Understanding Irish Baby Names
Irish baby names are among the most popular of baby names, and possibly the most confusing. The settlement of Ireland took place over thousands of years and consisted of distinct waves of newcomers – first Celtic, then Viking, Norman, and English. Irish settlers spoke Gaelic – a subset of the Celtic language.
While some historians have grouped the Celtic invaders into earlier, fair-haired people, and later, dark-haired (Gallic) people, modern research shows Ireland was more of a Celtic melting pot than that, and recent genetic findings show ancient inhabitants of Ireland probably migrated from Gaul (modern France) and Spain.
Because of the periodic influxes of different-looking newcomers, the origin and meaning of many Irish baby names is essentially a description of physical characteristics. Common themes include dark-haired, as in the name Ciara, meaning “dark” or “black”; fair, white, or bright, as in Finola, meaning “fair” or “white-shouldered”; and red-haired, as in Rowan, from the Gaelic name Ruadhan, meaning “red-haired”.
Other groups of names refer to subjects such as early Irish-Celtic sun-worship (giving rise to a group of names focused on brightness, or radiance), or to themes like warfare, the animal kingdom, natural surroundings, and of course, magical peoples, the fairies or banshees of Irish legend.
For most of the past 2000 years, as Ireland endured invaders from various cultures, Irish names were suppressed, revived, “translated,” reworked, and reinterpreted until many names which we know today as Irish have a very muddled past.
Not only have some old Celtic names been Anglicized beyond recognition, but some names that are considered Irish, such as Sean, did not originate in the Emerald Isle at all, but are Irish versions of imported names. Sean is the Irish version of John, which is clearly not an old Celtic name! Yet another group of Irish names have been given Anglicized “translations,” often based on phonetics, when in fact one name has nothing to do with the other. For example the name Aine, meaning “radiance or splendor,” is often turned into Ann or Anna, when in fact it has nothing to do with those names.
Happily, since the 1920s, and especially since the publication of Father Patrick Woulfe’s Irish Names for Children, the use of Irish baby names has enjoyed a renaissance and popularity that continues to this day.
Today, prospective parents who want to find an Irish baby name can begin by asking themselves if they prefer a Gaelic version of a name or the Anglicized version. For example, would you rather use Riley, or its Gaelic original, Raghaillaigh? Patrick or Padraig?
In many cases, the Anglicized version will be easier to spell and to pronounce, but lack the authentic Gaelic sound. But some Irish names, such as Siobhan, (pronounced Shev-orn) work wonderfully in their original form. Once you have chosen the form, it’s time to start diving into lists of Irish baby names, including the meaning and origin. There are many excellent resources, both on and off the web, and in the end, it comes down to personal choice. For parents who are looking for a name that will always evoke Celtic mystery and Irish charm, the possibilities are almost endless.
Further reading: O’Baby, The Irish Baby Name Book, by Geoffrey Johnson.
And of course, just a mouseclick away, our own list of Irish Baby Names.
You can also check out our interview with the authors of a series of books about Irish children's names.