Thanks to Lea for kicking off Lurker Week by suggesting Irene as our Baby Name of the Day.

Irene ranked in the US Top 20 from 1915 into 1925. If the hundred-year rule applies, she’s due for a comeback right about now.

She’s an ancient choice:

  • Greek goddess Eirene personifies peace and is among the Horae, a group of female deities charged with order;
  • Two Christian martyrs wore the name circa 300;
  • A virtuous seventh century Portuguese maiden is also revered as a saint.

There’s also Irene of Athens, who rose from obscurity to marry Byzantine Emperor Leo IV and serve as empress regnant for their young son, Constantine IV. Once junior grew up, mom decided she liked the throne; he was killed on her orders and she ruled for five more years before she her exile in 802.

Royals have worn the name since, including one of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters, named because the Austro-Prussian War ended the year she was born.

If that’s not enough, she’s operatic, too, appearing as a fictional princess in Handel’s 1719 Tamerlano and Vivaldi’s 1735 Bajazet, both based on stories of intrigue set in Constantinople.

Then came James Montgomery’s 1916 stage play Irene O’Dare. It flopped, but found new life as Broadway musical Irene in 1919, eventually setting a record for longest-running show. O’Dare is a humble shop assistant who stumbles into high society. A 1926 silent film adaptation was followed by a 1936 radio adaptation and 1940 remake.

Irene shimmers with Hollywood glamor, not just because of the film, but because of:

  • Famed ballroom dancer Irene Castle. Husband and dance partner Vernon died World War I, but Irene continued to work on Broadway, in silent films and was known as a serious globe-trotting fashionista. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers played the couple in their 1939 biopic;
  • Costume designer Irene Lentz dressed leading ladies from the 1930s into the 1960s;
  • Sometimes called the best actress to never win an Oscar, despite five nominations, Irene Dunne starred in memorable films like Show Boat and Cimarron.

Call your daughter Irene and you’ll have a built-in lullaby: folk standard “Goodnight, Irene.” Written in 1886 by Gussie Lord Davis, it has been covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Meat Puppets. Lead Belly’s recording is among the more famous and faithful to the original; The Weavers’ 1950 cover was a big hit, with slightly modified lyrics.

Despite the song’s enduring success, Irene continued to fall, ranking just #626 in 2009.

Could Hollywood revive Irene? In 2000, the Farrelly Brothers’ screwball comedy Me, Myself & Irene paired Jim Carrey with Renee Zellweger. But it’s 2009’s Sherlock Holmes that could really relaunch Irene.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Irene Adler in 1891’s “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Holmes is hired to retrieve a photo of the American adventuress Irene Adler and her former lover, the King of Bohemia. Ultimately, Adler outwits Holmes, assures him she’s not the kind of girl to kiss and tell – and earns his enduring respect.

She’s fascinated writers for generations, leading to spin-offs and elaborations. One writer linked Holmes and the equally fictional detective Nero Wolfe by making Wolfe the lovechild of a Holmes/Adler affair. Rachel McAdams’ portrayal of Adler in the 2009 movie brought her to the attention of a new generation of parents.

Irene may be obscure in the US, but she’s a Top Ten pick in Spain right now. International variants abound, including Iria, Irina, Irena and Ereni. But Irene is finding a warm welcome on the Nameberry message boards, suggesting that her comeback may be imminent.

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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  1. I like Irene. My name is Erin, which obviously isn’t a familiar name in most cultures/languages, and when I’m in other countries I’ve noticed that people often assume I’m saying Irene when I introduce myself, and so I end up being called whatever the local Irene-variant is! I studied in Egypt during college; it seems to be pretty common among Egyptian Christians (Copts) and if I remember correctly they said it kind of like the Spanish version, but with a softer beginning – sort of like Eh-ree-nee. It’s been a while, though, so that might be a bit off.

    I knew of a family who named their daughter Sophia Irene – before Sophia was everywhere – and I thought that was a very nice way to play up the Byzantine-princess aspect without going over the top.

  2. Yay, thanks for writing about Irene!
    It’s one of my favorites, though I got told so many times that it’s an “old lady name” that I’m thinking of perhaps having Irene be a middle instead of first name.
    So glad to read more about the name itself!