Fetching Names: Everybody Loves an Irish Girl

The Shamrock, a typical Irish clover.

The Shamrock, a typical Irish clover. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Irish names are the source of frequent requests at AppMtn.  I’m not even a scintilla Irish, so I tended to skip these sections in the baby name books.  Plus they were everywhere when I was a kid – Erin and Kelly and Megan were only slightly less epidemic than Jennifer and Amy and Heather.

What’s fascinating about Irish names today isn’t that parents are still embracing their heritage.  Instead, I’m delighted to find so many parents willing to consider authentically Irish appellations – names that are right at home in Dublin, but might be a surprise in Des Moines.

A few quick notes: as is often the case, diacritical marks are omitted.  Pronunciation is indicated, but in some cases, there’s more than one way to say Saoirse.  And this is definitely not the only list like this in the baby name ‘verse.  I’m particular fond of Nameberry’s What’s doing in Dublin, from which I borrowed the intriguing Sadhbh.

Ailis – One of my favorites, the Irish version of Alice.  Less Wonderland, more energy.  Pronounced roughly ay LISH or possibly ay LEESH, but first one feels more current.

Aine – The fairy queen in Celtic myth, and also sometimes an Irish spin on Anne.  I’m forever tempted to rhyme Aine with nine, but she’s actually pretty close to Anya, though she sounds more like AWN yeh.

AoifeEva’s Irish cousin, Aoife was a warrior princess and a looker, too.  Her name comes from the Gaelic word aoibh – beautiful.  She’s been big in Ireland in recent years, but is currently on the decline.  She’s pronounced EE fa.

Brenna – One of the most accessible of the imports, she’s also one of the names I almost axed from the list.  In addition to her status as feminine form of the kelly green Brennan, she’s also sometimes listed as Welsh or Norse.  Let’s just say that she’s Irish enough for many in the US, and follows nicely from Emma and Brianna.

BridgetBrighid and Brigid are the more authentic spellings, but this name drips Celtic heritage.  Thanks to a mythological fire goddess and a fifth century saint, Bridget’s roots in Ireland run deep and she’s instantly recognizable as a heritage choice.  Of course, the saint’s widespread popularity means that she’s long been used throughout Europe – Britta, Brigette, Birgitta

Cathal – Okay, this is a boys’ name with an aggressive meaning: battle.  Worn by saints and kings, he’s less common in recent centuries.  While the h is silent – he’s pronounced KA hahl, I often find myself looking at Cathal and thinking of it as a fresh alternative to Catherine – and a great way to get to Cate.

Caoimhe – Now that Alyson Hannigan has welcomed a new daughter called Keeva, this one could pop.  Keeva is the phonetic spelling of Caoimhe.  Articles have touted the name’s pleasant meaning – gentle or beautiful.

Ciara – A sixth century saint’s name, she’s perfectly legit – and yet likely to be misunderstood as a respelling of Sierra, or an modern invention along the lines of Kyra.  A good compromise for the parent seeking an on-trend name that stays true to Irish roots.

Cliodhna – Another goddess name, one I couldn’t resist, thanks to her similarity to Clio.  Simplified spelling Cliona is also used, and closer to her pronunciation – KLEE u nah.

Clodagh – Thanks to the claddagh ring, we all know the -gh is silent.  She’s pronounced CLO dah, and is borrowed from the name of a river – which may have been inspired by a goddess.

Deirdre – Like Bridget, she’s one of the earlier Irish imports, but still retains much of her charm.  A name borrowed from legend, Deirdre has been boosted by a few high-profile literary uses, combined with retellings of her original story.

Eithne – Another saint’s name, this time with a debated pronunciation.  Is it EN ya or ETH neh or something in between?

FinolaFionnuala spent 900 years as a swan.  Finola is the slimmed down version of the mythological moniker, and could be seen as a feminine form of the ever-so-stylish Finn.

Gráinne – A pirate queen – far better inspiration for a daughter than a Disney princess.

Maeve – One of the most accessible of the legitimately Irish appellations, a warrior queen whose name shares sounds with Ava and Mae.  No wonder she’s on the rise in the US.

Muriel – With her ties to the sea and that attractive -el ending, Muriel has possibilities.  She also has a long history of use – she’s found in Norman England.

