Irish Baby Names: Beyond Sean and Kathleen
Updated: Jul 24
Last week I took time off from blog writing to celebrate my birthday. That got me thinking about the daunting process of naming babies. It’s a monumental task for parents. After all, the child is going to have to live with the name—and the consequences of it—for his or her life. That said, my Irish American family jokes that the Irish and Irish Americans tend to have little creativity when it comes to naming babies. To be honest, I think that is changing, but here is what I mean.
My Family’s Names
My maternal great-grandmother was named Catherine. My mother was Catherine too, although she went by the nickname Kay. She had a sister-in-law named Kay and the two women became known in the family as big Kay and little Kay. My aunt—big Kay—resented that because she felt it was a reference to her weight. Actually, it referred to her being older than my mother. My sister is Catherine Theresa in honor of my mother. She goes by the name Cathy. My sister, Cathy, married a man named John who has a sister named Kathy (Kathleen) whose husband’s name is John. My paternal grandfather’s name was John. Then there’s my Uncle Jack, whose birthname is John. You get the idea, so I won’t bore you with all the other relatives named Sarah, Michael, or Daniel.
I almost became a Sarah. My parents were going to name me after my grandmothers. I would have been either Sarah Agnes or Agnes Sarah. But my grandmothers both became so upset about who’s name was going to come first that my parents finally said, “That’s it! We’re not naming her after anyone.” So, they named me Christine. My grandfather was delighted. He had an older sister named Christina. Oh, well.
At least someone was happy. I’m happy too, as have always loved my name.
Current Popular Baby Names in Ireland
Naming babies after grandparents used to be an Irish tradition. That resulted in a plethora of Irish people named Catherine, Mary, Brigid, John, Daniel, Michael, and Patrick. But that is changing, especially in Ireland. Most Irish Americans will be surprised by the recent favorite baby names in Ireland. According to www.babynamestas.com, on the list of the 100 most popular baby names in Ireland in 2020, the top ten girls’ names are not the ones that spring to mind when Americans think “Irish.” The names, from #1 down to #10 are Grace, Fiadh (Fee-a), Emily, Sophie, Ella, Hannah, Lucy, and Mia. A few more old standards show up in the top ten boys’ names, but they’re in a modified form. The names are Jack (Good ol’ John!), James, Noah, Daniel, Conor, Fionn, Harry, and Charlie.
Irish American Naming Tendencies
In the U.S., Americans of Irish descent like to show their pride in their ancestry by giving their children names that say IRISH, for example, Erin, Kathleen, Ryan, Patrick, and Sean. In recent decades, there has been a tendency to take it a step farther and give the baby an “authentic” Irish name, that is, an Irish language name, such as Roisin, Mairead, Padraig, or Eoghan. Problems can arise from this. The majority of people in the U.S. have no familiarity with the Irish language and certain beautiful names can leave the child with the constant nuisance of having to tell people how his or her name is pronounced. Examples of these names include Oisin, Eoin, Aodhan, Tadgh, Cadhla, Blathnaid, Aoibhe, and Caoimhe.
Irish Names with their Meanings
Another consideration in naming a baby is the significance of the name. Most names have meanings. Some, like Joy, Prudence, and Lily are obvious. Many names, though, are derived from foreign languages (such as Greek or Latin). It’s fun for the child to learn the meaning of his / her name. Well, usually it is. Some beautiful names have not-so-positive. For example, Mary comes from the Hebrew name Miriam, which means “bitter.”
If you’d like to give your baby a name derived from Irish, and you want the name to have special significance, below is a list of some names, their pronunciations, and meanings.
Your new daughter is the light of your life. Why not give her a name which means radiant? There are a few to choose from. Here they are.
Aine (awn-ye): radiance, brilliance
Aoibhinn / Aoibheann (ee-van or ay-veen) radiant beauty
Laoise (lee-sha): radiant girl
Niamh (neev or nee-iv): radiance or brightness
Sorcha (sur-ka): brightness or radiance. This is the Irish version of Sarah.
