Useful Notes: Irish Names
Geraldine: Oh, you Irish, you love your wacky spelling, don't you?
Campbell: You can say that again, her brother's called Breifne.
Geraldine: Oh, what, it spells Krtnqz? note
While most people in Ireland
today speak English, Irish (a member in the Goidelic branch of the Insular Celtic languages, closely related to Manx and Scottish Gaelic, and less closely to Breton, Cornish and Welsh) is spoken as an everyday language in some areas and as a name source among those who otherwise speak English. Written Irish uses a version of the Latin alphabet like English, but the similarities end there—the correspondence between Irish spelling and Irish pronunciation is quite different from the correspondence between English spelling and English pronunciation. Eighteen letters plus vowel acute accents [´] (the fada
) are used to write native words, the same letters as the English alphabet minus j, k, q, v, w, x, y and z. Lenited letters were traditionally represented by a dot [˙] above, but now a lenited letter is followed by "h" in modern printed Irish. In addition Irish was never standardised, leading to a wide variation in spelling for names pronounced the same way.
To complicate matters further, some Irish names are old Celtic names that became associated with Biblical names (especially in their Latin form) when Christianity came to the island, some are Irish forms newly derived from Biblical names, and some are Irish forms of English names (or of the Norman French versions of these names, which is why Irish forms of well-known English names often have a "softer" sound with more open vowels), formed once English power on the island became prevalent. And then to complicate matters even further, many contemporary names in Ireland are Anglicized forms of Irish names. Also, because of the similarities between Irish and Scottish Gaelic, there are many names which have very similar Irish and Scottish forms. Sometimes Scotireland
is almost a real place.
In Ireland, the language is identified universally as Irish
by English speakers. The language's autonym (name for itself) is Gaeilge
Names (approximation of pronunciationnote )
- Aengus (ain-gus) was the name of famous kings. Means something like "unity of strength" from "aon" (one) and "gus" (strength). The Scots form Angus is more familiar in the wider world.
- Áine (Awn-ya), sometimes misspelt Onya or Ainé.
- Aisling (Ash-ling), means 'dream-vision'
- Aoife (EE-fa), derived from the Irish aoibh, meaning "beauty". Sometimes anglicised as Eva. A very popular feminine name in Ireland that oddly has never really become popular abroad despite its relative simplicity.
- Art (Art). Not a diminutive, but a proper masculine name, unrelated to Arthur.
- The Irish-language redub of Arthur is retitled Art Ó Ruairc — which, as a Bilingual Bonus, was also the name of several ancient kings of Breifne.
- Bairre (Barry), is a diminutive of Fionnbharr meaning 'spear'. The modern anglicised form Barry is the most common use.
- Brían (Breen), is an Irish spelling (with an accent on the 'i') and pronunciation of a name that exists in France, Britain, and Ireland (in variations of Brian and Bryan) and is usually pronounced with the vowel sounds separated outside Ireland. It is, however, particularly popular in Ireland because of the tenth century king, Brían Bóruma, better known as Brian Boru, who reconfigured the internal politics of Ireland (taking the high kingship to Munster) and famously defeated a Norse army at the Battle of Clontarf. The actor Brían F. O'Byrne starred in FlashForward.
- Caitlín (Kat-LEEN) Not pronounced "Kate-lynn". The anglicized spelling is "Kathleen" and it is a diminutive form of "Caitríona" or "Catherine", so the "Kate" part of "Katelynn" isn't that far off the mark.
- Caitríona (Cat-REE-na) is "Catherine". Also Scots, and the eponymous heroine of a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson.
- Caoimhe (Kwee-va). In parts of Ireland it's pronounced (Kee-va). Occasionally pops up in media with the more anglicized spelling "Kiva".
- Caoimhín (Kwee-veen) is a name well-known in its anglicized form of "Kevin". It is most often associated with Saint Kevin of Glendalough, but dates to pre-Christian times and may mean something like "kind" or "honest". As with Caoimhe, above, is pronounced (Kee-ven) in some parts of Ireland.
- Cathal (Koh-hul) Translates directly as "battle ruler" or "mighty". Often equated to "Charles" but with no etymological connection. The very tricky to say "Cathal Brugha" (Koh-hul Brew-a)was a twentieth century Irish patriot.
