Irish First Names

Christian names, first names, given names, baby names, call them what you will – there is huge interest in traditional Irish names and many which for centuries languished in disuse have grown in popularity in recent years.

Once again Oisín and Niamh, Cian and Caoimhe are popular, not just in Ireland but in the USA and elsewhere too. Why, you might wonder, did these names ever fall from common usage in the first place? Essentially they were legislated away and for the reasons we need to look at both the arrival of English rule in Ireland and the dominance of the Catholic Church.

Penal Law & Canon Law

From the time of the Penal Laws in Ireland the use of old Gaelic and Celtic names died out, since as well as forbidding use of the Irish Language these punitive laws also forbade the use of Irish names.

It was not wholly the English who were to blame though – Canon Law played a big part too. For very many years the Catholic Church in Ireland would not baptise a child unless the name chosen was that of a saint or, in the case of a girl, was a version of Mary.

These constraints ensured that there was a fairly narrow range of names used and even a cursory glance at lists of Irish emigrants to the USA and elsewhere during this time confirm this.

So, there was a Mary (Máire), and a John (Seán), in just about every family and if enough children followed (and they often did!) parents would work their way through James (Seamus), Patrick (Padraig), Michael (Mícheál) and Thomas (Tomás), with Elizabeth (Eilís), Margaret (Máiréad) Brigid (Bríd) and Anne (Ainé) popular for girls.

One thing the Irish could do was name their child as decreed, but in their day to day lives use an Irish version of the name, a version which suited Irish pronunciation. This was occasionally a translation, but more often a form of the name the tripped more easily of the tongue of a native Irish speaker.

Thus Thomas became Tomás, Christopher became Criostóir, Margaret became Mairead and Patrick, Padraig.

Mary, Mary quite ….. ubiquitous!

For girls the use of the name Mary was extended by having so many different forms – Maire, Maureen, Maura, Molly. It was also popular to add Mary to another name and make a double name for girls – so a single family might include Mary-Kate, Mary-Pat and Mary-Jo.

Even boys were often given Mary as a second or third name – my own brother among them. Not quite a boy called Sue, but not far from it!

Translation & Confusion

Irish was the language of the people, English the language of Law and letters and Latin the language of the Church. All had a role to play in names so the potential for confusion is obvious. Some English names were simply associated with existing Irish names which became de facto their equivalent, but they are not really translations at all. Others were ‘translated’ from Irish into Latin, then into English then back into Irish again. No wonder their origin is often unclear.

It is this lack of clarity that really makes a nonsense of many of the lists of Irish names, complete with neat English translations and meanings. These lists have to play some very odd games with both language and history to make names fit into a neat model – the reality is not like that at all.

Chris O’Mahony wrote a really excellent article about this confusion in the Irish Roots Magazine, and a short extract from that article illustrates how easily confusion can arise.

Mixing Irish, English & Latin

Ask any Irishman called Charles what that name is in Irish and he will say Cathal. But what’s the Irish for Charles, as in King Charles? Searlas. When we go back to the Latin, they are two distinct names – Carolus and Cathaldus. Cathal is not the Irish for Charles; in fact many Cathals do not even use a different form when speaking English.

Charles is the name chosen as its English equivalent. They are different, but they can be confused.

Seán bears the same relationship to John. No Gospel was ever written by a Naomh Seán – the Latin Joannes becomes Eoghan. Now, put Eoghan, or Owen, back into Latin and you get Eugenius, which comes back into English as Eugene.

By Chris O’Mahony Read the Article

Reviving Old Irish Names

From the late 1890’s something of a revival in old Irish names began to take place. The catalyst for this was the formation of Conradh Na Gealige (The Gealic League) in 1893, an organisation dedicated to the revival of the Irish Language and with it some of the old names that had been lost.

In truth it didn’t catch very widely at first, and until about the 1950’s these names remained uncommon. We have listed some of the genuinely Irish Girl’s names and Irish Boy’s names which gained most popularity.

Also included are a few Irish names which have gained popularity in recent years because of their association with a well-known Irish person or event.

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5 Comments

  1. We have been looking for information about names just like this for a customer of ours was interested in the origins of both their first and last names. We will be sure to direct them to your very useful pages. Thanks!

  2. is it true that only the english form of first names in ireland would be accepted on birth certs up to 1948 ? 

  3. Seamus O’Neill | November 17, 2010 at 7:56 am

    Unfortunately Patti, once the Irish immigrated en masse to the USA via Ellis Island, the workers were usually UNdereducated, and never of Irish descent ( due to the deep hatred and discrimination of the Irish at the time) so what to some of our ancestors was exactly that, discrimination. The Island workers would spell or misspell anyway they wanted, cutting off O’s and Mc’s and butchering firt and last names,then pressure from some of the 2nd and 3rd generations to become americanized, leaving their “Funny sounding,unpronounacable” Native names backin Ireland.. Most Likely it was spelled entirely different. Also,remember,Celtic name are from Gaul, Germany, Norse etc.. basically sacked by the Gauls, Norse (Vikings) Romans and the Saxons so we are all over.. Your namecldhave even been (C)oril (FI)Oril and was cut off like I stated and she went with it,you need her certificate of birth..

  4. patricia oril haas hartley | May 21, 2010 at 3:25 am

    I think my parents thought it would be cute to give me a weird name. My middle name is ORIL, apparently after my great grandmother Oril Tooman Olle. Unfortunately, even after a trip to the National Archives in Dublin, I’ve been told that it’s probably a misspelling of some other word.
    I am unable to process the idea that at the very least, my recent ancestors were illiterate. Could someone out there give me an idea if this is actually a name. When we stopped at Ryans’ Pub in Dublin, bartender James told me the name sounded like County Leitrim. Any ideas out there, I would sincerely appreciate any input.
    Thank you
    Patti Hartley

  5. Cáit Ní Nualláin (Cathy Nolan) | February 17, 2009 at 1:00 am

    I found your site both interesting and informative but unfortunately it did not help me to uncover the mystery surrounding the name Caoimhe. I’m trying to find the earliest use of this name and if the name is used in any of our Irish folklore or legends. A friend has decided to name his baby Caoimhe and I’m looking for some trivia to add to a photo project as a personalised gift. I’d appreciate any feedback.

    Slán go fóill

    Cáit

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