For years, American parents showed their Irish roots by naming their daughters Patricia or Kathleen. These days, many are searching for something a little less expected.
Thanks to Halei for suggesting one that fits the bill: Eithne.
Eithne is not easily pronounced. I’ve counted four variants: ET nah, EN yah, EN ah and ETH nah. Because the singer Enya was born Eithne, that’s probably the version in favor. But once upon a time, Eithne was commonly Anglicized as Edna. I’ll admit that I tend to read Etna, even though it isn’t the most appealing option.
She appears in Irish myth as a sort of Jocasta figure – an oracle predicts that her son will kill her father. Despite some bloodshed and convoluted attempts to fight fate, this comes to pass and her son Lugh eventually becomes king.
Eithne was a well-known figure, and many parents chose the name for their daughters. One of those girls grew up to become a saint – which only fueled Eithne’s popularity.
Saint Eithne’s story is probably pure legend. Born a princess, Eithne met St. Patrick and his disciples on their mission to convert Ireland. She and her sister both asked Patrick to baptize them. He agreed. Then they asked to see the face of God. Patrick explained it wasn’t quite that easy. But after taking their First Communion, both girls fainted – dead away. (Be careful what you wish for.) The sisters were buried in the spot where they fell and Patrick’s converts built a church over their final resting place.
Eithne’s precise meaning is just as elusive as her correct pronunciation. I’ve unearthed three options:
- Most agree that Eithne comes from the word eithne, meaning kernel. It seems like a straightforward use of a nature name. Trouble is, the figure from myth and legend was probably called Ethliu originally, blurring the connection.
- On another nature note, some have linked Eithne to aitten – a shrub, and an uncommon surname also spelled Aiten.
- While it seems like a real stretch, some consider Eithne the feminization of Aidan – in which case, the name means “little fire” or “little fiery one.” She’s sometimes spelled Aithne, which looks a bit closer to Aidan – but the connection is still thin.
Neither Eithne nor Enya has ever ranked in the US Top 1000. Enya is heard sparingly in Norway, Sweden and Belgium. While it seems like the most straightforward spelling option, Enya could be confused with Anya. Anya’s not a common choice, either, but she ranked #366 in the US last year.
So while Enya might seem the kinder appellation to bestow on your daughter, Eithne has a lot of appeal, too. With choices like Niamh, Maeve and Ailis gaining favor, it isn’t quite as challenging as it might’ve been a generation back.
Yes, you’ll have to spell – and say – this one a few times before others catch on. But it is an authentic Irish heritage choice with considerable history – and a lot of charm.