IrelandXO Insight - Old Irish first names and aliases

Friday, 18 October, 2019
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Got a lot of background information on an ancestor, but struggling to find them on vital records searches? Know exactly where an individual lived and died in Ireland, yet no death or census record can be found?  Could it possibly be that Irish first name of theirs? 

Before we get into nicknames or spelling variations, understanding how 19th-century record-keepers improvised with Gaelic Irish given names is a must. Here, we take a look in-depth at the most common Old-Irish boys names, their perplexing translations, and how to track their many aliases in Church and Civil Records

For help and guidance in getting around this particular challenge, and in making sense of the records you find, the easiest way, of course, is to post a query to our Message Board on IrelandXO.com.  If you haven't signed up already, your free membership awaits you HERE

Cé leis thú? Who do you belong to?

Despite claims to the contrary, there's no doubt that 19th-century Ireland was still very much a Gaelic-speaking kingdom, especially in the parts of Ireland from where the highest proportion of our ancestors emigrated. While our native language suffered unquestionable devastation by the Great Famine, the number of households where Irish was the day-to-day language was still significant in 1865. Our ancient naming traditions were still alive and in use but disguised by the evolution of aliases and nicknames. 

In the oral tradition, people were known locally by the given name of a parent and grandparent, (e.g. Máirín Tom Sheánín ... Maureen the daughter of Tom the son of Shauneen) a tradition that is alive and well in Gaeltacht areas to this day.

  • This is somewhat reflected in Griffith's Valuation where two individuals sharing an identical name have a holding in the same townland.
  • For example, in the townland of Cloonybrennan near Elphin, a John McDermott (Bryan) and John McDermott (James) were recorded. Among their neighbours, these McDermott cousins would have been known as John Bryan and John James.

With every Irish household having a child named for an adult in the house, there had to be a way of telling them apart and the usual solution was to add a suffix to the little one's name. The most common were the Irish suffixes for:

  • Little or small: "~een" "~ie" or "~ey";
  • Young or "junior" was represented by "~óg" aka "~ogue" e.g. Breedogue / Seánóg. Uileóg  (lit. young William) = Ulick. 
  • "Baby" was a girls' nickname that often stuck for life; as did Sonny (eldest boy) and Sissy (eldest girl).   

How traditional Gaelic names were interpreted

Irish Gaelic remained stubbornly relevant in a variety of settings at a local level but the records we comb through today are not a true representation of our ancestors' personal reality. In a home where native Irish was spoken, children were called by the traditional Irish names they were given and not the alias we see on civil, legal, or church records. How come a search for Sinéad in the 1901 Census of Ireland draws a complete blank? Had the name completely fallen out of fashion? Or was it merely disguised by the fashion in which records were kept? 

Much of the confusion actually began with the Roman Catholic tradition of recording baptisms in Latin (those very Italian-looking first names). How Old Irish / Gaelic names were recorded varied according to the priest (even within the same parish) and with that, the variety of aliases that confound us today were born. 

  • Each priest translating a Gaelic Irish personal name into Latin had his own idea about how it should be done. (For example, many a Johanna or Janeta in the parish register was a Sinéad at home). Those adopted Christian names facilitated a variety of Anglicised aliases such as Joan, Jane or Janet.  
  • An individual could be recorded under multiple Latin aliases in one parish register, as the parish priest changed.

READ Irish Naming and Baptism Traditions

When it comes to 19th-century records it is worth bearing in mind that a forename in baptism and marriage records could vary.  As would how a parent/godparent was recorded over the course of a lifetime.

  • For example, a Bryan, in Griffith's Valuation can turn up under Barnabus (Barnaby) and Bernardus (Bernard) in parish records. All three could be the same individual! So when a trail suddenly runs dry, it's time to look into first name aliases.  

In too many cases, a one-translation-fits-all approach was used for a range of unrelated Gaelic names that shared a phonetic or two. In the same way that Irish-language surnames and placenames were garbled in English, this first-name anomaly can leave us drawing a complete blank in our research. 

  • Florence aka Florry was a common catch-all for males named Flan, Finn, Fitheall and more.  Nothing was standardized and no rules applied.
  • Any Gaelic Irish name beginning with "L~" may have been disguised as Luke or Lawrence. 

How to research Old Irish personal names

One of the biggest challenges can be following a name from one civil record to another. Especially in the case of a name we know should be turning up on Irish Genealogy but isn't. Paid sites offer a workaround on this with the "similar names" option, but many have yet to fully recognise how the most ancient first names were disguised or mistranslated. 

  • Feilim (Pheilim) was very often disguised as Phillip. Tadhg aka Thady as Timothei / Timothy and so on. 
  • The most confounding of all could be the first name Lackey (which appears regularly in Griffith's Valuation) a nickname for both Malachy and Loughlin, two entirely different names.  

To see how Latin baptisms influenced the various English-language aliases that may arise in 19th-century records, check out the following index: 

SEARCH NOW  IrelandXO Index:  GAELIC IRISH BOYS' NAMES

When an Irish Surname appears as a Forename

Have you ever noticed an Irish Surname appearing on record as a forename? While a Nial O'Neil or Brian O'Brien was not unheard of, what do we make of a Farrell Bryan or Carbery O'Brien then?  A clerical error or something to do with patronymics?

Indeed, most Irish surnames with a Mac or O prefix originated from the given name of an ancient Gaelic ancestor. Many traditional Gaelic boys names survived well into the early 20th century. How they evolved often differs greatly from their surname counterparts, however. Understanding how these given names were interchanged with Latin and English aliases too can really help break down brick walls in our research. 

READ IrelandXO Insight: Irish Surnames 101

Sometimes how an Irish given name was pronounced is also a big clue as to its county of origin. And how it was disguised or spelled reflects this hidden clue.  

  • In County Roscommon, in spite of the numerous Fergals appearing on Church Registers, when it comes to Griffith's Valuation, not a single "Fergal" appears – they are all recorded as "Farrell". Fergal often pronounced "Far-eel" was anglicised as Farrel in counties Sligo, Roscommon and much of the west coast.

  • In County Donegal, Fergal was numerous but "Farrell" hardly appears at all. That is because up north it was pronounced as "Farrigil" in Co. Donegal, "Farl" in Cavan, "Fil" in Monaghan, "Friel" in Fermanagh.  


Case Study: Finding Fergal

Let's take a look at Feargal Ó Gallachóir (1813-1885) of Cionn an Doire near Stranorlar, Co. Donegal

It is only with an understanding of the Donegal (Ulster dialect) pronunciation of Fergal as "Ferrigal, Farrigal or Farrigle"  that we can find him: 


Got a question? More information to share?

Please go to our dedicated "Irish Nicknames" Message Board Thread to post your query or add suggestions.  All volunteers welcome!

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