Thanks to Marie for suggesting Saoirse as our Baby Name of the Day.
Let’s begin with the inevitable question: how do you pronounce Saoirse?
It turns out that even the Irish disagree. There’s seer sha, sair sha, soar sha, and sir sha. I’ve heard seer sha most often. The first syllable rhymes with clear. It’s easy enough to say, even if it isn’t obvious.
The most famous bearer of the name tells us that it rhymes with inertia. She also admits that others say it differently, even in Ireland.
Saoirse Ronan was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role as Briony in Atonement in 2007, at the age of just 13. More recently, she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her work in Brooklyn. This time, she was all of 21.
As she’s become more famous in the United States, the unusual name has caught on. In 2007, there were 38 newborn girls given the name. By 2014, that number was up to 110. Following the widespread success of Brooklyn, the name could climb even higher.
The name comes from the Irish Gaelic word for freedom or liberty. It’s big in Ireland, ranking around the Top 25. But this is not a traditional Irish name – instead, it’s a twentieth century innovation.
The name traces its roots to the Irish War of Independence. Between 1921 and 1922, most of Ireland was completely independent, before part of the country became part of the United Kingdom.
The war is sometimes called Cogadh na Saoirse in Irish. So this isn’t just freedom in a general sense – it’s a very specific reference. Republic Sinn Féin – a political party that still believes in a completely independent Ireland, and has ties to violence – calls their official publication Saoirse. One of the names for the short-lived completely independent Ireland was Saorstát Éireann.
All of this makes the name especially patriotic, though I expect it feels much more mainstream today – especially as the name has increased in popularity.
Saoirse: Irish Heritage Choice
Many Americans of Irish descent left before Saoirse would have been considered a child’s name. But it still feels like a way to acknowledge your Irish heritage.
RFK and Ethel’s daughter Courtney Kennedy Hill named her daughter Saoirse Roisin. Dad is Courtney’s former husband, Paul Hill, who is Irish – in fact, he was one of the men wrongly accused of an IRA bombing in London, and imprisoned. Their story was told in the 1994 film In the Name of the Father.
Thirty years later, Song of the Sea gave the name to an animated character. The 2014 fantasy film tells of siblings Ben and Saoirse, and their adventures following the disappearance of their mother, and their discovery that selkies, faeries, and all manner of Irish folklore is real.
Between the celebrated young actress and the animated film, chances are that more and more parents will discover this intriguing name. With a new generation of Irish heritage choices on the rise, this name could join Maeve in the US Top 1000.
What do you think of Saoirse? Is the spelling/pronunciation too much to handle in the US?
This post was originally published on December 10, 2010. It was substantially revised and reposted on March 17, 2016.