Whelan/Phelan – descendants of a ‘Young Wolf’

History of the Irish name Whelan. Image copyright Ireland Calling
History of the Irish name Whelan. Image copyright Ireland Calling

The popular Irish surnames Whelan and Phelan are from the south of the country and are derived from the old Gaelic name O’Faolain.

There are several other variations of the name including Felan, Feolande, Fyland, O’Phelane, Weallan, Wealleans, Welan, Whalen, Wheelan and Whelehan.

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History of the Irish name Whelan. Image copyright Ireland Calling
In some cases the name developed into Hyland. However, the vast majority of Hylands have a different origin – England, where the name was taken by people who literally lived in ‘High land’ such as hills.

The name O’Faolain is made up of two parts. The prefix ‘O’ means ‘grandson of’ or ‘descendent of’. Faolain was a personal name that meant ‘Young Wolf’. This may mean that the clan originated from a young leader.

Princes of the Déisi

The O’Faolains were an important family in southern Ireland. In the 11th century their chiefs were princes of the Déisi. The Déisi were the people who lived in the Leinster areas now known as Counties Wexford, Carlow and Kilkenny, as well as Co Waterford in Munster. The name is still most popular in these areas today.

Mothla ua Faolain was the King of Déisi until he died in the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. His head was buried with the High King of Ireland, Brian Boru, in Armagh, according to the Annals of Ulster.

The clan lost much of their power following the Norman invasions in 1169-71, which marked the beginning of British rule in Ireland.

Notable people with the surname

Leo Whelan was an acclaimed Irish portrait painter. He painted portraits of IRA leaders such as Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy. After Ireland gained independence from the British in 1922, Whelan designed the first Free State Commemorative stamp which was issued in 1929 – a portrait of Daniel O’Connell.

Seán Ó Faoláin was a 20th century Irish writer. He was born John Whelan in 1900 but changed to the Irish version of the name. He was a member of the Irish Volunteers and fought in the War of Independence.

Gemma Whelan. Photo Game of Thrones

Gemma Whelan in Game of Thrones


He wrote 90 short stories throughout his life starting in the 1920s through to the 1980s. The stories show the progress and development of Independent Ireland. They were published in 1983. He also wrote many novels, biographies and short stories.

Famous Whelans and Phelans

Ronnie Whelan was a professional soccer player from Dublin. He was part of the great Liverpool team of the 1980s. He won six league titles, three FA Cups in England and won the European Cup in 1984 as part of the Liverpool team that beat Roma. He also played in two World Cups for the Republic of Ireland.

Bill Whelan is an Irish musician. He composed the music for the first performance of Riverdance, which initially lasted just seven minutes during the interval of the Eurovision Song Contest. He has worked with several top acts including U2, Kate Bush, Van Morrison and the Dubliners.

Gemma Whelan is an Irish actress who is best known for starring in the successful TV series Game of Thrones. She has also appeared in hit movies such as Gulliver’s Travels and The Wolfman.

Mike Phelan is a former soccer player and coach from England. He played for Manchester United and helped them win the league title in 1993. As a coach he worked under Sir Alex Ferguson and helped United win three Premier League titles.

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