Kildare is a county in the Irish midlands located in the province of Leinster, bordered by the counties of Carlow, Laois, Meath, Offaly, Dublin and Wicklow. The name Kildare is derived from the Irish Cill Dara, meaning 'church of the oak,' which commemorates St. Brigid and the coming of Christianity to the central plain of Leinster. The region is associated with the ancient kingdom of the Uí Dúnlainge based around the Liffey Plain, and latterly with the Gaelic clans or septs of O'Byrne and O'Toole. Uí Failighe, which was ruled by the O'Connor Faly, stretched from Offaly and Laois into County Kildare and is remembered in two of the Norman Baronies of East Ophaley and West Ophaley.
The county's proximity to Dublin made it a land of settlement and conquest, famously divided by the Pale in medieval times. The Pale was an area including Dublin and parts of the surrounding counties which was ruled by the British crown. Outside the Pale, Gaelic chieftains still held sway. Because of the constant movement of people and the settlement and re-settlement of the county, it was largely anglicised by the seventeenth century. It is a county rich in history and heritage, providing a wide variety of surnames of different ethnic origins. While it retained classic Irish surnames, it also absorbed non-Irish families such as Birmingham, Wall (La Valle) and La Touche.
Originally carved up by Norman lords into thirteen baronies, the county was eventually controlled by the Fitzgeralds, who became Barons of Offaly, Earls of Kildare and Dukes of Leinster, and the rulers of Ireland up to the sixteenth century. Other Anglo-Norman families that settled in the county were Kerdiff, de Burgh, Eustace and Wellesley. The earlier Gaelic clans were forced to migrate eastwards into the barren and impregnable Wicklow mountains, though their impact in terms of local surnames is apparent to the present day. Kildare was established as a county in 1297 and assumed its present borders in 1832.
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the erection of many of Co. Kildare’s great houses, most notably at Castletown and Carton. The building of the Grand Canal began in 1756, and the Royal Canal in 1789, improving the means for the transportation of goods from Dublin and throughout the county. Despite its relative prosperity, Co. Kildare did not escape the Great Famine of 1845-1849, though it was spared its worst effects largely due to its relatively low population density.
Military barracks were built on the main Dublin to Cork and Limerick roads: at Naas (1813), Newbridge (1819), the Curragh (1855) and Kildare Town (1901). The preponderance of English, Scottish and Welsh names in Co. Kildare attests to the presence of the British army. Co. Kildare is the centre of the Irish equine industry, and is one of the richest counties outside Dublin. Large estates, stud farms and horse racing establishments are obvious features of the county.
The most common surnames in Kildare in 1851 were: Dunne, 22; Kelly, 16; Cleary, 14; Behan, 13; Lee, 11; Fitzgerald, 10; Dempsey, 8; Doyle, 8; Colligan, 7; Cosgrave, 7. There were some notable differences by the turn of the century.