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Irish people have played an important role in Australia’s history, with many arriving in the 18th century as convicts or free settlers. By the late 19th century, a third of Australia’s population was Irish, and today around 30% of us claim some Irish ancestry. It is said that Australia is the most Irish country in the world outside Ireland.
The Irish have made an indelible mark on our history, culture, religion, sport and perhaps most especially, our politics – six of our prime ministers have had Irish ancestors. They have also helped create much of our national character: both the good bits, like our dry sense of humour and love of language, and the bad bits, like our pessimism and thin-skinned “touchiness”. When I did Italian names, I said that I could imagine an Australian without an Italian history, I just didn’t care to, but it’s impossible to imagine Australia without an Irish history.
Here’s ten Irish girls’ names, some of which have become popular here, and others which are less common. Just a heads up that I haven’t included any fadas (accent marks) on any of the names, since they are not legal in all states.
Modern name meaning “dream, vision” in Irish Gaelic. It can be seen as a literary name, because the aisling is a poetic genre developed in 17th century Ireland, where a woman appears in a vision and predicts a turn for the better in Ireland’s fortunes. Earlier, the dream-woman was young and beautiful, and didn’t have a political message, but symbolised nature or love. Aisling can be pronounced ASH-ling or ASH-leen, and to English-speakers, seems like a fresh alternative to Ashley; it has also spawned variants such as Ashlynn. Aisling is #41 in Ireland.
From the Gaelic for “beauty, radiance”. In Irish legend, Aífe is a warrior woman, and rival of her (possible) sister Scáthach. Legend tells that she fought the hero Cú Chulainn, but he overcame her with trickery, and promised to spare her life if she stopped fighting with Scáthach, spent a night with him, and bore him a son. She fulfilled her side of the bargain, but the story didn’t end happily. In the tale of The Children of Lir, Aoife is the wicked queen who transformed her stepchildren into swans; she was cursed by being turned into a demon by her own father as punishment. Despite this unpleasant namesake, Aoife was used by medieval Irish nobility, with a notable example being Aoife MacMurrough. This 12th century Irish princess conducted battles on behalf of her husband, and is an ancestor of the current British royal family. Aoife is pronounced like EE-fuh; although complex to spell, it sounds rather like popular Eva, and has a lovely meaning. Aoife is #11 in Ireland and #10 in Northern Ireland.
Anglicised form of the Old Irish name Brigit, meaning “high, exalted”. In Irish mythology, Brigit is a goddess; her name is derived from the word for “fire” and most likely her title. Brigit was a poet, and the inventor of keening – the lament over a body at a burial that is a mixture of singing and weeping. She is also patron of healing, smithing, arts and crafts, cattle and livestock, sacred wells, and serpents. She ruled all things high-reaching, as well as lofty attributes, such as intelligence, wisdom, excellence, knowledge, and skill. Brigit is associated with the home and hearth, and with early spring. Her special day is Imbolc, on February 1. She has become fused with St Brigid of Kildare, one of the patron saints of Ireland – probably an attempt to Christianise the goddess. St Brigid is patron of smiths, cattle, poets and scholars, and her feast day is February 1. In Ireland, the name Bridget was too sacred to use until the 17th century, but later became extremely popular – so much so that an Irishwoman was called a “Biddy“, just as an Irishman was called “Paddy”. Bridget was #104 in the 1900s, and dropped to its lowest ranking in the 1950s, at 0. It hit a minor peak in the early 2000s at #166, and is currently in the 200s in Victoria and the 400s in New South Wales. Bridget is an underused classic which has remained on the charts while never becoming popular.
Anglicised form of Caitlín, Irish form of Cateline, Old French pet form of Catherine. While the Irish say it something like kat-LEEN, English-speakers say KAYT-lin, and turn the Irish pronunciation into another name, Kathleen. Caitlin has been used in Ireland since the 19th century, and became well known in the 20th. In Australia, Caitlin has ranked since the 1970s, making its debut at #554, and soaring until it entered the Top 100 in 1987 at #86. By 1990 it was in the Top 50 at #38; by 1994 it was in the Top 20 at #15. It peaked in the late 1990s at #12, and since then has declined. Currently Caitlin is #99 nationally, #78 in New South Wales, and #103 in the Australian Capital Territory. Last year Caitlin was one of the names that fell the most in popularity, suggesting its day is coming to a close (although its many variant spellings would significantly boost its ranking). Caitlin is #64 in Ireland and #33 in Northern Ireland.
Feminine form of Ciar, meaning “black”. There is a 6th century St Ciara and a 7th century one, or else just one long-lived St Ciara. According to legend, St Ciara was of royal blood, and founded an abbey; another story says that she (unless it is a different St Ciara) saved a town from a noxious fire through her prayers. Ciara is pronounced KEER-uh, and must be one of the most heavily Anglicised Irish names, for you rarely see it with its native spelling, but more often Keira or Kira. Although to me the Ciara spelling looks more elegant, it risks being confused with the Italian Chiara. Ciara fits in with Australian’s love of names such as Kirrily and Kirra, and has a native sound to our ears. Ciara is #32 in Ireland.