- Cian (KEE-un), Ciara (KEER-ah), Cillian (KILL-ee-uhn), Ciarrai (KERR-ee, the Irish form of "Kerry"). C's at the beginning of Irish words are always hard c's.
- Colm (Kol-um), means "dove". As in Meaney, Feore, Wilkinson and Ó Cíosóig (good luck pronouncing that last one). Anglicized as "Callum", as in Blue. "Callum" is more frequent in Scotland, and "Colm" is predominant in Ireland.
- Conchobar/Conchobhar (modern Cro-khoor, old Con-kho-var) Origin of the name 'Conor'. 'Connor' while a popular spelling outside Ireland is generally restricted to the surname "Ó Connor" in Ireland unless the lad's parents adopted the American spelling. Its meaning is "lover of hounds" and has been the name of a few legendary high kings of Ireland.
- Cormac (Kore- muck), means "raven". As in Cormac McCarthy.
- Cú Chulainn (Coo Kull-en), means "the hound of Culainn". From the name of the great hero of Irish myth.
- Dáithí (Daw-he), means "swift" but is often used for "David".
- Darragh or Dara (dar-a) probably derived from doire, the Irish word for "oak tree". The version Daire can also be used as a female name.
- Deirdre (deer-dra'), not "deer-dree" as in Hunt-Langton-Barlow-Rachid-Barlow. Listen to how Lady Deirdre Skye of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri pronounces her name (although somewhat confusingly, she's supposed to be a Scot—who speaks in a highly RP-ified accent).
- Diarmuid or Diarmaid (Dar-mid or Dear-mid). Often anglicised as Dermot. Literally "without enemy"; associated to "Jeremiah" and may have been mutated into George on occasion. The surname "MacDiarmuid" ("son of Diarmuid"), anglicized as "MacDermot", seems to be the origin by a secondary back formation of the name "Kermit".
- Donndubháin (Dah-na-vun). A man's name meaning "dark-haired". Also common as a surname, O'Donndubháin. Usually anglicized as Donovan, though Donathan is not unheard of.
- Éamon(n) (Ay-mun). Guardian (mund) of the riches (ead). Associated with the English "Edmund".
- Emer/Eimear (Eee-mer). Sometimes misspelled Eimhear or Éimear. In mythology, this was the wife of Cu Chulainn. She was said to possess the six gifts of womanhood: beauty, voice, speech, needlework, chastity and wisdom. The epitome of the Proper Lady.
- Enda (Enn-dha). Despite appearances it is mainly a masculine name — the current Taoiseach (i.e. Prime Minister) is named Enda Kenny. It means "birdlike" or perhaps, metaphorically, "free of spirit".
- Eoghan (Owen) — Literally means 'born of the yew' but associated with the English "Eugene" (recently seen as a pronunciation joke in the film Leap Year.)
- Eoin (Owen). — Derived, as is the English "John", from the Biblical "Yo(c)ha(n)nan", presumably via the Latin "Iohannes". Sometimes in anglicized Irish placenames, the word "Owen" is a transliteration of the word abhainn meaning "river". Eoin Colfer is the author of the Artemis Fowl series of fantasy novels.
- Fergal or Fearghal (fair-gal). Could be a word meaning "courageous", or could be from fear (meaning "man", pronounced "far") and geal (meaning "bright", pronounced "gyal") which would mean "bright man".
- Fergus (fair-gus). From fear for "man" and gus meaning "strong", so "virile warrior".
- Fionn (Fyun) or Finn. "Fair-headed". A man's name. Fionn MacCumhaill (pronounced Mac Cool) was a legendary warrior, leader of the Fianna. Not to be confused with the Scandinavian name Finn, meaning "someone from Finland".
- Fionnuala (Finn-oola). "Beautiful" or more literally "fair shouldered". Actually more frequent in its shortened form of "Nuala", considered a name in its own right.
- Gobnait (Gub-nat). A rare name that's now mostly now know because of Frank Kelly's (of Father Ted fame) skit. It's usually a feminine name though.
