Origins of the name

For sake of clarity the name Wholey is used on this site to encompass a large number of variants. Wholey is a rare name (probably no more than a 1,000 individuals world-wide) and its variants can be even rarer. Yet, it is important to accept variance as often the same individual at different times in their lives used different spellings. By limiting ourselves to only one accepted spelling is self-defeating and close off potential areas of research. These variants can be divided down into three categories, which in turn helps us to understand better the origin of the name.


In Britain and America Wholey is the most common spelling, with Whooley the most common in Ireland. The remaining variants occur rarely, but, are just as valid; often the result of an administrative error, which still occur today. The general rule of thumb is that if the name begins with a Who it is usually a variant (Wholmes being the most notable exception).


A problem misspelling is when the H or the W are dropped from the name. This causes problems as both Wooley and Hooley are surnames in their own right, quite popular surnames at that. Further problems are caused by our Who rule of thumb, a rule designed to limit the potential scope of our study (otherwise it would simply get out of hand). The second rule of variance is therefore that Wooley etc. are accepted as long as some member of the family had at one time spelt their name beginning with a Who . A good example is the British Wholey family from Lincolnshire (Re:W2), who began life as Wooley in the eighteenth century, changed to Wholey by the early nineteenth and by the 1881 census accounted for nearly a quarter of the Wholey population in Britain.


Technically these names are not variants of Wholey, for example Wholer is Germanic and has never – to my knowledge – been spelt as Wholey . However, these names are even rarer in Britain than Wholey and I have therefore recorded them as I have gone through public records to pass on to any interested researcher.

It should be obvious by now that there is more than one origin to the name Wholey. Surname books either ignore the name or list only one possible origin. In fact there are three potential origins, each quite distinct.

1 – Ireland

For many in Ireland and America the Who(o)ley name originated in West Cork; in particular around the town of Skibbereen. It is derived from the O’Driscoll family and in Irish is O’Huallaigh – ‘The Boastful Ones’. Some surname books also describe it as a variant of Howley . The references are sporadic, but see Sean Whooley’s webpage – The WHOOLEY name – for more details. Also below is what Bill Wholey of Fort Launderdale Fl has written on the matter;

‘There are two explanations for the origin of the Irish surname Wholey and it’s variants Whooley, Wholley, Hooley and Howley. When found in West Cork Wholey is often an agnomen, that is a nickname, of some O’Driscoll families of Clonakilty, co. Cork. In this instance, the name is derived from the Gaelic “Uallach”, meaning “Boastful”. However, it is also possible that Wholey is of personal name origin, derived from the first name of the father or grandfather of the initial bearer. Here the name is an anglicized form of the gaelic “O Hullaight” denoting “descendent of Uallaigh”, an ancient first name again derived from “Uallach” maening “proud, boastful: O Hullaigh was the name of a small sept of North Connacht with branches in counties Clare and Galway.

One of the earliest references to this name or to a variant is a record of one O’Houley who is mentioned in a fiant relating to co. Cork in 1581. John Howley, an officer in Butler’s infantry regiment of King James II’s Irish Army was from either co. Kilkenny or co. Tipperary and Henry Houley (1774-1803), executed for his part in the Robert Emmet rising, was born at Roscrea. It has been stated quite categorically by the scholar P. H. Reaney that Irish family names first appear in the middle of the tenth century. This actually makes Ireland the first country in Western Europe, after the fall of the Roman Empire, to adopt hereditary family names.’

2 – Britain

Many Irish Wholeys emigrated to Britain, but Britain itself has its own Wholey name. This dates back to the mid sixteenth century, with the exact origin unknown; although some surname books suggest it is a variant of Hooley – a Lancashire surname. The easiest way to distinguish between the two roots is that the descendants of Irish Wholeys usually have a Catholic heritage (and say “Who-leigh”), whereas British Wholeys usually have a Protestant background (and say “Holy”).

3 – Corruption

The final potential origins are those which have been corrupted from other surnames. In such cases the origin of the surname might be quite unique to that family. In all probability it is probably easier to find the definitive origin of the name in these cases, which might only date back a few centuries, than going back to the sixteenth century for British and potentially Irish Wholeys.

I would like to add that in many respects the purpose of my research is to try and establish the true origin of the name, and this can only be achieved by gradually working back towards point-zero. The more information received the quicker this point will be reached. This document is not the definitive explanation of the origin of the name, and probably never will. Therefore, if you have anything you wish to add, or if you think information on this page is incorrect, please contact me as I would be only too willing to edge just that little closer to the truth.

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