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.
My name on my birth certificate is eithne (pronounced eth-knee) I have english parents but born in Australia. But all my life i have been called enya, like the singer 🙂
My mother’s name is Eithne and it’s pronounced “ETH-nuh”
English and Dutch administrators got confused about my name and thought that the spelling was wrong, whenever they saw it on paper.
When I got older I had it changed into the original spelling; E t h n a.
I am very proud of my name whether people pronounce it right or wrong.
Hope someone will organize an EITHNE/ETHNE/ETHNA/ETNA/ENA/ENYA/ENA ETC. meeting.
Unite and keep the name going. Welcome to Amsterdam, Holland.
Merry Christmas and Happy 2015, everybody.
I’m an Eithne born in Ireland, brought up & living in England. I don’t like my name; it’s a pain in the nbeck having to explain and spell it to every new person. Especially on the phone.
My parents pronounce it Ethna. I prefer Etna, but stick with the pronoynciation I was given.
Many people call me Edna, especially the older generation. I also get Eth-nee. I’ll answer to anything.
I called my own child a nice, familiar name that’s easy to spell.
As another Eithne, born and bred in Ireland, but living in Asia and now Europe for most of my life, I have discovered that my name is a great conversation starter in various parts of the world. I completely don’t care if people who have known me for years still can’t spell it properly, and I marvel at the various ways it can be mispronounced. I use ‘Etne’ pronunciation myself, like to tell people it sounds kinda like the volcano (Mt. Etna) and that supposedly it means little fire. Conjures up all kinds of links between the Celts and the Sicilians of old ;-). Have to say that it has made me more conscious of other peoples’ names as well and I find myself commenting or questioning the bearer of a – to me – unusual name as to its provenance. What a rich source of folklore we have in each others’ names. By the way, when I lived in Japan, I started pronouncing my name as ‘Ethne’, with an emphasis on the ‘th’…purely because Japanese people go to such lengths to pronounce properly the totally foreign ‘th’ sound, and it seemed churlish of me to correct them. But back home in west of Ireland, we delightfully ignore the ‘th’ sound in everything…perfect practice for those of you unfamiliar with the sound ‘there are three trees there….’
I am south american born woman, 73 old. Don´t ask me how come an indiginous baby was given an Irish name. But I like it and I have an Irish friend who´s name is Eithne.
Eithne Mills says
Hello from Melbourne Australia! I am an Irish born “Eithne”, and of course, pronounce my name as “Ethna”.
I lecture at a university and often have a difficult time explaining my name to my law students, but I carefully give them the phonetic “Ethna”.
They soon get the hang of it.
I have always understood Eithne to mean Little Fire, but I have seen it
as meaning Fiery Conqueror. Ah I do like that!
I just named a fictional character Eithne. I like the Ethna / Etna pronunciation, and it seems that the Irish folks on the comments prefer it too.
hi, my name is Eithne. I am Irish, grew up in Ireland and live in Ireland. Eithne is pronounced Eth-NA, NEVER eth-knee (only in England) and NEVER EVER etna, edna or enya …. the only Eithne known as Enya is the lovely singer of that name so it’s probably just a stage name, dating back to some very ancient Irish pronunciatioin. So stick with Eth-na and you won’t go wrong … but it’s a pain having to spell Eithne for people, be warned …
Pacian Ayme says
I named my daughter Eithne here in America and pronounce it Eth-knee just to make it easier on folks. Also, Kate Hudson’s character on Four Feathers. But we call her Et-na as an affectionate version. She knows one is Anglicized and one is Irish. I am Pacian, pronounced so wrong…so I made sure my kids got named something that had history and they know origins. My son is Rhys.
Michelle Matthews says
Like you my daughter Ethnee-Rae is pronounced Eth-knee… I actually first found the name Eithne, but knew no-one would know how to pronounce it,so used the spelling of Ethnee as all the variations just look so pretty. UK.
Hi! My name is Ena, a anglicized form of Eithne. I was named by my Irish born grandfather, an “amateur” scholar. I was told it meant “fire” and was used as praise in bardic poetry. Undoubtedly, his books would provide a better clue but they are all in gaelic. thank you for all the research!
My daughter is named Eithne. I’m Scottish and in Scotland (and England) it’s pronounced Eth-nee. I’ve heard Irish variations pronounced En-ya and Etna. i’ve always understod it to mean “little fire” too. No one ever gets the spelling right, though.
I have scotch-irish ancestors, so I like the idea of using the scottish prn. (eth nee)
Hi! My daughter is Also pronounced Eth-knee. I actually heard it first in “The Four Feathers” and then researched it. In the movie they spelled it Ethne. I liked Eithne better. I figured the E would give us Americans all kinds of trouble so the Anglicized pronunciation is what we stick with. I like to say the Irish only to her as a special thing.
as an original irish eithne i’m delighted to see my name discussed and described as pretty. i’m 3rd generation eithne (my aunt and great-aunt were also eithnes) and am irish born and bred. we all pronounce it ethna and have great fun watching non-gaelic speakers trying to pronounce it!. the meaning for us has always been “little fire” but we have also learned that eithne was the name of the queen of the fairies in irish myths. she was connect to the the sive people which were the people of the light who held great powers and were considered to be from the otherworld. i love my name, its quite unusual over here too!
