It is no mystery that Irish names have persisted in popularity within the United States, even gaining more ground since the latter half of the 20th century. The Irish people have spread throughout the world and have steadfastly brought with them a multidimensional culture full of life, personality and pride. Indeed, on Saint Patrick’s Day from every major U.S. city to small towns alike, everyone pretends to be Irish for a day (and secretly, we think some of them wish they were!). It’s no wonder that people in the U.S. are drawn to the naming customs of this lively bunch!
So where did it all start? Well, we have to take a brief stroll down history lane. It is believed that the earliest inhabitants of Ireland date back as far as 8000 B.C. but it is really around 500 BC that the Celts arrived, providing Ireland with its lasting character. For more information on the Celtic people and the Gaelic tribe, specifically, we recommend you read about them on our other origin pages. Some claim that the Irish are the oldest nation in Europe (having successfully preserved their original Celtic roots against all odds while the rest of Europe was systematically Latinized by the Roman Empire).
According to Irish Mythology, the Gaelic people of Ireland were descended from the Milesians. The ultimate patriarch and matriarch of the Gaels hailed from the holy lands in the time of Moses (circa 13th century BC); they are even said to be descendents of Adam, Eve and Noah! The Milesian ultimate patriarch was Goídel Glas, the grandson of a Scythian (ancient Iranian) prince who took part in the construction of the Tower of Babel. Goídel Glas married Scota, daughter of the Egyption Pharaoh. One branch of their descendents eventually settled on the northwest portion of the Iberian Peninsula, where one descendent Breogán built a tower of such great height, it was said from there his son Íth first spotted Ireland. Íth was the adventurous sort, and so made an expedition to this new land. Upon arrival, Íth was killed by the three reigning kings of Ireland who were descended from the Irish mother-goddess Danu. Íth’s eight nephews, sons of Íth’s brother Míl Espáine, decided to avenge their uncle, go to Ireland and defeat the Tuatha Dé Danann (“peoples of Danu”).As the Milesians fought their way through Ireland, the three sister goddesses (and wives of the kings) named Ériu, Banba, and Fódla each asked to have the fertile island named in their honor. You should know, Ériu won that contest (think: Érie/Erin – the common name for Ireland which is said to mean “land of abundance”). The kings agreed to give the brothers Ireland, but only if they sailed away off the island, turn around, and reattempt to land their vessels along the hazardous Irish coast. If they succeeded, said the kings, Ireland would be theirs for the taking. Of course, the old kings had a trick or two up their sleeve. With their magical powers, they called up a storm and five of the eight brothers drowned. The three who survived landed once again on the shores of Ireland and divided up the kingdom among them. Of course, this is all legend used for centuries to secure power, legitimacy and dynastic political claims. Leave it to the Irish to come up with some imaginative, colorful story to support their grandiose claims of greatness. That’s why we love them. Because they are great.
Pre-Christian Ireland was divided into five septs: Munster, Connaught, Ulster, Leinster, and Meath. Each of these tribal divisions was governed by a tribal king, who was the chief of the clan/family. The chief among kings hailed from Meath (Tara) and was given extra adherence over the affairs of the other four kingdoms. The Irish clans ultimately fought for their tribes and not for their country, so there existed constant strife between and among the kingdoms. In other words: If you weren’t part of my clan, then you were automatically the enemy. The various clans just basically spent their days raiding and plundering the territories of the other clans. Their code of laws and ethics were basic, but they had a very rich culture. Pre-Christian Celtic names expressed the early Gael’s connection with religion and nature, with virtues and love, with physical features, and with strength and warrior combat. Brígh (Brian) means “noble, strong”; Gráinne means “love”; Fionn means “fair, white”; Ciara means “black”; Oisín means “little deer”; and Eoghan means “born of the yew tree”.
Christianity began to infiltrate the Roman province of Britannia during the Roman occupation in the first few centuries A.D. But the Romans never gained any control of Ireland, so the pagan Gaels were largely ignorant to what was happening right across the Irish Sea. The Druids still controlled religious power over rites and traditions. Ironically, Britain would relapse into paganism after the Romans moved out of England in the 5th century A.D. and the pagan Germanic tribes of the Anglo-Saxons moved in. Around this time, a Roman citizen born in England, a boy of sixteen named Patrick, was carried off as a slave to Ireland. It was during his captivity that Patrick’s Christian faith grew. After escaping Ireland in his early 20s, Patrick returned and would spend the next 50-60 years converting “the whole of Ireland” to Christianity. As the Dark Ages fell upon Europe after the decline and collapse of the Roman Empire, Ireland was, ironically, only getting started. For them, it was a Golden Age of learning. Christianity, like everywhere else in Europe, had a profound impact on the naming practices in Ireland. Biblical names and those of important saints were Gaelicized such as Máire (Mary); Séamus (James); Ádhamh (Adam); Éabha (Eve); Caitlín (Catherine); and Pádraig (Patrick).