Deirdre of the Sorrows is a tragic heroine from Irish mythology. The daughter of King Conchobar’s bard, when she was a baby a druid predicted she would be very beautiful, but that much blood would be shed for her sake. Conchobar decided he wanted this beauty for himself, and had her brought up in seclusion. As an adult, Deirdre was as stunning as the druid had foreseen, and she fell in love with a handsome warrior named Naoise. The couple eloped, and were blissfully happy until the furious Conchobar tracked them down. In the ensuing battle, Naoise was amongst those killed. Conchobar triumphantly took his gorgeous wife home, but was angry that she remained cold and depressed. To teach her a lesson, he told her that he would give her to the man who had murdered Naoise – the man she hated above all others. On the journey to deliver her, the unhappy Deirdre threw herself from the chariot and split her head open. In some versions of the story, she simply wastes away with grief. Deidre is derived from the Gaelic name Derdriu, whose meaning is debated, but is implied in the original story as meaning “noise, murmuring”, related to the word for “storm”. It could thus be understood as “weeping, wailing, storm of tears”, and is often glossed as “sorrow”. Deirdre came into use as a girl’s name in the 19th century, and became more common in the 20th, when there had been many popular re-tellings of the legend. Deirdre first ranked in the 1930s at #183, peaked in the 1940s at #180, and hasn’t charted since the 1970s. This is a vintage name which has had very little use, so hasn’t become dated. It is rather lovely, although very sad.
Derived from Éirinn, from the Irish word for Ireland, Éire. Erin was used as a poetic and nationalistic name for Ireland, or the feminine personification of Ireland. According to folklore, the country’s name comes from Ériu, the mother goddess of Irish mythology, and a symbol of Irish sovereignty. Her name is believed to come from an ancient root meaning “fat”, to indicate that Ireland was a land of abundance. Erin came into common use as an Irish name in the 19th century. It has sometimes been given to boys, perhaps because it sounds like Aaron and Eric, but has only charted for girls. The name Erin first charted in the 1950s, debuting at #457, and reached the Top 100 in 1978, at #71. By 1980 it was in the Top 50 at #46, the following year it was in the Top 20 at #17, and it peaked in 1984 at #12. Erin has been a long-time favourite, and only left the Top 100 in 2012. This modern classic is no longer popular, but still getting a reasonable level of use. It is #39 in Ireland and #19 in Northern Ireland.
Anglicised form of the Gaelic name Medb, meaning “intoxicating”, and related to the English word mead (a fermented honey drink). In Irish legend, Queen Medb was a powerful and seductive queen known for taking a succession of husbands as her consorts. She was once married to King Conchobar, from the story about Deirdre. Medb couldn’t stick him either and walked out; she ended up defeating Conchobar and ruling in his place. She demanded that her wealth be at least equal to her husbands’, and insisted her consorts be without fear, meanness, and jealousy – the last was very important, because Medb also took lovers to supplement her husbands. Folklorists believe that Queen Medb was originally a sovereignty goddess in a matrinlineal society who the king would symbolically “marry” in order to gain power over the land. This explains her many husbands. In modern times, she has become a feminist symbol of women’s power and female sexuality. This is a sweet, spunky name which fits in with the trend for names with a V in them, like Ava, and makes a great middle name. Maeve is in the 100s in Victoria, so not particularly unusual, while it is #100 in Ireland.
Anglicised form of Órfhlaith or Órlaith, meaning “golden princess”. Órlaith was a very popular name in medieval Ireland, and there are several queens and princesses from Irish history with this name. The famous High King of Ireland Brian Boru had a sister named Órlaith who married another High King (she unfortunately came to a sticky end after getting over-involved with her stepson), and Brian also had a daughter and a grand-niece named Órlaith. For some reason, Orla is a man in The Poems of Ossian by James McPherson, a young warrior and chieftain of Lochlin who falls in battle. In Scandinavia, Orla is used as a male name, and that might be because of McPherson’s poetry, which was very popular in Scandinavia. Orla is simple to spell and pronounce, and the princessy meaning would be attractive to many parents. Orla is #82 in Ireland.
Anglicised form of Sinéad, the Irish form of Jeanette, the pet form of the French name Jeanne. It is the equivalent of the English name Janet, which is a pet form of Joan. In practice, Sinead is often understood as the Irish form of Jane or Jean; it has even been used as an Irish form of Jennifer since Jenny is an old pet form of Jane. The name is pronounced shi-NAYD. A famous Irish namesake is Sinéad de Valera, the wife of the Rebublican leader and Ireland’s third president, Éamon de Valera. A teacher of the Irish language, Mrs de Valera was named Jane by her parents, but changed her name to Sinéad not long after she was married. Sinéad de Valera was a successful children’s writer, who wrote in both English and Irish. She helped to popularise the name in Ireland, and the Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor was named after her. Sinéad has lost popularity in Ireland in recent years, and has never charted in Australia, although still seen occasionally.
The public’s favourite names were Maeve, Bridget and Aoife, and their least favourite were Ciara, Deirdre and Sinead.
(Picture shows detail from an Irish pound note, which bears the likeness of Queen Medb or Maeve; the pound hasn’t been used in Ireland since 2002 when the euro was introduced)