NiamhConan O’Brien has a daughter called Neve, a possible phonetic respelling of the borrowed-from-legend Niamh.

Oona – There’s Una and Oonagh, too, but Oona brings to mind Oona O’Neill Chaplin, who infuses the name with Hollywood glamour.

Orla – Designer Orla Kiely puts this name on the fashion map.  She’s sometimes spelled Orlagh, which is still an edited version of the original: the golden Orfhlaith.

Róisín – An Irish name meaning little Rose, she’s botanical and boasts a connection to the Emerald Isle.

Sabhbh – Pronounced sive, and rhymes with five.  Fascinating, but probably a stumper in the US.

Saoirse – She’s a twentieth century darling with a great meaning – freedom – and used by a member of the Kennedy clan.

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Siobhan – One of the very first challenging spellings to be embraced by Americans, Siobhan is sometimes considered the Irish equivalent of Jane, though she has other roots, too.  Actress Siobhan McKenna gets credit for putting this one on parents’ radar, though her performances in several noteworthy 1960s flicks came nearly two decades before Shiobhan hit the US Top 1000.

Would you use a more complicated spelling in the name of celebrating Irish heritage?

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28 Comments

I know three Ciara’s pronounced keer-ah and one Orla whose name is actually orflaugh or something like that which she claims is the original.

Whenever people complain about the spelling of Irish names, all I can do is roll my eyes and say, “Yeah, because Michael is so complicated, it’ll never become popular.”

Love many of these, especially Maeve and Orla. Although beautiful, the spellings of many others scare me away, even though my father’s side is quite Irish, and so is my husband.

Much as I love many aspects of Irish culture I’ve not really fallen in love with many Irish names. I do like Aoife, Brigid, Oona, and Róisín. And I really like Líadan, Fiona, and Aisling.

One of my friend’s from childhood had a grandmother Muriel, who was one of the nicest people. It’s the only name on this list that I would seriously consider using.

I can’t wrap my head around those spellings. The whole Irish/Celtic naming thing is huge in books, but I have no Irish in my roots at all, and I think there’s a huge difference between someone naming their child something Taiwanese, which is usually transliterated into vowels and consanants somewhat familiar, and telling me that something like Caoimhne is pronounced with a combination of vowels that ignores 3.4 of the ones there and substitutes it for something else entirely. I fee like using that name on a child is an exercise in cruelty, for the child as well as anyone they are forced to come into contact with. Wingdings pronounced Elizabeth. The PP had it exactly right.

I love Aine, and the back story behind it as well but the pronounciation/spelling would would be troublesome. As for Muriel, I am Australian so all I can think of is the movie “Muriel’s wedding.’ So…No, I’m not a fan.

I -am- of Irish (and Scottish!) descent, so Celtic/Gaelic names pop up a lot in my consideration. If I wasn’t I think it’d be a different matter. Here are the names I like (many of them are just variants):

Agata
Aibhlin (ay-VLEEN I think)
*Ailis
*Aine
*Aislin
Aoife
Breck
Bridie
*Brynn
*Darcy
*Eila/Eily
*Eithne
Elva
Fiona
Hiolair
Keely
Labhaoise (la-VO-shah?)
*Maeve
Moira
Muiriel
*Orlaith/Orla
*Roisin

* means it’s a serious contender. Anyway, I’m Kelly green at heart. 🙂

Labhaoise is the gaelicized format of Louise, pronounced “La-wee-sha” in most dialects. A similar name, Laoise, (pron. “lee-sha”) is cited as meaning light or famous battle, and is related to the county Laois.

Thanks for the clarification! My Irish Gaelic is nonexistent and I rely heavily on the IPA English guide on Wikipedia. The tune March of the Kind of Laois is a favoirte, so it’s nice that I can finally pronounce it now.

I love Aine, but I just like the looks of Anya more. Brenna is pretty. Bridget is one of my favorite names, I think I like Bridgette best for a spelling, but Brigette is nice, I like many spellings on this one. Maeve is nice and I kind of like Muriel. I also like Niamh. Orla and Saoirse are also pretty, though I must say, the first time I saw Saoirse I could never have guessed the right pronounciation. I think it’s fine to go with the original spelling for the sake of preserving the Irish language. But as someone who hasn’t got a clue how to pronounce such names, I also appreciate the Bridgets, Anyas, and Neves of the world. Though I like learning how to say Caoimhe and Saoirse.

