Records of the surnames Lee/Ley/Leigh in Ireland
by Mr Enda A Lee

Surnames were not used prior to about the tenth or eleventh century and were not universally in use until the fourteenth or fifteenth; up to then a person's second name was descriptive or locative, or, more usually in Ireland, the first name of their father, after a prefix 'Mac' (son of...) or 'Ní' or 'Nic' (daughter of...). The prefix 'O' usually referred to a deceased grandfather or great-grandfather.

An enlarged family with a common surname in Ireland is termed a sept; never a clan, as is the case in Scotland, where society was structured in a different manner.

Identity of surname does not, by any means, indicate relationship, and there are several distinct and separate origins for the Lee surname, some Irish and some Anglo-Norman or English.

Gaelic versions

In the Irish versions, the 'O' and 'Mac' were dropped, due to social and administrative pressures, and the spelling was phonetically rendered to the nearest English equivalent, in this case, 'Lee', from the time of the Tudor conquests onwards; by unsympathetic officials who had little knowledge of Irish culture, or the language; or sometimes by individuals who wished to deny their origins.

The possible Irish sources are:

Mac an Leagha,

(son of the physician), which originates in Galway, where the sept provided hereditary physicians to the O'Flaherty family of Galway where there is a townland called Lee's Island - in the Parish of Killanin, Oughterard. The name Mac Lee occurs in north Connacht.

Not all Lea/Lees in Connacht have the same origins; during the Cromwellian land confiscations, some Irish people of the name Lea and Ley were transported from Wexford and Kilkenny respectively, to west of the Shannon;

Mac Laoidhigh,

(son of the poet), of Laois, written Lea in Pender's census of 1659;

O'Laoidhigh or O'Laidhigh,

which has the same meaning, ie 'of the poet', with two sources, either Galway or Cork/Limerick.

This family seems to be the strongest numerically, and this is the spelling (sometimes abbreviated to O'Laoí, which is the only gaelic version in the telephone book) given to most of us at school;


from Antrim, which is Mac an Leagha (son of the physician) when of Irish origin, or, probably less likely, the Scottish clan of Stewart of Appin, which had a small sept using the name Mac Lea or Mac Lay, with the same meaning;


which is of Scottish origin, and is sometimes written Lee in anglicised versions, mostly in Antrim;


sometimes anglicised to McCloy, and thence to Lee is Mac Giolla Eachaidh. Giolla is a follower of ..., and Eachaidh (from Saint Eachaidh - Oghy; or in English Aghy - of Clones) was a once popular personal name strongly associated with Clones, co Monaghan;


[According to one writer on the subject of names, Fr P Woulfe, the name Grey or Gray, usually of English or Scottish origin, was translated into Irish as Liath, which sometimes became anglicised as Lee (in Irish placenames, 'lee' usually means 'grey'). In Longford and Leitrim, a branch of the O'Rourkes became Mac Cathail Riabhaigh, (Mac Culreavy) meaning 'son of gray/grizzled Charles'. The epithet 'gray' supplanted the O'Rourke surname, and some families of this name became Gray. It is by no means clear, however, that these same O'Rourkes/Grays made the transition from Gray to Liath and thence to Lee. The Liath origin is described only by Woulfe, who may have been attempting, for patriotic reasons, to find an Irish root for a name which was of English origin, as he has done in other instances.

However, the word 'Liath' or 'Lea', meaning grey, is sometimes used after the given, or christian name of Irish men, and is descriptive, in the same way as Rua, or Buí; for example, at Loughmaguife, in Clogher barony, county Tyrone, one of the Irish tenants in 1613, that is, after the plantation, was Thomas Lea McMahun; and some of the de Burgo family were known by names such as the Brown Earl and the Red Earl, and the latter's cousin was William 'Liath' de Burgo, who lived in the early part of the fourteenth century.]

There are virtually no records prior to about 1830-50, of the Catholic Irish, except where sufficient information is available about individuals to enable a search to be made in the records of a particular location.

Saxon and Anglo-Norman versions

There are also Saxon and Anglo-Norman versions of the name, which are spelt Lae, Lay, Laye, Lea, Lee, Legh, Leigh, Leighe, Ley, Leys, Ly, Lye, Lyes, de Lega, and de Ley.

These arose from about the thirteenth century onwards, and early examples from England are; Emma de la Leye, Richard de la Legh, Robert de la Lee, William de la Lea, Petronella de la Le.

