Image by arbyreed via Flickr

She’s a daring pirate queen, and a mythological princess, too. Why haven’t more parents considered her?

Thanks to Claire for suggesting Gráinne as our Baby Name of the Day.

Like many an Irish choice, Grainne’s pronunciation is not obvious. She looks an awful lot like the English word grain, and probably comes from the Gaelic word for grain, grán. But her pronunciation sounds like GRAWN yeh; you can listen here.

The original Grainne may have started out as a goddess, something along the lines of Ceres or Demeter. But the stories give us a princess, the daughter of Cormac, a High King of Ireland. Her tale goes like this: she’s engaged marry Finn McCool, but she’s in love with Diarmaid, a warrior in Finn’s army. Finn’s much older than Grainne, but Diarmaid is closer to her age. Diarmaid returns Grainne’s affections, but is reluctant to betray his commanding officer.

Grainne puts a spell on Diarmaid, and the pair run off. For a while, they live happily ever after, raising a family together. Despite the intervening years, Finn eventually takes his revenge, declining to get help for Diarmaid after he’s been injured in an accident.

But the Grainne that really gives her name bite is sixteenth century Grainne O’Malley, sometimes called Grace. Her dad was chief of Clan O’Malley, and the O’Malleys were a sea-faring. It’s said that Grainne stowed away on one of her father’s ships headed into battle, and matched wits with Queen Elizabeth I in negotiations. Some of her power was inherited from dad, but she was still an extraordinary woman, battle-tested and bold.

Her descendants know hold the title Marquess of Sligo, and you can visit their home, Westport House, where the dungeons of Grainne’s castle are part of the structure – and open to visitors.

But you don’t have to go all the way to Ireland to discover the Pirate Queen. There are tons of references. James Joyce mentions her in Finnegans Wake, and there are musical and theatrical odes to her legendary exploits, including a short-lived Broadway musical. A biopic is in the works.

Should the movie succeed, Grainne could be far more accessible to American parents. For now, she’s never appeared in the US Top 1000, but she’s been in the Irish top 100. There’s also the equally rare, but sometimes-seen respelling Grania, or possibly Granya. In another era, Grainne was sometimes Anglicized as Gertrude.

Either in her original form or re-spelled Grania, Grainne seems like the kind of frills-free name that could appeal to parents. Her sound is feminine without being even a little bit delicate. Throw in the larger-than-life pirate queen and the links to Irish myth, and she makes for a powerful choice for a daughter – as regal as Mary, as Celtic as Maeve.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. I think there are many, many female Irish names I’d pick before this. The sound is a bit on the grotty side.

  2. Ah, I love this name! I was very excited when I saw this is the Name of the Day! I always pronounced it like grain, but I really like the real pronunciation better. As always, the Irish way is the better way. I also like Grania, which does seem more phonetic, even if it isn’t as pretty looking!

  3. I’m in love with Ireland. But something about this name just doesnt feel right to me. My favourite Irish name is Saoirse. It would probably be my very favourite if the spelling was phonetically intuitive for Americans. Maybe as a middle name.

  4. It’s very cool! As I heard the pronunciation, it reminded me of Gossip Girl’s Vanya… 😀

  5. Cool! It’s the first time I’ve heard the name. The sound doesn’t appeal to me, but I love the background!

  6. Oh! I’m so happy to see the Pirate Queen out there! From the moment I learned of her, Grianne has been a heroine of mine. So audacious! I hope it does get some use here in the US.

  7. Happy Saint Pat’s, Abby, and thanks for using my suggestion!

    I had to go all the way to the Emerald Isle to discover my love for Grainne. I discovered her first in my class on the Irish Literary Revival when we read Lady Gregory’s translation and the Moore/Yeats play, and then living next door to me in my dorm!

    It continues to surprise me that, even with the current resurgence of traditional Irish names in this country, Grainne continues to be completely unheard of, particularly because the pronunciation doesn’t strike me nearly as challenging as some others (Roisin, Saoirse, Aoife, etc). It doesn’t appear even once in last year’s SSA records. To meet a little Grainne one day, for me, would be like finding a pot of of gold at the end of the rainbow.

  8. My sister used Grainne as a character name when we were playing D&D there for awhile. It’s clearly one of her favorite names. Too bad she’s childless by choice. I’d’ve loved to have a niece named Grainne! Oh well. maybe I’ll meet one here in the Land of All Things Irish soon.
    Happy St. Pat’s Day to All! 😀

  9. I came across this one as a suggestion on nameberry a few days ago. There was some concern about a potential nn being Granny…. not exactly what you want your sweet baby to be called.