Introduction - Irish Names for Children

Rev Patrick Woulfe

The main reason why Irish names are not more frequent at the baptismal font is that parents are seldom acquainted with a sufficient number to enable them to make a satisfactory selection when the occasion arises.

Besides, it is not enough to know that a name is Irish. Parents require to know something about the names they give their children, especially if they be new and unfamiliar.

This little book is intended to supply the desired information.

In addition to a practically complete list of the names in use in Ireland at the present day, it contains a large number of names which, though now obsolete, once found favour with our ancestors and might very appropriately be revived as baptismal names for Irish children.

Among them are many names of Irish saints taken from the Martyrology of Donegal. To these especially the attention of parents is directed. Most of them will be found suitable in every respect for modern use. And in regard to each name sufficient information is given to enable parents to make a proper selection.

The names at present in use are, it will be observed, drawn from different languages, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, the Celtic and Teutonic languages. The original form of each name is given, together with its signification, as far as it is possible to ascertain it.

By Irish names are meant names which have their root in the Irish language. Some of these are very ancient, going back beyond the dawn of Irish history to a period when the different branches of the Celtic race were yet one and undivided; and down through the ages they have been borne by the saints and heroes of our race.

Of foreign names, a few came in with Christianity, others were introduced by the Northmen, but the bulk of our present names came in with the Anglo-Norman invaders, supplanting almost entirely our old Gaelic names. They are in great part Scriptural names and the Latin and Greek names of saints.

I am far from suggesting that all these should be rejected and that the choice of parents should be confined to Irish names exclusively. The names of the Blessed Virgin, St. John the Baptist, the Apostles and the great saints and heroes of Christendom will always find favour, but surely the saints and heroes of our own race have a claim to be remembered.

Various considerations will influence parents in their choice of a name. Very often the attractiveness of the name itself will have great weight. The ideal name is one which is short, simple and euphonious, not altogether unknown, but preferably one illustrious in history or borne by some great saint. And fortunately we have many such names on our roll.

Aodhán (Aidan, Edan), Art (Art), Beacán (Becan), Brian (Brian), Caoimhghin (Kevin), Caomhán (Kevan), Cathal (Cahal), Ciarán (Kieran), Coinneach (Kenny), Colm (Colum), Colmán (Colman), Conall (Conall), Conán (Conan), Cormac (Cormac), Crónán (Cronan), Déaglán (Declan), Diarmaid (Dermot), Domhnall (Donall, Donald), éanán (Enan), éanna (Enda), Earcán (Ercan), Earnán (Ernan), éimhĂ­n (Evin), Eoghan (Owen), Fearghus (Fergus), Fiachra (Fiachra, Feary), Fionán (Fionan), Flann (Flann), Flannán (Flannan), Lonán (Lonan), Lorcán (Lorcan), Lúcán (Lucan), Neasán (Nessan), Niall (Niall), Odhrán (Oran), Rónán (Ronan), Seanán (Senan), Tighearnán (Tiernan), are examples which do not exhaust the list.

Patrons of dioceses and parishes have a claim upon parents; and their names will often be found suitable for adoption at the baptismal font.

Again, some families have their special patrons among the Irish saints. I have noted instances.

The saint on whose day a child is born or baptised has a special claim. In such cases the child is said to have “brought its name with it.”

A Calendar showing the feast-days of Irish saints whose names are recommended for adoption is given at page 53.

Finally, in some families certain names are traditional and hereditary and have been in uninterrupted use for perhaps a thousand years, as Saerbhreathach (Justin) and Cealláchán (Callaghan) among the MacCarthys, and Ceinnéididh (Kennedy) among the O'Briens. Such names should not be allowed to die out. I have frequently noted the families among which a name is hereditary.

The actual number of names at present in use in Ireland is comparatively small, perhaps not exceeding eighty or one hundred, so that, apart altogether from the question of reviving our ancient names, there is need of some addition to our present stock.

Out of any 1,000 children baptised in Co. Limerick, which may be taken as an average Irish county, no fewer than 950 are given one or other of the following thirty names:—

The remaining 50 have between them another thirty names.

Total out of 1,000 baptised950

It will be seen that Mary and John are by far the most popular names in the county, and the same appears to be true of the country as a whole.

John, for John the Baptist, has always been a favourite name among Christian nations.

Michael, which only a few centuries ago was an extremely rare name in Ireland, now bids fair to rival in popularity the name of the national apostle.

Our old Irish names have almost completely died out.

Such Scriptural names as Daniel, Timothy, Cornelius and Jeremiah are, however, merely substitutes for the Irish names Domhnall (Donal), Tadhg (Teige), Conchobhar (Connor) and Diarmaid (Dermot) respectively.

Similarly, Denis stands for Donnchadh (Donough), and we have further examples among the rarer names, as: Eugene for Eoghan (Owen), Malachy for Maeleachlainn (Melaghlin), and Terence for Toirdealbhach (Turlough). Brigid is the only Irish name that finds any favour with our women, though, as the above list shows, it is far from being as popular as is generally supposed.

Winifred stands for Úna and, among rarer names, Deborah for Gobnait, the patroness of Ballyvourney.

Altogether, less than twenty per cent. of our men and eight per cent. of our women bear names of Gaelic origin.

The custom of assimilating Irish to foreign names as illustrated by the examples just given, is old in Ireland.

During the Middle Ages Irish scholars writing in Latin, instead of latinising the Irish names with which they had to deal, often simply substituted for them well-known Latin names of somewhat similar sound or meaning; and when at a later period these names came to be anglicised it was in many instances the Latin equivalent that was translated, not the original Irish name.

In this way Brian was equated with Bernard, Eoghan with Eugene, Toirdealbhach with Terence, and so on.

In such cases there is little or no connection between the Irish name and its English equivalent. For that reason I have in my lists enclosed these substituted forms in brackets.

By reverting to the proper anglicised forms much might be done to gaelicise our names; and in the case of adults this could be done at once.

There is no reason why all our Daniels, for instance, might not at once become Donals and all our Jeremiahs Dermots.

Generally speaking, any anglicised form enclosed in brackets in the lists given in this book might with advantage be exchanged for one outside the brackets, thus at once securing both a better anglicised form and one nearer the Irish original.

Much has already been done in this direction even in the case of names of foreign origin. Sean is now quite common for John, and Eamon for Edmund.

Another reason, in addition to that already stated, why Irish names are not more frequently given to children is the reluctance of parents to break away from the family tradition and violate the social usages which regulate the giving of names. But even in that case something might be done on the lines just indicated.

Custom will sometimes require a child to be given a particular name.

Let us suppose that the name of the paternal grandfather is Jeremiah and that the child has to be called after him. Now, Jeremiah is merely an incorrect substitute in English for the Irish name Diarmaid, of which the ordinary phonetic rendering is Dermot, and there should be no violation of social usage in calling the child by that name. All that would be necessary would be to see that the proper Latin form—Dermitius, not Jeremias or Hieronymus—is used at the baptismal font and that the child is so entered on the register.

For that purpose a Latin form of each name is given, except in a few instances where I have failed to find one.

It need hardly be necessary to remind parents that names may be taken by children at Confirmation as well as at Baptism, and thenceforward retained in after-life.

Superiors of religious communities will also find in this little book suitable Irish names for their subjects.