The Ulster Pelans seem to be historically concentrated around the townlands of Lisburn - particularly in Lambeg and Tullynacross. Lisburn used to be known as Lisnagarvey until the 1660s. It is widely but erroneously reported that it was renamed after the "Great Fire" of 1707 but contemporary accounts of the fire already refer to the town as Lisburn ("alias Lisnagarvie").
Although Lisburn may seem a small and insignificant place, it has been at the centre of many revolutions - political and industrial - and over the centuries has seen English plantations, French and Dutch settlers, settling by soldiers etc. Lisburn was awarded city status in 2002.
As with their contemporaries, many Pelans migrated to Belfast as the town developed during the industrial revolution of the 19th century. Today most Pelans are found in Belfast or Lisburn (and their respective environs) but there are also those Pelans who have descended from emigrants - to be found in Scotland and England and further afield in the United States, Australia and South Africa, for example. One must take care not to jump to conclusions as some of these Pelans may really be descendant from Brittany or Peláns from Eastern Europe.
So where did the Lisburn Pelans come from ?
Initial Guesses as to their Origins
Taking what we know about Lisburn and its history we can start out with some plausible guesses:
Viking / Scandanavian (Lisburn sits on the river Lagan)
English or Welsh (17th century settlers or soldiers)
Dutch (17th century soldiers or Huguenot affliliates)
Naturally, there is plenty of scope for corruption of spelling and pronunciation over time which might hide the original origins. Does the lack of spread of the name indicate it is relatively new to the area ? If so then it is unlikely to be Gaelic or Scandanavian.
Phonologically Similar Surnames
The difficulty with determining the origin or meaning of Pelan in Ulster is that one is confronted with a remarkable number of phonologically similar surnames in the region. There are perhaps two classes of these - where the initial letter yields a 'P' sound (/p/ - the 'voiceless bilabial plosive' ) and those where the initial letters are 'Ph' which are pronounced as an 'f' sound (or /f/ in phonology, the 'voiceless labiodental fricative'). Here are some examples:
"P sound" - Palan, Pallen, Pallin, Pallon, Paulin, Pauline, Pellan, Pelling, Pelon, Pillan, Pilon, Plain, Plaine, Polin, Pollen, Pollin, Pullan, Pullen, Pullin
"F sound" - Phelan (as Whelan) - from the Irish "faoláin" or perhaps "faoilean".
One Irish surname reference text suggests that Pelan is simply a variant of Phelan. This would seem to be a straight-forward and easy explanation. However, I was personally sceptical of this for a number of admittedly circumstantial reasons:
The text suggests this without any documented proof - it is simply an assertion because it looks similar not sounds similar.
The "P" and "F" sounds are fairly distinct - could one turn into the other?
The name Phelan is pretty rare in Ulster.
The name Pelan is not widely seen where other Phelans exist.
There is a strong modern tendency to 'correct' Pelan to Phelan.
What about all the other similarly sounding surnames?
I would therefore suggest that the Irish Phelan ("fee-lan") changing to Pelan ("pee-lan" or "pel-lan") isn't as straight-forward as might be assumed. That is not to say that confusion doesn't happen and I am aware of some Ulster records where both Phelan and Pelan occur on the same document transcription. Another possibility was that Pelan is the Ulster anglicization of "faoláin"/"faoilean".
This is further explored in the Ulster statistics section. What was liable to counteract this theory was the presence of a Pelan family in 19th century Wexford however the are ultimately of Ulster origin.
It is well established that Sir Fulke Conway brought English and Welsh settlers to the area in the early 17th century. Indeed to all intents and purposes, the town of Lisburn was founded entirely by plantation.
The Huguenot Link ?
As if it wasn't confusing enough, it is also known that French Huguenots arrived in Lisburn and its environs in the 17th century. At least one of them was called Pilon. It is also known that the name Pelan can be found in Brittany together with Pellan. All three surnames were to be found in 19th century Lisburn. Is this just coincidence?
By way of comparison, you might like to read about a Huguenot called Pilot that went to Ireland and from whom multiple surnames have apparently sprung - Pillote, Pilot, Pillot, Pilow, Pielow, Pelow, Peilow and Pielou.
There are curious parallels with the surname Peden which is also found both in Ulster and Brittany. There is a Peden/Paden Y-DNA project too. They have found thus far that the French and Irish Pedens are genetically distinct.
First Recorded Use in Ulster ?
The earliest documented use of the surname Pelan that I have seen thus far is on the 1766 Religious Census of Ireland, which lists a protestant James Pelan from Lisburn.
An issue of the Belfast Newsletter from 1791, also has a reference to a James Pelan from Lisburn. The key thing to note is that it was a record of a petition - so it can be assumed this is how he spelt his own name. However, there is still scope for typographical errors or a third party 'correction'. In a 1796 issue there is a James Pelan and a James Pelan, junior - again from Lisburn. Their names are featured on a list of people offering a reward in relation to the attempted assassination of the local magistrate. Interestingly enough, on that same list are three people called Pellan. This might suggest that the spelling (or othography) is not rigid or at the very least that there were potentially confusing contemporary surnames.
A curious feature of the Pellans is that there don't appear to be any registered births or deaths with that surname in 19th century Ireland (at least on the transcribed indices). There are two marriages however - one in Lisburn and one in Belfast. It is possible they "daughtered out" or regularised the spelling of their names, perhaps to Pelan or something else. This is similar to the Palen surname in Canada.
Where next ?
The appearance of confusingly similar surnames suggested that the puzzle might be difficult to solve using conventional genealogy based on documentary records. In such cases, genetic genealogy can be invaluable because the biological connections between successive generations of father and sons can be distinguished using the genetics of the Y-chromosome. To cut a long story short, the tests prove beyond reasonable doubt that English people with the surname Paling and Irish people with the surname Pelan are biologically connected, albeit very distantly.
This link to Paling meant that the document search needed to broaden its focus to include names such as Paling / Payling and variants. Sure enough in the Lisburn Cathedral records of the 17th century we find the spellings Pelin, Palin and Pealing associated with what is in all probability the same man from Lambeg.
Thus it has been demonstrated to within a reasonable degree of certainty that the Ulster surname Pelan is in fact a variant or corruption of Paling and was probably brought over by an Englishman to Lambeg in the 17th century. The DNA tests show that the Paling / Payling families of Nottinghamshire, Palen families in Canada and Pelling families from Scotland are all connected by this very flexible surname.
This is a summary of the findings. For complete references and more details please refer to the documents linked to throughout.