- Gráinne (Graw-nyah) - Grán is an Irish cognate of "grain", and "Gráinne" may refer to a harvest goddess. Grá is the Irish for "love" which may be picked up in the association of Gráinne to "Grace" (also, "Gertrude"). Not to be confused with the word gránna (Graw-nah) meaning "ugly". Gráinne does not have the old-fashioned associations of both "Gertrude" and "Grace"; rather it is associated with the historical female clan leader and indefatigable pirate Gráinne Ní Mháille (Grace O'Malley), also known as Granuaile, rumored to have sailed a flotilla of ships up the Thames to tell Elizabeth I to stay out of her business (powerful warrior woman attacks fearsome queen: Joss Whedon should get onto this), and to the beautiful and free-spirited Gráinne of the mythological story of "Diarmuid agus Gráinne".
- -ín (een). Not a name in itself, "-ín" is the diminutive ending in Irish and is often seen in names (for example, "Caitlín" and "Róisín"). A name that does not already have an "-ín" may be pronounced with one attached as a nonce expression of affection. The anglicized form is usually spelled "-een", and shows up, for instance, in the word "smithereens".
- Kieran or Keiran (kee-run). Means "Little Dark One" or "Dark Poet by the Sea".
- Liam (leem). The Irish form of "William". Gets the same two-syllable treatment in America as "Brian" (where Liam being Brian's son is a lot more likely than the other way around.
- Maeve, Meadhbh, Meabh, Medb (Mayv). In the Táin Bó Cúailnge, it is Queen Maedhbh of Connact who starts a war to get her hands on a fabulous bull in order to one-up her husband in the possession and status stakes. The King of Ulster, owner of the bull, would not sell it to Maedhbh even though she offered her "friendly thighs" as part of the bargain.
- Máire (Maura), is "Mary" as a woman's given name, although "Muire" (Mwayr-uh) is the name used for the Mary of the New Testament. Máirín (Maureen) is a form including the diminutive "-ín".
- Niall (Nile or Neal)
- Niamh (Neeve)
- Nollaig (null-ug). Literally "Christmas" and so the Irish name equivalent to "Noel", "Noelle", and "Natalie".
- Nuada (Noo-uh-dah)
- Nuala (Noo-la). See "Fionnuala".
- Oisín (Uh-sheen). Means "young deer".
- Órlagh/Órla/Orlaith (Ohr-lah). Means "golden princess" or, more loosely, "fair lady". Celtic Woman's Órla Fallon, the Irish singer, is a famous artist with this name.
- Pádraig/Pádraic (Pawed-rig, Pawrik or Paw-drik). It is one of many Irish versions of Patrick.
- Peadar (Pad-der), the Irish form of "Peter".
- Róisín (Roe-SHEEN) — Literally "Little Rose", so "Rosie", or "Rosaleen", a slightly old-fashioned anglicized form of the name in Ireland.
- Also pronounced ROE-sheen. Without the fada (accent)on the O, i.e. Roisín, this can be pronounced ROH-sheen or roh-SHEEN.
- Ronan or Rónán (roe-nan) — Means "little seal"
- Ruairí (Roor-ree), more commonly found these days as Rory — means "red king". The anglicised version at least is becoming popular abroad.
- Saoirse (Seer-sha), as in the actress Saoirse Ronan. Means "freedom" and was once unisex (like "Sam" or "Alex"); nowadays almost always feminine.
- Séamus/Séamas (Shay-muss). For example, Nobel prize-winning poet Seamus Heany. The chances of an Irish character having this name are pretty high (as it's the local version of James),note note Harry Potter. The classic American Private Detective is sometimes called a "Shamus".
Da Fino: I'm a brother shamus!
The Dude: Brother Séamus? Like an Irish monk?
- Seán (shawn), now a very common name in English-speaking countries (albeit without the accent). Anglicised as Shaun or Shawn. Another form of "John" or perhaps the French equivalent "Jean".
- Seóirse (shore-sha) is the Irish form of "George".
- Seosamh (show-iv) is "Joseph".
- Síle or Sheelagh or Sheila (shee-lah) is a form of the Latin Cecilia, patron saint of music. Or just a woman in Australia.
- Sinéad (Shin-aid). Irish form of "Jane".
- Siobhán (Shuh-vawn) — Joan/Jane/Jeanne/Johanna. A butchered versoin of the name has become somewhat popular in America, pronunced as spelt (See-O-bhan). It's become well enough known that when one contestnt on American Idol was named Siobhan, even though she pronunced her name correctly, Ryan Seacrest, and radio hosts, still pronunced it phonetically.