Do you think your little girl’s a beauty? Here are some names that indicate her loveliness.
Aoibhe (ey-va): beauty
Aoife (ee-fa): beautiful or radiant
Caoimhe (kwee-va or kee-va): beautiful or precious
Cadhla (ky-lah): beautiful, graceful. A phonetic version is Kyla.
Cliodhna (clee-na): shapely. Cliodhna was a queen of the North Munster banshees.
Fiona: Fair and beautiful, and Fionnuala (fi-noola) and Nuala (Noo-la): Fair shoulder
Kayleigh (kay-lee): slim and fair
Sadhbh (sive, sigh-v): sweet, lovely, wise
Think your daughter’s a little princess? Check out these appropriate names.
Orlaith / Orla: golden princess
Riona (ree-ona): queenly
Meabh (Maeve): The name itself means “intoxicating”, but I’ve put it in this category because Meabh was a legendary Queen of Connacht.
Here are just a few more girls’ names of various meanings that are particular favorites of mine.
Aisling (Ash-ling): dream or vision
Blathnaid (blaw-nid): flower or blossom
Caragh / Cara: friend
Ciara (kee-ra): dark, meaning having dark hair or eyes. The feminine form of Ciaran. An alternate version is Keira
Eithne (enya): “kernel of a nut or seed.” The name is associated with the male name Aidan, which means “little fire.”
Roisin (ro-sheen): little rose.
Siobhan (ssh-vahn): God is gracious” or “full of grace.” The feminine version of Sean. The Irish version of Joan. Alternate versions are Sinead (shin-ade) and Shauna.
There are several Irish boys’ names that signify nobility or royal status. Here are a few.
Brandon / Brennan: from the Irish word brenhin which means prince.
Brian: high, noble, and strong. A popular Irish name because of the legendary Brian Boru, High King of Ireland.
Darren: believed to be from darragh which means “little oak.” Oak trees were considered Nobles of the wood, and the name Darren implies nobility.
Donal / Domhnal: from domhan, this name means something similar to “ruler of the world.”
Padraig: nobly born. This name is better known outside of Ireland as Patrick.
Rian (ree-an): little king.
Tiernan: little lord
Your son’s a handsome boy. Here are some names that might describe his good looks.
Caolan (keelin): from caol, this name means “slender.”
Ciaran (kee-ran): dark little one.
Ruairi: anglicized Rory, it means “red,” usually referring to a red head.
Fionn (finn, fee-in or fyon): fair-headed (blond). One of the most famous characters in Irish mythology is Fionn mac Cumhail (Finn MacCool). Alternate version: Finn.
Finally, here are some of my favorite Irish boys' names of various meanings.
Aodhan: little fiery one. The anglicized version is Aidan.
Cian (kee-an): ancient or enduring
Colin: cub or puppy. (Your son may not appreciate the meaning as he grows into adulthood, but his future girlfriend or wife will probably love it.)
Diarmuid (deer-mid): without an enemy. What a nice blessing to bestow on your newborn! The Anglicized version is Dermot.
Eoghan / Eoin (Owen): young or born of the yew tree. The yew, in Irish folklore, is associated with mystery, the Otherworld, longevity, and regeneration / rebirth.
Liam: determined warrior / protector. This is a nickname for Uilliam, the Irish version of William.
Oisin (uh-sheen or o-sheen): little deer.
Oscar: deer friend. You might be surprised to see this name on a list of Irish names, but it comes from two Irish words: os, meaning “deer” and cara, meaning “friend.”
Tadhg (tige): bard / poet. For centuries in Ireland, a bard was on the same social level as a king.
So, there’s my list. It is by no means comprehensive. If you’re getting ready to name a baby (or a fictional character) and you’d like to honor a connection to Irish ancestry, consider letting the long-worn Kathleen and Sean take a rest for a while. I hope you find the names on my list attractive alternatives. Also, you can find multiple lists of 50-100 Irish baby names online. Happy naming!
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Slan go foil!