there is truth within the legend. Grace was the daughter of Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille, and raised in the area surrounding Clew Bay in County Mayo. Her father was chieftain of the Ó Máille clan, and a direct descendant of Máille mac Conall, King of Uí Máille who died in 812.

You might already notice the varieties of spellings—O’Malley, Ní Mháille, Ó Máille. They are all one and the same— anglicized and old Irish, and more surname variants exist, and would soon follow.  These surnames are derived from the western Mayo clan of Uí Máille, who controlled the territory known as Fir Umaill in the Clew Bay region.  The area centered around Burrishoole and Murrisk, as correctly noted by Edward MacLysaght in his study of Irish Surnames.[1]  The Uí Máille were proficient seamen who engaged in naval battles off western Ireland well into the 1130’s,[2] and the O’Malley family would found the Murrisk Abbey on Clew Bay in 1457.[3]

Born circa 1530, Grace O’Malley always had a passion for the sea. Many tales state she cut off her hair as a child to be able to sail with her father. You might also see her name as “Gráinne Mhaol”, meaning bald Grace.  We do know that Grace became Queen and Chieftain of the Ó Máille clan, residing at Clare Island and reigning in the Clew Bay region of Mayo into the early 1600’s.  Following her father’s death, she added a shipping empire to the large land holdings she had already inherited from her mother, and in the strong marine tradition of Uí Máille, went on to become the powerful iconic feminist and Irish sea legend we know her as.

It is not surprising that O’Malley is a name which is richly associated with sea-faring and mariners.  Clew Bay is populated with an abundance of fish such as mackerel, flounder, dogfish, rays, monkfish, and shellfish, and is well known for its ocean salmon and sea trout.  Clew Bay is also a perfect launching area for sailors, filled with islands, sandbars, and drumlins and a long inlet, which in the middle ages offered unique protection.  Today, Aran sweaters are still woven with the O’Malley pattern, which years ago, served to identify fishermen lost at sea.

By 1901, the Irish census finds more than 2,700 basic varieties of the surname O’Malley living throughout Ireland. Far more if you consider all the other varieties. Of those, more than 2,000 are located within county Mayo alone. And while Galway has long been associated with the O’Malley surname, only 248 residents bear the surname in 1901, and 273 in 1911, largely in the Bunowen area.[4]  It would seem logical that a natural migration to county Galway may have occurred, given its western coastal area south of Mayo, and beautiful port and coastal areas. When combined with the knowledge that Bunowen lies on the northern end of county Galway near the southern border to county Mayo, and that Bunowen is only a quick 42 kilometers (27 miles) south of Murrisk, it is only natural to find so many O’Malley’s near the sea in county Galway.

The Great Famine also played a significant role in the disbursement of O’Malley descendants.  Many Irish left their homeland for Liverpool, Canada, or the United States.  Numerous starving Irish found themselves being shipped to Australia for penal violations or as “Potato Orphans.”  And while O’Malley’s appear today in almost every county of Ireland, it is without question that the Famine took the O’Malley name globally through emigration.  

So, your surname may have a slightly different spelling than O’Malley.  You may or may not have an O’, and you might live quite far from the Emerald Isle, but it is very likely that you are related to the legendary Sea-Queen and Chieftain Grace O’Malley, and like her, a descendant of Máille mac Conall, the King of Uí Máille, from the Clew Bay area of Ireland’s County Mayo.

Patti Easton
Feb 2017

[1] Edward MacLysaght: Irish Families: Their Names, Arms and Origins  (New York: Crown Publishers,1972), 219-220.

[2] Bartlett, Thomas and Keith Jeffery: A Military History of Ireland, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996 (62).

[4] http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/search/  “Malley” Accessed Feb 11, 2017.

Below is an extract from Edward MacLysaght's "Irish Families" regarding the O'Malley surname. The origins of this surname is in County Mayo, northwest Ireland.


            O’Malley may well be said to be Irish of the Irish. It is one of the few O names from which the prefix was never widely dropped.  It is not specially numerous, but it is very well known.  It belonged exclusively in the past to Co. Mayo, and this is almost equally true of the present day: over eighty per cent of the births recorded are in Connacht and most of these are in Co. Mayo.  Their particular territory is in the baronies of Burrishoole and Murrisk in that county.  Unlike the majority of septs located on the coast the O’Malleys were famous for their naval exploits and their prowess at sea is enshrined in their motto “terra marique potens”. Outstanding in this connexion was Grace O’Malley, the subject of so many romantic tales.  These “tales” are based on fact, for she has been variously described by responsible contemporary writers as “a most famous sea captain” and “nurse of all the rebellions in the province [of Connacht] for forty years”. She is still known as Graine Mhaol: in Irish her name is Gráine Ní Mháille,  O’Malley being Ó Máille.  Locally in Co. Mayo it is often anglicized Melia, the variant in Irish being Ó Maele. It may be of interest to notice here that the well-known Sir Owen O’Malley, diplomat and author, who claims to be Chief of the Name, insists on his name being pronounced O’Mailey.  In addition to Grace O’Malley (1530-1600) —videsupra—we may mention Austin O’Malley (c.1760-1854), United Irish leader, who fought with Humbert at Castelbar in 1798, while at the same time George O’Malley (1780-1843) at the age of eighteen took the English Government side on the occasion of the French invasion of Co. Mayo and subsequently distinguished himself at the battle of Waterloo.  The former was father of General Patrick O’Malley (d.1869) of the French army.  Also notable were Rev. Thaddeus O’Malley (1796-1877), the priest who got into trouble frequently for his unorthodox ecclesiastical and political views; and Frank Ward O’Malley (1875-1932), well-known Irish-American wit and writer. Perhaps I might add Lever’s celebrated fictional character Charles O’Malley, the typical divil-may-care Irishman.

Edward MacLysaght: Irish Families: Their Names, Arms andOrigins

(New York: Crown Publishers,1972),219-220.

Here is an extract from the Surname Dictionary written by Patrick Woulfe (Irish Names & Surnames, 1923):

Ó MÁILLE—IO Mailie, O Mallie, O Mally, O Maely, O'Malley, O'Meally, O'Mealy, Malley, Meally, Mealley, Melly, Melia, &c.; 'descendant of Máille' (perhaps Old Celtic Maglios, chief); the name (1) of a Connacht family who were chiefs of the two Umhalls, now the baronies of Burrishoole and Murresk, in the west of Co. Mayo, and were particularly celebrated as naval commanders, being called the Manannans, or sea-gods, of the western ocean, and having a considerable fleet always under their command; and (2) of a Thomond family who were chiefs of Tuath Luimnigh, a district in the neighbourhood of the city of Limerick. Ó Máille is often strangely anglicised Melia in Connacht, which may be explained on the supposition that Ó Maele was formerly a popular variant. Ó Maele was in use in the 10th century in Conmaicne.

A lot of work has been done on the Maley / Malley surname by Bob Maley (Administrator of this project from 2005-2017). Bob's website can be found here and is well worth exploring ... http://maley.net/maleyhome/tableofcontents.htm