The last name “Duggan” is one of the 3,000 or so most popular surnames in the United States. That doesn’t sound very popular, but the U.S. is a big place, which means there are about 10,000 Americans — give or take — with this particular surname.
Add in variations on “Duggan” — Dugan, Dougan, Douggan, and O’Duggan, among others — and you’ve got thousands more people with similar names.
Duggans Around the World
Elsewhere in the English-speaking world, the last name “Duggan” is even more popular. It’s estimated that more than 6,000 Australians share this last name, far more on a population-adjusted basis than the United States. Among all Australian last names, Duggan is around the 600th most popular.
Duggan is nearly as popular in tiny New Zealand, where about 1,000 Kiwis share the name. The United Kingdom has nearly 10,000 Duggans, many of whom live in Northern Ireland. Other countries have smaller shares of Duggans, but hey — every person counts.
Linguistic Origins of the Duggan Family Name
Where did all those Duggans come from? The one-word answer is “Ireland,” but the full story is a bit more complicated.
The name “Duggan” is a derivative of the old Gaelic name “O Dubhaigan.” Unlike some common Irish names, the exact meaning of “O Dubhaigan” has been lost to the mists of time — we know that “dubh” means “black” in Irish, but we aren’t sure what the rest of the word means. It’s possible that it’s a modification of an earlier name, possibly in an archaic form of Gaelic or even a predecessor tongue.
Further complicating the linguistic history of the Duggan clan is the fact that there’s no evidence of standardized spelling for the name (or any Irish name) before the 19th century. Families passed the name down, of course, but poor recordkeeping meant that local officials simply recorded the name as they heard it — leading not only to the various spellings that persist today but to more “out there” early spellings like “Dewgan,” “Deegan,” and “Deugan.”
Early History of the Duggan Clan
People with the last name O Dubhaigan (Duggan) have lived in Ireland since at least the 14th century.
The first records come out of County Clare, in the west of Ireland. There, the name was associated with local royalty, and apparently the bloodline was traceable from Fergus the Great — one of the most important chieftains of medieval Ireland. The family name was also associated with King Ir, who ruled over parts of Counties Tipperary, Waterford, and Cork.
An apparently separate origin for the name Duggan — though it’s more likely that poor recordkeeping obscures the relation — occurs on the eastern part of the island, in counties Clare and Roscommon. The Duggans in this part of Ireland were notable enough to secure “naming rights” for the town of Ballyduggan, in the Loghrea area.
The Duggan Diaspora: Movin’ on Out (of Ireland)
Along with millions of other people from Ireland and northern Europe, members of the extended Duggan family sought greener pastures elsewhere in the English-speaking world beginning in the early 19th century. By this time, the Duggan name was common not only in Ireland but in Scotland and England too; many who landed in North America or Down Under came from somewhere other than Ireland.
Irish migration in particular was spurred by the Great Potato Famine, which devastated the island’s agricultural economy and put countless families on the brink of starvation. Many felt they had no choice but to leave for the United States, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand.
People named Duggan turned up outside the British Isles even before the potato famine. Local records show an Eliz Duggan living in Virginia from about 1705 and a Catherine Duggan living in Philadelphia from about 1745, for example.
But the famine saw a surge of new arrivals, especially in North America, where nearly 250,000 Irish immigrants arrived in 1847 alone. Duggans who turned up in North America around this time include Helen, Denis, and Ellen, all of whom first appear in New York-area records in 1850.
North of the border, Duggans had established a foothold in the Canadian Maritimes by 1830, perhaps because of the relatively short distance to Ireland and the region’s cultural affinity with the British Isles (“Nova Scotia” is latin for “New Scotland,” after all). We have records of a John, Patrick, Timothy, and James Duggan arriving in Nova Scotia between 1810 and 1830, for example.
Down under, Australia and New Zealand saw considerable Duggan migration during the first half of the 19th century as well. In keeping with its reputation as a penal colony, Australia welcomed several Duggans convicted of property crimes in England: a Walter Duggan, a Margaret Duggan, and a William Duggan, all of whom were permanently banished to Australia between 1800 and 1840. Walter settled in remote Tasmania, while Margaret and William took up residence in New South Wales, near Sydney.
Across the Tasman Sea in New Zealand, newly arrived Duggans were free as soon as they touched dry land. Though a relative trickle — New Zealand’s non-Maori population remained low during the 19th century — these Duggans were important to the island’s economic development. Many were farmers or merchants who came to seek opportunity; several came from Australia, whose coastal cities were increasingly crowded by the 1850s.
Duggans Throughout History
Most historical Duggans lived in relative obscurity — working, raising families, and passing on without much fanfare. But a few rose to professional prominence or fame in their own day; others had a front-row seat to major historical events (sometimes with tragic results).
One of the most professionally renowned Duggans was Dr. David Duggan, one of the first medical providers in Newfoundland.
Other Duggans were notable for surviving deadly shipwrecks, including the Lusitania (which was torpedoed during World War I) and the Empress of Ireland.
Some others weren’t so lucky. Several Duggans died in the great Halifax Explosion of 1917, when an explosives-laden ship caught fire and exploded in the Canadian city’s harbor. This was the largest manmade explosion to date — the equivalent of a 3-kiloton nuclear bomb.