Select Phelan Surname Genealogy

The Irish surname Phelan 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 even "Way-lan."   Thus both Phelan and Whelan have emerged as anglicized surnames.

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Select Phelan Ancestry

IrelandO'Faolain was the 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.  John Phelan was Bishop of Ossory in Kilkenny at the time of the Catholic resurgence under James II.

The early anglicized forms were Felan and Faelan.  These names would become Phelan in Waterford and Kilkenny.  The Whelan spelling was also to be found there and extended as well into Wexford and Carlow.  Many Phelans emigrated in the 19th century.

More recently the old O'Faolain spelling has had a revival.  Sean O'Faolain, born John Whelan, was a 20th century short story writer.  Nuala O'Faolain was a TV producer and writer who made a name for herself through her memoirs.

America.  Phelans made their mark in the South and in the American West.

South.  John Phelan - a grand nephew of James Phelan, the Bishop of Ossory - arrived in America in 1793 and later settled in Alabama.  His sons became politicians in neighboring Mississippi, James being a senator in the Confederate Congress during the Civil War.  Another family of Phelans started out in Pennsylvania and ended up in Arkansas.  Some Phelans were also in Texas by the 1840's.  Being Catholic they were sympathetic to the Mexican cause.  From this origin have come the Hispanic Felans of Texas.

West.  Edward Phelan from Derry was an early settler in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  Many locations are named Phelan there because of his initial land claims.  However, he fled the town because of a dispute and was killed by one of his companions while enroute to California.  James Phelan from Laois did make it to California.  He became wealthy during the Gold Rush.

"Phelan kept his head while all about him people were losing theirs.  Instead of striking out immediately for California, he drew up a careful plan.  Instinctively he knew the surest fortune to be made in the gold rush was in 'mining the miners.'  Most, he knew, would arrive in California with cash in their pockets needing to buy supplies for mining.  Accordingly he bought a vast store of preserved food, rope, tents, shovels, picks, nails, guns, knives - anything the miners would need to begin prospecting in the wilds of northern California."

He made his fortune.  His son James Phelan was mayor of San Francisco from 1897 to 1902 and later California Senator.

Canada.  Thomas Phelan had left his home in Waterford and emigrated to Canada in the 1830's.  He was orphaned when his mother died of cholera during the crossing and his father was killed in a railway accident before Thomas and his sister had even made it to Montreal. 

He survived there and his grandson Thomas Patrick (TP), having begun by selling newspapers and apples on the Grand Trunk Railway, founded Canada Railway News (Cara) in Toronto in 1883 to get more fully into the food distribution business.  Cara prospered, made the Phelans rich, and stayed with the family for over 120 years. 

However, the Phelan dynasty started to crumble at the end of this period.  The death of an aging and weakened P.J. Phelan at eighty four in 2002 unleashed a frenzy of family feuding.  Cara continued to struggle until 2013 when Fairfax, a financial holding company, restructured what had become a restaurant business and the Phelan family stake was reduced to 36%.

Australia.  Many Phelans started coming to Australia in the 1850's, following the famine in Ireland.  Among them were:
  • James and Honora Phelan who came to Adelaide in South Australia on the Phoebe Dunbar in 1852.
  • Laurence Phelan and his wife Julie from Kilkenny who came to Melbourne in the 1850's, drawn by the gold discoveries in Victoria.  Their eldest son William was born in Ballarat in 1869.
  • and Thomas and Mary Phelan from Ballyristeen in Waterford who arrived in Melbourne on the Abyssinian in 1859.
Select Phelan Miscellany

If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:

Select Phelan Names

John Phelan
was Bishop of Ossory in Kilkenny in the 1680's.
James Phelan was mayor of San Francisco from 1897 to 1902.
E.J. Phelan, born in Waterford, was Director General of the International Labor Office from 1941 to 1948.

Select Phelans Today
  • 5,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 4,000 in America (most numerous in New York) 
  • 13,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

PS.  You might want to check out the surnames page on this website.  It covers surname genealogy in this and companion websites for more than 800 surnames.

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