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Molly McArdle
July 05, 2017

Names tell the story of a place — what’s important to a culture, what history it chooses to commemorate. In Ireland, names are especially political, reflecting centuries-old tensions between the English and Irish.

After Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland in 1649, the English occupiers began to change place names from Irish to English. Dubhlinn became Dublin, for example, and An Daingean was shortened to Dingle.

Today, names remain very political. In Northern Ireland, whether a person calls the city “Derry” or “Londonderry” reveals as much about a person’s political background or religious allegiance as wearing a party pin might.

In the Republic of Ireland, despite the fact that only 1.5 percent of the population speaks Irish (also known as Gaelic) on a daily basis, the language appears on every sign, below every Anglicized place name. According to the Irish government, Kerry’s Gaeltacht peninsula is neither one nor the other but both: Dingle and An Daingean.

Popular Irish Names

Personal names also sometimes share this duality. Someone might be both Padraig as well as Patrick, depending on the context. Many Irish last names are patronymic, not only passed down by fathers but also signifying that father. The prefix “Mc,” for instance, means “son of.”

Because of the country’s linguistic heritage, as well as its millennia-old relationship with the Catholic Church, many Irish first names are derived from the Irish language, or are the names of saints. Oftentimes, they are both.

Irish boy names like Sean, for instance, is the Irish-language version of John; Seamus is the same for James. Both are biblical in origin.

Irish girl names, on the other hand, often employ the Irish-language suffix “-een,” which signifies small or dear. Think of Colleen, Maureen, Kathleen. History and mythology are also important sources. A name like Bridgid (or, more Anglicized, Bridget) comes from a pre-Christian goddess turned saint. Brian’s popularity stems from the 10th-century Irish high king, Brian Boru.

Many popular, contemporary names can also be traced to the Emerald Isle. According to the Huffington Post, Aiden is derived from the Gaelic word Aodhán (meaning "little fire") while Quinn (meaning "intelligence" or "leader") is a Celtic surname originally from Ireland. 

In 2016, Ireland's Central Statistics Office reported Emily and Grace as the top two most popular Irish girls' names. Ava (the anglicized version of Aoife, which means beautiful, radiant, joyful) and Lucy tied for third. 

For boys, James and Jack were the two most popular Irish names. Daniel and Conor tied for third. Conor, from the Gaelic Conchobhar, can be traced back through Irish mythology to the Ulster King Conchobar mac Nessa. 

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