I was contacted recently by a customer of ours in Australia who was looking to add the name of her second child to an Ogham Ring we had made for after the birth of her first child. She chose two beautiful Irish names for both of her little girls and it got us thinking about other unique Irish names. Recently traditional Irish names have enjoyed a boom in popularity, both in Ireland and abroad. In the US in particular, Irish surnames such as Kennedy, Sullivan and many more are becoming more and more common as first names for newborn boys and girls. But the classic, almost forgotten Gaelic names for both genders are making a comeback too. If you’re expecting a new little bundle in your life sometime soon, check out the origins and meanings of some of these more unusual Irish baby names. You never know, yours might be somewhere in the list!
Gaelic naming practices
In modern Ireland names are simply formed in the same way as most western countries; a first name and a surname, usually with a ‘middle name’ in between too. While in previous decades it was common practice for a child to be named after his or her parents or grandparents, this role is often now taken up by the middle name instead.Catholic children who make their Confirmation around the age of 12 will also sometimes take on a fourth name as a symbolic affirmation of their faith. Traditionally, children will choose the name of a saint that has meaning for them. Centuries ago when Ireland still used Gaelic as its first language, a naming practice of sorts was in place. Sons were given a first name and then took the name of their father as a surname, with a prefix of Mac (meaning ‘son of) - so for example, a boy named Paul who’s father was named Eoin would have a full name of Paul McKeown - or in the Gaelic form, Pol Mac Eoghain. The third and subsequent generations would then take the prefix of ‘O’ instead of ‘Mac’, meaning ‘grandson of’ instead of ‘son of’. For girls, the ‘Mac’ is replaced with ‘Nic’ - meaning ‘daughter of’ and the ‘O’ is replaced with ‘Ni’, meaning ‘granddaughter of’. Certain first names were common in certain families, so middle names were often used to differentiate between the multitudes of people who had the same first and surname. Sometimes a second surname was added instead. Since Ireland was a highly religious country until very recently, names from the bible such as Mary, Joseph and so on are quite common, as well as names of saints such as Kevin, Anne etc. Old Celtic names have always been prominent however, particularly during the nationalist movement of the 20th century and in more recent years as people look back to their roots in search of beautiful, rare names for their equally beautiful children.
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Aodh is an older form of the somewhat more common Aidan, Aiden or Aodhan, and means ‘fire’. Aodh was a popular name for the High Kings of Ireland and regularly crops up in Irish mythology. According to some sources, Aodh was also the name of the God of the Celtic underworld. Learn more about Aobh in our post on Irish Folklore Stories.
Another prominent name in Irish mythology, Conall means ‘strong wolf’. The most well known figure with the name is Conall Cernach, a great warrior of the Red Branch knights and the man who avenged Cu Chulainn’s death by killing his murderer Lugaid.
The definitive meaning of the name Diarmuid is unclear (the most common interpretation is that it means ‘envy’), but its reputation most definitely isn’t. Diarmuid was a renowned warrior in Celtic mythology who gave up everything he had and defied all authorities to save the love of his life, Grainne in our post on Irish Love Stories - succeeding despite everyone’s best attempts at chasing.
Eanna means ‘birdlike’ and is a variant of the name Enda. It was a prestigious name given to kings, heroes and even a saint! The saint in question was initially a warrior king in Ulster in the 5th century, who later founded a monastery on the Aran Islands.
This name needs no introduction! Meaning ‘fair’ or ‘bright haired’, the first Fionn was the legendary hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill, who features heavily in just about every Irish mythological tale. He is credited with creating the Giant’s Causeway, banishing a demon from the Hill of Tara, and eating the Salmon of Knowledge to gain all of the world’s wisdom. Find more information on the legend of Fionn
Meaning ‘laurel’, Labhras is the Irish form of the name Laurence. Originating in Latin and associated with the ancient city of Laurentum (as well as the laurel plant), it likely made its way to Ireland via stories of St. Laurence when Christianity was introduced.
Oisin (meaning ‘little deer’) was a hero warrior and poet, and the son of Fionn MacCumhaill. He followed a beautiful woman named Niamh into Tir na nOg (the land of the young), and spent 300 years there, without ageing at all. When he returned to Ireland to find his family, not knowing they were long dead, he stepped off of his horse, instantly aged and was never able to return to his love. More on Irish Mythology and Oisin in Irish Folklore Stories.
Nuada is generally thought to mean ‘protector’ and is the name of an ancient Irish demi-god who was leader of the first mythological ancient race of people to set foot in Ireland. Nuada was killed in a battle for ownership of Ireland by his tribe’s rivals, the Fomorians.