Viking invaders and settlers arrived in the 8th century (do you know it was actually the Danes who founded the city of Dublin?). Against the attempted dominance of the Vikings, Ireland united again under Brian Boru, a 10th century Irish military genius known for his legendary deeds. The spirit of the Irish was alive and well as he led his warriors to victory and drove out the Danes, usurped the place of Chief-King and reinforced his claim to the Irish lands. The problem with building an empire is that you can’t watch your old territories when you’re going about conquering new ones. The chaotic Irish clans were back to their usual in-fighting. Since there was a lot of cross-cultural influence between the Gaels and the Vikings, you’ll find names of Old Nordic origin in Ireland just as you’ll find names of Celtic or Gaelic origin among Scandinavia. One example is Ásgeirr (or the Irish equivalent Oscar) which means “spear of god”. Or Brigitta has been popular among Scandinavians even though it originated from the Irish (Brighid means “exalted one”).
In the 12th century, Ireland became subjected to invasions by the Normans and the English. In Ireland’s own “Helen of Troy” story, the King of Leinster abducted the King of Breifne’s wife Derbforgaill. As a result, he was banished from Ireland. In retaliation, and in an attempt to recapture his kingdom, the disgraced Leinster king invited the Normans (who had already invaded England and Wales) to come invade Ireland and he also sought the help of King Henry II. Just as Paris brought down Troy after the abduction of Helen, the Irish King of Leinster also did a grave injustice to Érie by stealing away a fellow Irish King’s wife. The Norman-English conquest was complete and Henry II went about organizing his new territory and establishing English law (although native Gaels were allowed to live under their old system of laws). Henry also gave huge grants of land to his cronies and then left them to settle claims with the Irish Chieftains – a fight which was usually fought with swords and bitter vitriol. Instead of the Irish becoming Englishmen, it was the Norman-English who were slowly Gaelicized, transforming into Irishmen. That’s where we get the Old Irish vs. the Anglo-Irish. By the end of the 15th century, English authority had greatly diminished, and even though there were traces of Norman influence, the Irish language and culture prevailed. The Normans brought some new Germanic names with Frankish origins to the Irish during this period.
King Henry VIII re-exerted English control in the mid-16th century when he added King of Ireland to his title. This was followed by the Nine Year’s War when the Irish chieftains attempted to fight against English rule resulting in great losses and defeat. The Plantations of Ireland followed whereby the English confiscated lands and planted their own loyal English and Lowland Scottish settlers. If there’s one thing that the Irish can be counted on for, it’s the ceaseless fight for the lands torn from them. Let’s be clear, this was their land in the first place.
More wars and conflicts followed resulting in devastating losses to the original Irish population. Oliver Cromwell later went into Ireland and further striped the Irish people of their lands, pushing them into a reservation sized parcel of land, massacring them, letting them starve to death or die of disease, or shipping them off to the West Indies to be slaves. Penal laws were enacted denying Irish Catholics of some very basic rights. England constantly inflicted punishment upon the Irish; they were really put through the ringer and yet they fought and fought and fought – in remarkable acts of defiance and with impressive stamina and vigor. Even in the face of loss. Even if the odds were clearly against them. Even when resistance seemed hopeless at best. They were simply propelled by their hatred of England and their love for their religion.
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw more of the same: English oppression, thwarting of their industries, assaults on their religion and indifference to their famines and poverty – all of which sent them emigrating to new countries. In the mid-19th century, the Irish made up about half of all immigrants to the United States. There were attempts at reform by the English back in the homeland in the 19th century (land reforms, permission to speak Gaelic again, etc), but the Protestant opposition was brutal. Civil war was clearly on the horizon and an Easter Uprising took place in 1916. Although ultimately thwarted, the execution of its leaders rallied the Irish in favor of independence. The Irish War of Independence began in 1919 and culminated with their secession from the United Kingdom in 1922 (26 southern counties, leaving Northern Ireland to remain a part of the UK). The Free Irish State has restored their Gaelic language and renewed their Celtic pride.
Ancient, fierce, loyal, kind, nature-loving, self-reliant, colorful, imaginative, passionate, lively, authentic, obstinate, persistent, tenacious, determined and rebellious. These are adjectives that come to mind when we think of the Irish. They have had a hell of a ride in history, so we must look to them for inspiration. They have overcome so much oppression and brutality and yet never denied the warrior-spirit within.
Today in Ireland, the ten most common boy and girl names are not altogether different than what we find in other English speaking nations. Only a few are Gaelic in origin (Seán, Conor, Ryan, Aoife):