Traditional Irish Names

The Irish community has some of the most unique and entertaining names. After all, who can forget the name of the man who bounced back when pushed against the wall: Rick O’Shea? Irish names are poetic, playful and filled with meaning. They speak of kings, saints, warriors and commoners. The forces behind these names are Ireland’s rich history and Celtic language.

Even a novice genealogist scanning through a list of surnames will be able to identify some which originated in Ireland. Names such as O’Leary, O’Keefe and O’Malley shout, “I’m Irish!” Other names such as Burns (translated from Byrne, Beirne, Berne), Kavanagh (Cavanagh, Cavanah, Cavanaugh) and Ward are not as easy to spot.

Distinct first names can also help identify a family from Ireland. Names such as Aidan, Declan, Eoin, Niamh, Sibeal (Sybil) and Shannon are all associated with The Emerald Isle.

Baby Names of Ireland ( contains a list of Irish first names along with their meanings and connections to legends and myths. For example, the popular name Sean is the Irish form of John, meaning “God’s gracious gift”. Shaun, Shawn and Shane are other forms of Sean. The name Shane honours Shane O’Neill whose forces fought against Queen Elizabeth 1st in the 1500s, winning several key battles.

Irish names can make a tongue do back flips if unaccustomed to the letter patterns of the Celtic language. Saoirse, Yseult (Isolt, Iseult) and Iollan are just a few examples of names not found every day in Atlantic Canada. To learn how these names and others are pronounced, click the Listen button located beside the name on the Baby Names of Ireland website. Frank McCourt, Irish author of “Angela’s Ashes”, will say the name and read the meaning.

Many Irish names were anglicised and lost some of their distinct Irish spellings. Aonghus (Angus), Brighid (Bridget), Cearbhall (Carroll) and Muadhnait (Mona) are first names which changed slightly to better fit into the English world. Anglicised surnames include Ó Coileáin (Collins), Ó hEidhin (Hines) and Ó Raghailligh (O’Reilly).

The Irish tradition of naming children can help piece together a family tree. The oldest son was often named after the father’s father. The second son was given the name of mother’s father. The third son was named after the father, and the fourth son usually honoured the father’s oldest brother by wearing his name.

The oldest daughter was given the mother’s mother’s name while her younger sister was given their father’s mother’s name. The third daughter born was named after the mother, and the next female was given the name of the mother’s oldest sister. Keep in mind that some families strictly followed naming traditions while others broke with tradition.

There are many websites dedicated to names and their origin. If you don’t find the name you seek at one source, it doesn’t mean it has no history. Keep looking and try different spellings. Every name can be spelt at least two different ways. Baby naming books also provide insight to a name’s origin and meaning.

(The playful Irish graphics came from Karen’s Whimsy website.)


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