The use of a family name dates back to around the year 1000, at a time when family names were being introduced throughout Europe. Before that time, the Nolans belonged to a clan whose territory extended over parts of present-day Carlow and Wexford counties. The original version of the family name, Ó Nualláin, is of Gaelic origin meaning descendant of Nuallan, where Nuallan means noble or famous. Another interpretation of the word Nuallan is loud shout or cry.
After the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169 and the subsequent gradual increase of English rule over Irish affairs, the family name was anglicized in various forms in an attempt to make it more pronounceable or recordable in English. By the mid 1600’s, anglicized forms of the name included O’Nolane, O’Noulane, Nowland, Nowlan and Nolan. These many variations may be explained by factors such as the lack of a generally-accepted standard spelling, illiteracy or attempts by government officials to record the family name using English phonetic spelling. Other factors could have included the desire to distance one’s family from a less desirable, less educated or infamous branch of the family, or again the desire to not appear to be Irish by dropping the “O'” part of the name.
Since the 1600’s, responding to various political, social and economic conditions, Nolan families have emigrated to other parts of the world. However, different local cultures, languages and pronunciations in the new areas settled have produced further variations of the Nolan name such as Nowlin in the state of Virginia (US) and Nolin in the French-speaking province of Quebec (Canada).
Currently known variations of the Nolan name, found around the world, include:
Ó Nualláin, O’Nolan, Nolan, Noland, Nolen, Nolin, Nowland, Nowlan, Nowling, Knowland, Knowlan, … and there the list is far from complete, as new variations continue to be found and researched.
Today, in Ireland, Nolan is the most widely used spelling of the family name and ranks in the top 40 list of most used family names in the country. Other forms such as O’Nuallain and Nowlan still exist but are less common.
In Ireland, in the first half of the 19th century, many families who still used the Nowland and Nowlan spelling changed their family name spelling to Nolan, while descendants in America and elsewhere generally kept the surname of the original emigrant. This explains why, for example, Nowland families are still found in the state of Michigan (US) and Nowlan families in the Maritimes (Canada) whereas very few families with those surnames are to be found in Ireland today. Their ancestors came to America at a time when their version of the family name was still being used in Ireland i.e. in the late 1700’s or in the early 1800’s.
To get an appreciation for how quickly, usage of the Nowland and Nowlan surnames changed in Ireland, here are verbatim the full texts from two representative tombstones found in County Carlow, Ireland, on a visit to Ireland in 1997.
1. Tombstone found in old cemetery behind Ballon parish church, Co. Carlow
“Erected by Mary Nowland Alias Cummins
in Memory of her husband Thomas Nowland
who Died the 6th of April 1811 aged 48 Years
ALSO HER SON Garret Nolan, DIED OCT. 15th 1882, AGED 75 YEARS,
HIS WIFE Mary Nolan, DIED AUG. 4th 1884, AGED 75 YEARS,
AND THEIR SON THOMAS NOLAN DIED 1929 AGED 82 YRS.
Lord have Mercy on his Soul”
2. Tombstone found in cemetery next to Drumphea parish church, Co. Carlow
“Erected by Mary Nowlan of Knockendram
in memory of her Beloved Husband Lawrence Nowlan
who dep’d this life August the 26th 1845 Aged 60 yrs
Also her Daughter Anne Nowlan
who dep’d Dec. 10, 1844 aged 26 yrs
And also her Daughter Elizabeth Nowlan who dep’d April 5th 1829 aged 13 yrs
Also above Mary Nolan who died 5th June 1866 aged 72 yrs.
Also Sister Margaret Nolan of Clares DAUGHTHER OF LUKE
DIED 25th June 1986 AGED 48 YRS.”
Given that Gaelic was common to many of the early founding peoples of the British Isles, it is quite conceivable that the family name Ó Nualláin or something very close to it may have been introduced elsewhere in the British Isles around the year 1000. This may be the explanation for the Knowlan/Knollin families which trace their ancestors back to Exeter and Devon in southwest England. This line of thinking is particularly credible when one considers that southeast Ireland and southwest England share a common ancestry going back some 2000 years, when the Laigain tribes from Armorica in northwestern France (known as the “Veneti”) fled there to escape Roman domination. Leinster, the southeastern province of Ireland within which both counties Carlow and Wexford are found, takes its name from the Laigain tribes.