Sometimes, more than one spelling was used by an individual during his or her lifetime, or by different members of the same family, and it may be that those named were unaware of the 'correct' spelling, or were indifferent to it, as is illustrated by the following records for one man;

Ley, Michael, Pensioner. (Mr Folds, Carrick), May 23, 1722, aged 18; son of Richard, gent; born co Tyrone.
This is the entry for his admission to the University of Trinity College, which obviously required at least a basic level of literacy.
Leigh, Michael, BA Spring 1726.
This is the entry for his graduation from Trinity.
Lee, Michael, Cootehill, co. Cavan. Will dated 1791.
This name is presumably the signature from his will.

His family also used or was given, these and other spellings.

Norman versions: de Lega, de Leye

After the Anglo-Norman invasion in 1169, settlers whose names were written in Latin as de Lega or de Leye, which is de Léigh (as Gaeilge), came to the east and south, in Limerick, Kilkenny, Wexford and Waterford.

The nature of society in Ireland of the time was that the native people lived in the countryside, so that unless they were landowners, these settlers were typically townspeople.

The name Ley may be Norman or Saxon, and the Normans had tenants in Ireland whose surnames indicate origins in the area around the Bristol channel, that is, south Wales, and Devon and Cornwall.

They were living in Ireland at the time of the Reformation, and with some exceptions, they remained Catholic.


Many people in Ireland with the name Lee are of English planter stock.

The name in England is a toponymic, that is, deriving from the name of a location, eg, a grassy clearing in a forest (Anglo-Norman), or a lea field, a pasture, (English); or a placename Lea or Leigh; or a sheltered spot, a 'lee'. It is impossible to distinguish between the variations.

The Saxons described someone as 'at' or 'atte' the place which gave them their name, so that the old English form was 'at Lee', which gives rise to the names 'Atlee/Atlay', 'A'ley' and 'Lee'.

Surnames ending in -ley or -leigh, may refer to a feature, typically the animals, or trees, which were associated with the location from whence the name derived, such as Horsley, Cowley, Kinley, Oxley/Oxly, and (deer) Hartley, Rowley, Buckley, Hindley, (fox) Foxley, including one John de Foxlee, (hare) Harley, (sheep) Shipley, (and trees) Ashley, Elmsley, Oakley, Lindley, or Berkeley.

Another interesting example which seems at first to be Irish, is Ryley: rye-ley.

The Normans, who spoke French, described a person as 'de la Ley', later shortened to Lay/Ley/Lye; possibly from one of the many places in France named 'Laye', which is derived from La Haie which is 'the hedge'.

[De Haie has also become Day, and Hayes.]

The sixteenth and seventeenth century planters were Protestant, with some converts to Catholicism in later generations, particularly outside of Ulster. They were typically substantial property owners, and for the second and subsequent sons, who did not inherit the family property, they often had military careers and rank, or became lawyers or clergymen. They normally used 'English' first-names such as Edward, William and Robert, for their children.

Distribution of Lees in Ireland

A survey of surnames by Matheson, the Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths, in 1890, found Lee to be very scattered in Ireland, with an estimated 5400 individuals, based on 120 births [118 Lee, and two variants; Lea, presumably, as Lees - 2 Ulster, 2 Leinster, and 2 Munster - and Leigh - 8 Leinster - are treated separately], but with 50 per cent concentrated in Dublin, Limerick, Galway, and Antrim. This pattern of concentration is broadly faithful to the origins of the Gaelic versions, with a logical reflection in the capital city, but it does not shed much light on the Lee families living elsewhere. However, it highlights one important fact; that before the end of the nineteenth century, there was very little movement of native people from one part of the country to another, notwithstanding the famine and earlier conquests and invasions.

'Lee' is the spelling used for most of the other versions since about the middle of the last century, with the possible exception of any titled or propertied families.

Lee was the 47th most common name in England and Wales in 1853; it is not as common in Scotland, where it is regarded as of English origin, although there is a Lee castle in Lanark (probably named for its geographic location).

In the USA, it was the 35th most common surname in 1980; however, this includes oriental versions.


Where it is not Lee misspelt, the surname Lees is derived from the name Leese, which means 'dweller by the pasture', which is similar to the origin of some of the variations for Lee.
In early records, with other surnames, the addition of '-s' or '-es', denotes possession or association, so that the servant of, or the widow of, a man named Lee might have had the name Lees (ie Lee's).
It may also derive from Leece, and Gillies, (one of the origins of the more common Gillespie).


Bibliography and Sources
Bardsley, Rev Charles Wareing Endell, MA; English Surnames Their Sources and Significations David and Charles Reprints
Bell, Robert; The Book of Ulster Surnames 1997
MacLysaght, E; Irish Families; More Irish Families; Supplement to Irish Families; Bibliography of Irish Family History; Irish Surnames
Reaney and Wilson, A Dictionary of English Surnames 1995