Where did Irish Names Come From? A Short History of Irish Names

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Shakespeare asked the question, would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? The history of Irish names is a long and fascinating. Ciarán Mac Aonghusa takes us through which ones made the cut and which ones fell by the wayside. 

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‘Ogham’ is an early medieval form of alphabet. It is sometimes known as the Celtic Tree Alphabet, as most letters are linked to Old Irish names for trees.

There are roughly 400 known Ogham inscriptions on stone monuments scattered around the Irish Sea, thought to have been created in the 5th and 6th centuries. Their language is predominantly Primitive Irish. And some of these ancient markings contain names which have very long histories.

Conall is derived from Conovalos which appeared on Ogham inscriptions, and it’s a name that’s experiencing a revival. Niall, Fergus, Aoife, Étain, and Fionnuala are examples of other beautiful Irish names which have been around for hundreds of years. Aífe became Aoife sometime around the year 1200. Likewise, Fergus, from Fearghas, ‘Man of Strength’, has been around since at least the Early Middle Ages (around the time of Saint Patrick).

Most of these names are now different from the versions that appeared in Ogham, although astonishingly many have retained the same basic forms – apart from minor orthographic changes – for over 800 years. Most of the old Gaelic names, however, fell out of favour a long time ago. We no longer hear Délgéis, Tomaltach, or Baothghalach.

First names follow a similar pattern in England. Some names, such as Jane or William, have been in use for around eight centuries, while others, such as Bede or Atherol have long vanished. Why or how do some names survive while others die out? The answers are closer to our grasp in England where so many of the ancient records survive, than is the case in Ireland, where a lot of our medieval records were destroyed in the civil war.

The evidence in England shows that names and naming conventions changed remarkably little during the period 1300 to 1800. Over that long period, many names came and went, but the general picture is of slow changes to the overall range of common names.

One aspect of the naming convention which stayed remarkably consistent throughout the period is that a small number of names were very widely used. The top three names taken together, for example, might account for over half the population. Even by the year 1800 one in four women in England were called ‘Mary’ and one in five men answered to ‘John’.

But around the year 1850 the list of common names began to grow quite rapidly. Walter, Neville, Edith, and Dorothy, for example, became widely used. Suddenly parents began to give more thought to how they would name their children. The tradition of naming offspring after their father or mother, or another close relative, began to give way to a more adventurous scheme.

Children could now be called after a biblical figure or even after a character from literature. For the first time every people were choosing names because they liked them – the era of personal choice had begun. Until around the year 1900 a child’s second Christian name was required to differentiate him or her in the classroom: “John James” or “Sarah Jane”, but soon the range of names was so wide that the first name was enough.

In Ireland of course, the convention was to identify a person by their direct lineage and without a surname: Máirtín Tom Sheáinín (Martin, son of Tom, son of little Seán). This variation is still used in the Gaeltacht today. The history of Irish names has an additional layer of complexity, however, owing to the English conquest which resulted in centuries of cultural displacement during which names were anglicised.

While people began to choose new names at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the evidence from England shows that the range of names didn’t really explode until the 1930s. After the first world war the number of names increased dramatically, but parents still stuck to ‘classical’ or known names such as Robert or Andrew.

Between the thirties and 1970 more names became common, but there wasn’t that much innovation in terms of the source of names. However, after 1970, a huge number of entirely new names began to be used. The result of this explosion in new names is that the most common names in Britain today (Jack and Olivia) are chosen by only about 4% of parents.

Undoubtedly the Industrial Revolution was the main force behind the changing pattern of names in the nineteenth century. The population of England swelled rapidly and the whole social order was reshaped. The class system was shaken and the working class emerged for the first time. In all probability it was the substantial changes in society wrought by the First World War which led to the shake up in the 1930s.

In the case of the seventies name explosion, the main driver was new technology filtering down to the masses: the television, the phone, and the aeroplane – globalisation. Today, cultural references are further transmitted using the internet and the huge reach of the Anglo-American cultural juggernaut.

 

Children’s names tell us little about the social and cultural changes in Europe, however. In many European countries parents are, or were, compelled to choose the names for their children from an official list. As recently as 2006 in Italy, the parents of a boy wanted to name him Venerdi (Friday) but the courts found against them and the judge named the child ‘Gregorio’.

This level of restriction is fading fast. Scandinavian courts have been more liberal than their Italian counterparts. A Swedish court allowed ‘Metallica’ as a personal name in 2007. France dispensed with its official list in 1993, as did Spain three years ago.

As suggested above, a thorough historical analysis of personal names would be difficult in Ireland owing to the lack of official records. Perhaps, however, unofficial documents in private collections, or local surveys scattered in museums around the country, might yet contain many of the answers, but a detailed historical study of Irish names awaits its scholar.

Naming fashions in Ireland today illustrate the close cultural ties between this country and England. Jack, Daniel, and James are in the top ten most common boys’ names in both countries, as are Sophie, Chloe, and Emily for girls. Last year for the first time a Polish name, Patryk, made it into the top hundred in Ireland. Yet, Gaelic names are holding their own: there are about twenty in the top one hundred, and Conovalos, or Conall, is still among them, even after an eon has marched by.

Ciarán Mac Aonghusa lives in Dublin and contributes to the Irish Language magazine beo.ie.

 

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