As the bearer of the name in question- I can back up Holey’s pronunciation- Eth-nee. I always tell people it’s like “ethnic” but eth-knee (while pointing to my knee). Takes about 2 seconds and people rarely forget it. So, if you’re hesitating b/c of the “doesn’t sound the way it looks- pronunciation” issue- it’s not that big of a deal.
My parents named me after a friend of theirs who came from County Cork so I know it’s one of the legit Irish pronunciations. If you’re thinking of naming your kid this- DO IT!! I would love to have more of us in the world. I’ve never met another one (family friend went back to IRE before I was old enough to remember).
Pacian Ayme says
My daughter is Eithne, pronounced Eth-knee! We say Et-na when we are being affectionate or cheeky. I am in America. First time I heard it was Four Feathers and then I did the research, including the singer Enya. It is nice because she is the only one where we live in S Louisiana. We do have Irish and Welsh familial heritage. I named my son Rhys.
Irish names tend to disappoint me. I would love them if they were pronounced as they are spelled – Siobhan, Niamh, Caoimhe – but the actual pronunciations – Shavonne, Neve, Keeva – are a letdown. It’s nice that Eithne, for a change, sounds (or can sound) almost like one would expect. If I were giving the name for a child, I would definitely stick with “Eth-na” – I think it would be a pain to have a name whose pronunciation bore almost no relation to its spelling.
The classic 1939 version of “The Four Feathers” has a main character named Ethne; if I remember correctly, the cast (who were English) pronounced it “Eth-nee.”
I love that movie!
that’s my favorite prn. as well (eth nee). I do also like the Enya prn, but I like the Eithne spelling better.
ethna timpico says
One can say: What´s in the name?.
I had for years no problem from the way people would write down my name. But I liked the original version of writing it down and changed it from Etna into Ethna. I feel happy, even if people think I was named after the Italian vulcano.
Really pretty, but I disagree with you on this one, Lola. I think with a name like this the spelling/pronunciation is an uphill battle. I was at a Daisy Scout meeting two weeks ago and one little girl was charmingly named Anaise. I swear, the other three moms struggled to say it the entire time; one just couldn’t seem to get it at all. Taking an unfamiliar name (to most folks) and adding a spelling challenge could be a real encumbrance.
I agree, Eithne is a pretty, truly Irish name with an exotic feel and a straightforward prn. (I say it Enya, like the relaxing singer).
It fits right in with Caoimhe, Niamh, Maeve, Caolinn, Aislinn, & Aiofe, all of which I love.
It reminds me of Athena. Which, incidentally, I like a lot. Please do Athena!
I like Eithne too. I think she’s worth the effort, actually; she’s lovely! Eithne’s not that tough to spell and if you can get past her apparently waffly pronunciation, a real gem of a name! She’s familiar but not common at all, a real bonus in my book. The only way it ever hit my radar was the singer you mentioned who anglicised it to Enya. Her “Orinoco Flow ” is my ‘calm down, relax, don’t go into “battle mode on the road” song. One play and I can feel my blood pressure dropping. 😀
I think she’d fly here near Boston quite easily where everything else Celtic seems to work. Why not Eithne? She’d definitely fit with the Declan, Niall, Niamh, Ashling, Cormac kids already running around!
I just looked up a discussion of how to pronounce it. It seems even in Ireland they don’t agree. Most seem to say Ethna. It like Ethna better than Etna, but the Enya pronunciation is my favorite – but with the spelling Eithne.
My name is Eithne .
My parents are both Irish, though I was born in London.
I have kept up a strong ties with Ireland throughout my life since most of my cousins are there and the country itself is stunning, especially (though I’m biased) the landscape of Kerry and Cork.
I went to a catholic school in London where there were many Irish ‘second generationers’ and first generation Irish teachers and so the pronunciation of my name was relatively familiar to them. There were some Polish , Italian and Spanish too and the pronunciation of the name Eithne didn’t phase them.
At secondary school my name was mis- pronounced many times and this has continued to be the case unless people have come across it before or if they hear it pronounced first before they see how it is spelt.
It should be pronounced as ETHNA.
In some parts of Ireland they say Etna, losing the ‘th’ as I believe the Irish Language doesn’t really accomodate a ” th”.
So Etna is not the right pronunciation but one which occurs when the speaker cannot say the “th” sound.
Eithne is pronounced as ETHNA!
in my experience (i’m also Irish) the “th” sound is extremely uncommon among Irish speakers.
Just discovered this very interesting site. I did´nt have the faintest idea how many Eithne´s, Ethna´s, exist in so many ways of spelling.
3 days ago in 1941 I was baptised with my name Ethna. I met an Irish friend and she was thrilled to hear that also children who were born in the deep forests got her Irish name.
Nice to hear your story.