- Sorcha (Sor-ka) — means "bright" or "radiant". The actress Sorcha Cusack is a well-known bearer of this name. Her sisters, Niamh and Sinéad, are also recognized actresses, the latter is married to Jeremy Irons.
- Stiofán (shtuff-awn) is "Stephen".
- Tadhg/Tadgh (Tie-g). (in Ulster: Taig) The Anglicized "Teague" mostly shows up as a surname outside Ireland. Tadhg means "poet" or "philosopher" and is assimilated to "Timothy" (which in Greek originally means "honoring God").
- Una, or "Oonagh" (both pronounced ooh-na) may be associated either to the word "uan" for lamb, or the Latin "una" for "one" or "unity". A feminine name, "Oonagh" was a Queen of the Faeries.
While we're at it,
- ceilidh or céilí (kay-lee), a party/jam session/dance/alcohol consumption marathon
- bodhrán (bow-rawn, with bow as in taking a bow, sometimes pronounced bow-ha-rawn), a wide shallow drum used in Irish music
- craic (krak), witty banter and general good times. Oddly enough, an Irish-imported word from the 19th-century English slang "crack"
- A banshee or bean sí or bean sidhe (banshee represents the pronunciation well) is literally a "fairy woman". The Sí (shee) are the faeries, and a bean is a woman, which leads to the useful information that
- The Irish for "man" is fear (far) and for woman bean (ban), which is sometimes important to know if you want to use the restrooms in Ireland. Of course, the plurals fir (rhymes more with whirr than fur) and mná (men-aw) are more often seen on toilet doors. Yes, that's right, the plural of "bean" is "mná"; obvious, isn't it? Mná na hEireann (men-aw nah hair-in) are the women of Ireland, sometimes feminists, sometimes the exact opposite, depending on context.
- Actually bean sí or bean sidhe literally means "woman of the mounds". The Sí or Sidhe are the fairy mounds where the Aos Si or Aes Sídhe (People of the Mounds) live. See Celtic Mythology.
- The pagan cross-quarter (halfway between solstice and equinox) feasts of Bealtaine (byal-tan-ah) and Samhain (Sow-en, sow as in pig) are now the Irish names for the months of May and November. "Beltane" is a fairly well-established anglicization of Bealtaine, but dewy-eyed adherents of Wicca insisting to Irish people that their calendar months are correctly pronounced "bell-tayn" and "sam hane" may be an effective spell to raise evil.
Incidentally, the name "Erin" comes from Éireann
, which is the genitive (possessive) case of Éire
, meaning 'Ireland'. "Col[l]een" comes from cailín
, which just means "girl".
Places, Institutions and Organisations
- Oireachtas (Irr-okht-us). The Irish parliament. It sits in Leinster House, Dublin—incidentally the architectural inspiration for the North Portico of The White House (the White House architect, James Hoban, was born in County Kilkenny).
- Dáil Éireann (Dawl). The lower house of the Oireachtas, akin to the House of Commons in the United Kingdom.
- Seanad Éireann (Shannud). The upper house — the Senate. Akin to the Canadian Senate, though partly elected through a restricted franchise.
- Áras an Uachtaráin (Oras-on-Ooch-terawn). The official residence of the President of Ireland.
- An Taoiseach (On Tea-shokh). The Prime Minister of Ireland. Much like the British PM, the Taoiseach is picked by the President from the ruling party in the Dáil. Only referred to as a Prime Minister by foreigners.
- The deputy to An Taoiseach is known as An Tánaiste (On Taw-nish-tah).
- An Garda Síochána (On Gar-dah Shee-a-kawn-ah). The Irish police force. Means Guard(ian)s of the Peace; the Gardaí are often known colloquially as "the Guards". "Garda" (gar-dah) is singular (one garda = a cop) although "guard" is the common term; "gardaí" (gar-dee) is plural (two gardaí = two cops). Although the force was formed during a civil war (or perhaps because of this), the gardaí are mostly unarmed: like the British police (though unlike the police in pre-independence Ireland), firearms are not routinely carried by your average officer. Detectives and some uniformed officers (less than 10%) do carry weapons though.
