Ireland Personal Names

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Understanding customs used in surnames and given names can help you identify your ancestors in records. Learn to recognize name variations and see clues in names.

Online Tools[edit | edit source]

Surnames[edit | edit source]

  • Irish surnames of Gaelic origin were commonly used until England laid claim to Ireland in the fifteenth century. Legislation under English rule led to the anglicization of many Irish names and to the adoption of many English names. Many different forms of Irish surnames resulted. For example, the Irish surname Houlihan or O'Houlihan may have taken on the anglicized form Holland.
  • Surname variations also resulted from an Irish form of patronymics that used the prefixes "Mac, meaning son of, and "O," meaning grandson of.
  • Many descendants of Anglo-Norman invaders, who became assimilated into the Irish culture, also used patronymics but substituted "Fitz" (as in Fitzgerald) for the prefix "Mac."
  • English law, for a period of time, forbade the use of O' and Mac' in Irish surnames. Fitz was allowed. Not all members of Irish families chose to conform to English laws, hence several forms of a surname often emerged within a single family.
  • By the end of the nineteenth century, use of prefixes resumed. However, prefixes were added or dropped at will, again producing different surnames within the same family. Irish who emigrated during the nineteenth century often dropped the prefixes in their new countries of residence.

Epithets--Jr. and Sr.[edit | edit source]

A first name may be modified by an adjective to distinguish its bearer from other people with the same name. Mór ("big") and Óg ("young") are used to distinguish father and son, like English "senior" and "junior", but are placed between the given name and the surname: Seán Óg Ó Súilleabháin corresponds to "John O'Sullivan Jr." (although anglicised versions of the name often drop the "O'" from the name).

The word Beag/Beg, meaning "little", can be used in place of Óg. This did not necessarily indicate that the younger person was small in stature, merely younger than his father. Sometimes beag would be used to imply a baby was small at birth, possibly premature.

Adjectives denoting hair colour may also be used, especially informally: Pádraig Rua ("red-haired Patrick"), Máire Bhán ("fair-haired Mary").[1]

Traditional Gaeltacht Names[edit | edit source]

In Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) areas, it remains customary to use a name composed of the first name, followed by the father's name in the genitive case, followed by the name of the paternal grandfather, also in the genitive. Thus Seán Ó Cathasaigh (Seán O'Casey), son of Pól, son of Séamus, would be known to his neighbours as Seán Phóil Shéamuis. Occasionally, if the mother or grandmother was a well-known person locally, her name may be used instead of that of the father or grandfather. If the mother's name is used, then that of the maternal grandfather (or potentially grandmother) follows it, for example, Máire Sally Eoghain.

These names are not used for official purposes. Often a nickname or English version of a name is used in their composition where the person would use a standard Irish form in formal circumstances. For example, the prominent sean-nós singer Seán Mac Donnchada is perhaps better known as Johnny Mhairtín Learaí.

This naming system also survives to a certain extent in rural areas outside the existing Gaeltacht. The system can be particularly useful for distinguishing individuals who live in the same locale and who share a common surname but are not closely related. For example, two individuals named John McEldowney might be known as "John Patsy Den" and "John Mary Philip" respectively. Even the Irish forms sometimes survive in parts of the Sperrins, so that among the principal families of Glenullin some branches are known by father/grandfather forms such as Pháidí Shéamais or Bhrian Dhónaill.[2]

Given Names[edit | edit source]

  • Irish given names are also Gaelic in origin and were affected by the same English influences. As with surnames, many given names were anglicized, producing many given name variations. Darby, Dermot, and Jeremiah, for example, are all variations of the same name.
  • Other challenges with Irish given names are
  1. that some given names are used for both males and females — Florence, Sydney, and Evelyn for example — and
  2. that some given names have nicknames that little resemble the original name. Delia, Phidelia, Bidelia, Biddie, and Bride, for example, are all used as nicknames for the name Bridget.

Latin Names[edit | edit source]

  • In Roman Catholic records, the names were often written in their Latin form. Often you can figure out what the name was by looking at the root of the name, for example, “Patricius” in Latin is “Patrick” in English.
  • See Latin Names in English.

Traditional Naming Pattern[edit | edit source]

A traditional naming pattern was often used by Irish parents until the later 19th century:

  • First son usually named for the father's father
  • Second son usually named for the mother's father
  • Third son usually named for the father
  • Fourth son usually named for the father's eldest brother
  • Fifth son usually named for the mother's eldest brother
  • First daughter usually named for the mother's mother
  • Second daughter usually named for the father's mother
  • Third daughter usually named for the mother 
  • Fourth daughter usually named for the mother's eldest sister
  • Fifth daughter usually named for the father's eldest sister. 

Ireland Nicknames[edit | edit source]

Most given names have at least one associated nickname. When names are recorded in civil registration of birth, marriage, and death or in church records, a nickname may have been used instead of the more formal given name (Kate for Catherine or Con for Cornelius, for example). Many nicknames are easy to spot, but others are not. The nicknames used for Bridget include Bedelia, Bedina, Beesy, Bess, Bessie, Biddy, Breda/Breeda, Briddy, Bride, Brideen, Bridie, Cordelia, Dillie/Dilly, Dina, and Phidelia.

Nicknames can lead the researcher astray if used incorrectly. While many people assume that Anty is a nickname for Anthony (a male), it is, in fact, most often a nickname for Anastasia (a female). Lou is both a nickname for male children named Aloysius, Lewis/Louis, and Ulysses as well as female children names Louise or Lucinda.

One further complication is the use of the same name for both males and females. Giles is one example, with Giley and Jiley (as well as several other derivatives) being nicknames for both sexes. Another example is the given name Florence. In this case, nicknames sometimes make it easier to distinguish between the male (Flo, Florrie/Florry and Flurry) and the female (Flo, Flora, and Flossie).

For Further Reading[edit | edit source]

FamilySearch Library[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. "Irish name," at Wikipedia,, accessed 21 February 2021.
  2. "Irish name," at Wikipedia,, accessed 21 February 2021.