Saturday, April 21, 2012

Name Post: Introduction to Ireland

Every place has history, but some places, more than others, have people who tell it. I’m finding that Dubliners like to tell their histories and names are often entangled in them. One Irish woman I met the other day joked that Irish people like to talk a lot because in the Irish language, it takes more words to get to the same meaning. “Thank you”, for example, is “Go raibh maith agat”, which literally means “May you have a thousand good things.”
Taken at the National Botanical Gardens, a ten minute walk from where I'm staying.
There is an industry of names here. There are “houses of names” on almost every street downtown; a fact that delighted me until I realized they were only focused on surnames and family crests. Coming to Ireland to “trace your roots” is a common tourist attraction, and one I can sympathize with. There’s is a Nellie Mitchell on my mother’s side who was originally from Belfast and moved to the United States upon learning her family arranged for her to be married to a 30 year-old, cigar-smoking man when she was only 18. My dad’s mother was Helen Nolan, with a given name that also lends itself to Nell, and another Irish surname.
Inadvertently, I’m learning quite a bit about surnames. I hadn’t known before that the “Mac” preface to names means “son of”, or that technically, instead of “Mac”, women would use a different prefix and have a different surname. An Anglicized name like “McDonell”, for example, would have originally come from something like “Mac Dhomhnaill” in Irish, meaning “son of Dhomhnaill.” The daughter of Dhomhnaill would go by “Nic Dhomhnaill.” I’m also learning that a lot of names we think of as Irish can be traced back further, and are not technically from Ireland. The last name “Fitzgerald”, for example, actually comes from the French for son, “fils”, so it’s guessed that it’s a Huguenot name that ended up here.
I’ve asked a few people if a family of McDonnells in Dublin today would actually go by “Mac” or “Nic”, and essentially have different surnames within the same family, or use the anglicized McDonnell for all. Whenever I’ve asked anyone this question so far, they always mention roll call.
In most Irish primary schools today, the roll call is consistently done in Irish. This means that children’s names are all translated. At school, if not at home as well, Mary McQuaid would be Máire Nic Uaid and Patrick Casey would be Padraig Ó Cathasaigh. In this way, the schools take on a sort of nationalistic project with these names, even though most often passports and birth certificates have the anglicized versions.
There’s a lot surname translations and naming rules that can be found online and are written by people who understand this much better than myself. (This short and sweet summary is quite helpful, for example: What interests me more, however, are the contexts in which these names are used, and that, for example, whenever I’ve asked if these traditions are followed, every Irish person I’ve spoken with brings up the memory of roll call. I want to hear more about given names, because in that department, more than with surnames, people have greater choice as to what is passed on. (Let this be my official disclaimer to "pass" when it comes to the vast and historical Irish surname front).
The River Liffey
Although there are probably few families left who are using different last names for the different family members according to Irish tradition (Mac v. Nic, for example), Irish given names have seen a resurgence in recent years. I think part of this resurgence owes to the choices made by contemporary Irish writers and artists who are choosing to use their Irish names in their work. For example, I recently learned that one of my all time favorite poets, Medbh McGuckian, was actually born with the given name “Maeve.” Supposedly she started using Medbh, the Irish version of her name, when her university professor, Seamus Heaney wrote her name that way when signing books to her. (Just one of many historical/onomastical*/literary/beautiful stories that all seem to be tangled up in each other on this incredible island).
Parents are echoing this sentiment and beginning to use Irish names more and more now. In fact, I learned the other day that giving Irish names to babies is so “in” here right now, particularly among wealthier communities, that people often mock the trend, putting on snobby voices to pronounce names like Niamh (pr. “neev”) and Iollan (pr.”ul-an”).
That said, statistics show it's a small trend. When I looked online at the top names in Ireland in 2010, only two of them, for girls and boys, are what I would think of as traditionally Irish. One, “Sean”, has also taken on international popularity, but the other I could tell was traditionally Irish because I had to ask someone how to pronounce it: “Aoife” (pronounced “Ee-fa” or “Eva”, there is no ‘v’ in the Irish language) was #10 for girls.
Giving children given names is a relatively recent trend. (Several people I've spoken with have mentioned they think it started up around the 1970s). Under the British Penal Laws, Irish language, as well as Irish names, were banned. Because of this, when modern parents are looking for traditional Irish names today, they’re often going many many years back to Gaelic and Celtic mythology.
It isn't just the British who are responsible for the dearth of Irish names in Ireland, however. As I’m finding is true with most things here, religion also plays a large role. For a long time, the Catholic Church in Ireland wouldn’t baptize a baby unless it had the name of a saint. Because names are often passed on through generations here, today when you meet people who bear the names of saints (Bernadette, Bridget, or Mary, for example), you can guess that they’re from a Catholic family. This means that names, even given names, are large indicators of religion. In a country where this can mean quite a lot, names have become directly linked to conflict.
One woman told me that there are a few people who have Catholic names but who are actually Protestant. She told me that many of these conversions to Protestantism happened during the potato famine. Some Protestant churches were giving out free meals to help people during this time, but in exchange, they asked for them to convert from Catholicism. She told me that it may just be a rumor, but today people with Catholic names who are actually Protestant have relatives referred to as "soupers"; people who swapped their religion for soup during the famine.
I am slowly figuring out the right questions to ask here, and how to ask them carefully. I'm finding that names are caught up in most things, to the point where they're almost taken for granted; from the joking term "soupers", to the fact that the slang word Protestants call Catholics, "Tadhgs", is used because the boys' name "Tadhg" is so popular among them. These are things that are probably second nature to most people living here, or really anyone who has taken an Irish history class, but words and terms I am just figuring out how to wrap my clumsy American tongue around.
I'm lucky they're beautiful sounds to learn to say, and sounds, as the shop down the road will gladly tell me, that are part of my own history.
The information above has been compiled through several conversations I’ve had over the last week, especially my conversations with: Irafhlaith Watson, a sociology professor at UCD (his own name is pronounced “ear-la”, which has to be one of the loveliest boys’ names I’ve ever heard), Paulina, my Dublin walking tour guide, and Peter Joseph Holden, whose wife runs the self-catering apartments I’m staying at--a man whose brain I pick about Irish names whenever I see him painting the gate outside my apartment, only after he asks me (daily) if I have an Irish boyfriend yet.
*I might have made up this word, but I figure if onomastics is a word, onomastical definitely should be.


  1. As always: VERY Interesting and beautifully written.
    And with knowing some of the Irish, I learned a bit about names as well and met an: (i can't spell it properly, will use the version of names pronounced) o-en, shi-nad (i think she is spelled sinead) and a siv (long I, no clue how it is spellend) and an e-va all in one family :-D

  2. Nell! What a beautiful post. I was interested to learn that my last name meant "son of Linden". Huh. All this time, I thought it meant "family of", but I suppose they are pretty similar. It was also funny that you mentioned Aoife - we have a student this semester with that name and I remember Rachel and I agonizing for weeks how on earth to pronounce it until we learned it was Gaelic. As always, a great post!

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