I think the complicated spellings are a big part of what’s attractive to many who love these names. Caoimhe is exotic while Keeva is rather mundane, and even ungainly – ditto for Roisin vs. Rosheen, Saoirse vs. Seersha and Siobhan vs. Shevonne (or Chevonne). It’s hard to say what’s too tricky to work well outside Ireland and what isn’t – with so many kids growing up today in the US and other English-speaking countries with names whose spellings or pronunciations are not intuitive, whether it’s because their parents are Sri Lankan, Taiwanese, or Polish, or because the parents chose to tweak the spelling of a name familiar to English speakers, I think people are having to adapt and learn more than they did a few generations ago and it’s just becoming par for the course. After the first waves of Spanish-speaking immigrants arrived in the US, it didn’t take that long for English speakers to learn that Juanita is pronounced Hwanita and not Joo-wan-ita and so on, and if they can learn that the letter J has a different pronunciation in Spanish than it does in English, presumably they can also learn that ‘bh’ makes a v sound in Gaelic and so on. I do think some of the vowel clusters could be a challenge to remember even for those who are quick learners, though.

Love them. As a first generation Australian of Irish heritage, growing up as ‘Siobhain’ was rather challenging. I’m now 35 & find most people can now get their head around the pronunciation..so I’m mindful of choosing a spelling soo bizarre it can cause the namesake much grief!! But I love that these true Irish spelling names offer a unique link to ones Irish heritage. My pick for a daughter would be Saoirse!

Well, I’m mistaken for Irish all the time, with a sister named Kathleen and red hair, but I’m of Scottish descent. My Great-Great Grandfather was the last one to live in Scotland, but I’ve reconnected with some of the Scots cousins, thanks to facebook. So, of these, I would happily use Oona. I’ve got her in the middle spot in several combos. I love Roisin to pieces and admire the heck out of Bridget. I knew a Bridget as a kid and she was one of the sweetest kids I’ve ever known (besides my own) 😀

I’m not a big fan of names that don’t follow English phonetic rules in general but I will say I’ve known at least 5 different dogs named Siobhan. It’s all dog to me now. All the rest make me go: Ooh, pretty! but not usable for me. I’d drive myself insane correcting everyone all the time and I live in The Land of All Things Irish! 😀

Like Charlotte Vera, I don’t have any Irish heritage, so I confess I’m generally not that interesting the authentically Irish names. Nora and Una are the only Irish names that made my list and neither name can be called exclusively Irish.

Ugh! Im such a spoil-sport but this whole spelling vs pronunciation thing drives me nuts. I dont have strong feelings about the names themselves but I wish parents would realize no one is going to get Keeva from Caiohme (unless theyre from Ireland or a name geek). Might as well use wingdings and say its Elizabeth.

I love theses names, but I don’t think I could stand the pronunciation issues in the US for the more uncommon ones. I have a friend Eithne (originally from Dublin) who pronounces her name et-na.

And Siofra! Enormous name crush on Siofra! It doesn’t seem to be a familiar one among NE’s, but it’s quite a recent name in Ireland — means fairy or changeling, and pronounced SHEEF-rah.

I LOVE Oona, but also have a major soft spot for Saoirse and Sadhbh. Then there’s also Ailbhe, Dearbhla and Laoise, which I also think are lovely.

Great list! I confess that I too often skim over the Irish sections in name lists, etc. Perhaps my disinterest is because I also don’t have any Irish heritage; I didn’t grow up knowing much about the Irish culture or history. So even though I now have an Irish last name courtesy of my marriage, I still feel as though using a distinctly Irish appellation would seem fake (my husband’s Irish-descent father didn’t retain much of his Irish culture either). Out of all these names, Oona/Una is the only one ever to be present on any of my lists, and she’s never been at the top. We’re much more likely to choose a heavily German name than one that “matchees” with our last name.

Perhaps I should add that although I have an Irish last name, it doesn’t scream Irish, so a strongly Irish name might look funny with it anyway.