A variant of the name ‘Sean’, Seanan means ‘little wise person’ and was the name of a 6th century saint from Munster who is said to have slayed a huge sea creature that terrorised the inhabitants of his village. After defeating it he founded the village of Iniscathy on the island where it had once lived.
Meaning ‘poet’ or ‘storyteller’, the most well known Tadhg from ancient Ireland was the king of Connacht, who ruled in the 11th century (many subsequent kings of Connacht and Munster were also named after him).
Although the meaning may not be ideal - ‘bronach’ in Irish means ‘sorrowful’, Bronagh has always been a name that has enjoyed popularity in Ireland. Bronach was a 6th century mystic in county Down who ended up becoming a saint. The bell she used during her life was later venerated.
Cliodhna was one of ancient Ireland’s most important Goddesses, who came from Tir na Tairngaire (the Land of Promise) to be with her mortal lover, only to be swept away by a wave when she landed. In another story she is credited with giving the famous Blarney Stone its unique gift of eloquence.
This name has enjoyed popularity in its anglicised form, Doreen, and actually means ‘stormy’ or ‘tempestuous’. Like all names in this list, it has a mythological connection; doireann was the daughter of Bodb Derg, who poisoned Fionn Mac Cumhaill.
Emer was the wife of another legendary Irish hero, Cuchulainn. She was said to possess the six ‘gifts of womanhood’; beauty, a gentle voice, sweet speech, needlework, wisdom and chastity. When Cuchulainn fell in love with another woman, she let him go, but her rival was so touched by Emer’s gesture that she returned to her own husband instead!
The name Grainne is associated with the ancient Irish goddess of grain, and is also thought to mean ‘love’. In mythology, Grainne was betrothed to Fionn MacCumhaill, but fell in love with one of his best warriors (Diarmuid), and the two hatched a plan to run away together.
A beautiful but not often used name, Mealla actually means ‘lightning’, and was the regular choice of several holy women of Ireland. It has been suggested that because of its similarity to the Nordic name Mella, it first made its way to Ireland with the Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries.
Orlaith is the name with possibly the most beautiful meaning in this list; ‘golden princess’! Orlaith is an extremely old Celtic name that dates from pre-Christian Ireland, and is still highly popular today.
A simplified form of the name ‘Rioghnach’, this literally means ‘queen-like’. In Irish legend, the wife of the renowned king Niall (of the Nine Hostages fame) was known by the name Rioghnach. It is also sometimes seen as a shortened form of Catriona, the Irish version of Catherine.
Sorcha is thought of as the Irish version of ‘Sarah’, although it literally means ‘radiant’ - i.e the opposite of ‘dorcha’, the Irish word for ‘darkness’. Sorcha is often confused with the highly popular name Saoirse. The two are different names entirely however; Saoirse actually means ‘freedom’!
Possibly meaning ‘strength’, Treasa is considered to be the Gaelic form of Teresa. Its origin has never been fully pinned down, but it could be another name inspired by a saint - St. Teresa was a prominent Spanish saint.
The Most Popular Baby Names in Ireland
Almost one quarter of the names on the official ‘most popular’ list (based on the amount of newly issued passports from the Department of Foreign Affairs) are Gaelic names, so it’s clear that the traditional names aren’t set to die out any time soon. Of the 20 most popular girl’s names, three ever popular Irish names - Aoife, Saoirse and Caoimhe - make it into the list.
- Emily (=)
- Sophie (up two places)
- Emma (down one place)
- Grace (up one place)
- Ella (up one place)
- Aoife (down three places)
- Amelia (up five places)
- Lily (up six places)
- Ava (=)
- Sarah (=)
- Hannah (up four places)
- Lucy (down five places)
- Sophia (up four places)
- Mia (down three places)
- Anna (down seven places)
- Olivia (up seven places)
- Ruby (up one place)
- Saoirse (up three places)
- Caoimhe (down six places)
- Kate (=)
For the boys, Irish names are twice as common in the top 20, with a total of six names making it into the list (and two of those in the top ten) - Ryan, Liam, Cian, Oisin, Darragh and Sean. The full list is:
- James (no change from previous year)
- Daniel (no change)
- Conor (no change)
- Adam (no change)
- Ryan (no change)
- Harry (no change)
- Liam (up one place)
- Luke (up two places)
- Charlie (down two places)
- Cian (up six places)
- Noah (up two places)
- Michael (no change)
- Oisin (up four places)
- Thomas (down three places)
- Alex (no change)
- Matthew (up four places)
- Darragh (up two places)
- Sean (up four places)
- Jamie (down one place)
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