- Raidio Teilifís Éireann (Rah-dee-oh Tell-a-feesh Air-un) is the Irish equivalent to The BBC, just a lot less, well, good. Can be picked up in Stroke Country due to signal overspill and via Sky Digital — but down the years, the initials RTÉ have been said to stand for "Reception Terrible Everywhere". The government has slightly more influence over the news coverage — banning the broadcasting of statements by the IRA and other groups for a while. (See The Troubles).
- Some of the UK terrestrial channels can be picked up in the Republic (usually from Northern Ireland, but some viewers in the east and south can pick up signals from Wales) and listings are covered in the Irish press. BBC One, BBC Two and the Channel 4 networks are available on the Irish carriage of Sky Digital.
- RTÉ's broadcasting ban on the voices of IRA members ran between 1971 and 1994; which lasted considerably longer than the broadcasting ban British channels imposed on all Republican and Loyalist terror groups (1988-1994).
- There's also TG 4 (Tee-jee Ka-hur), the (mainly) Irish-language television channel based in rural Galway born as Teilifís na Gaeilge ("tellufeesh na Gay-ilguh"). Its highest ratings are for its coverage of GAA matches, and, ironically, undubbed-from-English Westerns. As well as being broadcast on the Republic's transmitter network, TG 4 also broadcasts on Sky Digital and on reduced power from a TV transmitter outside Belfast for audiences in Northern Ireland - a condition of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
- Main reason they changed the name was because a fourth channel opened shop and called themselves TV3, pushing T na G to the fourth channel on most listings despite the fact that they were there first. They became TG 4 so that any further additional channels wouldn't be able to knock them further down the list.
- Óglaigh na hÉireann. The Irish Defence Forces, aka their military. Pretty small and mostly does peacekeeping. Practically a division of the UN peacekeeping forces. The Irish people who want some... "action"... tend to join the Brits with Battleships.
- Some words are very common elements of place names. Here are a few of the most obvious. It's also important to point out that Counties are always referred to as County X, rather than X County, as is often the case in the US.
- Bally is an Anglicization of "baile" (boll-ya) which simply means "town". It's the "bally" part of Ballykissangel.
- Mór (moor) is the Irish for "big" and beag (byug) is the Irish for "small". Forms of both are often found combined in placenames such as "Tramore" (big strand/beach) or Ballybeg (small town).
- Cill (kill) is "church" in Irish. For example the Irish county names of Kilkenny (Church of St. Canice) and Kildare (Church of the oak wood). Then there's the Irish TV comedy show, Killinascully.
- Coil (qwill) is "woodland", and is also anglacised as kill.
- Sliabh (sleeve) and cnoc (k-nuck) mean "mountain" and "hill" respectively. Ben or binn means "peak", or, if largely surrounded by water, "headland".
- Carraig (cor-rig) means "rock" and appears in English as "crag", as in Craggy Island. The Scots Gaelic form is the root of the masculine name "Craig" as in "Craigslist" or Craig Ferguson.
- Droichead (drih-hid) means bridge and nua (new-a) means "new" so "Droichead Nua" is "Newbridge". The word átha (aw-ha) means "ford" so the town of "Drogheda" or "Droichead Átha" is both a bridge and a ford. Incidentally, the anglicized spelling "Drogheda" is pronounced "Draw-had-a". American or British tourists who ask directions to "Drog-hee-daa" may be laughed at.
- A dún (doon) is a type of fortification — a spectacular example is Dún Aengus (the Fort of Aengus) - while caisleán (cash-lawn) is the Irish for "castle". The county and town of Donegal (done-e-gall) is in Irish, Dún na nGall (doon nah nawl) which means "Fortification of the Foreigner", the foreigners in this case being most likely Vikings.
- Gleann (glown to rhyme with clown) means "valley". The English word "glen" is the same (although perhaps from the Scots Gaelic form of the word).
- Loch, often anglicized as "lough", means lake (in Scotireland there's the Loch Ness Monster after all). In the mountains south of Dublin there's a ancient monastic settlement called "Glendalough" because it lies in a valley with two lakes - dó (d-owe) is the Irish for two - and near Belfast, Lough Neagh (lock neigh) is the largest lake in the British Isles.
- In the opening titles of the old RTÉ soap opera Glenroe, the name of the fictional village was shown morphing through various Gaelic script types in its Irish name, Gleann Rua, before settling on the Anglicised Latin script name of the series.