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The Irish For...What can we learn from the rise and fall of Irish girls' names?

Gaeilgeoir Darach O Séaghdha talks us through the meaning behind names like Saoirse, Órla and Aoife – and what we can learn from them.

Darach Ó Séaghdha

This the latest dispatch from our columnist Darach Ó Séaghdha, author of the award-winning and bestselling Motherfoclóir. Every Sunday morning, Darach will be regaling (re-Gaeling?) us with insights on what the Irish language says about Ireland, our society, our past and our present. Enjoy.

THE RUNAWAY SMASH hit of Irish publishing in 2017 was Oh My God What A Complete Aisling, and its success is a modern example of an ancient tradition: the given name as a distinct noun. Aisling has joined military names (tommy, gerry), intimate names (dick, fanny), foolish names (wally, charlie) and problematic names (paddy, mick) in entering common parlance, specifically in reference to a very sensible young woman from the country.

The choice of the name Aisling (meaning “vision in a dream” and a key genre in Irish poetry) is significant. As with most human activities, there are fashion trends in the naming of children and the CSO baby name database reveals some fascinating patterns which follow the sharp changes in recent Irish history. Aisling was a constant fixture in the top 20 of Irish names from 1983 to 1997, dropping in popularity as the notions of the Celtic Tiger started to get out of hand.

What else can we learn from the rise and fall of Irish girls’ names?

Mary: From 1964 (when the CSO data begins) until 1983, Mary held an iron grip on the number one spot for girls’ names. In fact, the total number of Marys born in 1964 exceeds all top 9 girls’ names of 2017 combined (and there are more babies now). It was so popular that it was still the favourite even when the number of Marys had halved by 1972. However, it was out of the top 10 by 1992 and is currently ranked 91 – just below Pippa. The decline in Mary’s popularity was fuelled by two factors – less insistence on a saint’s name by baptising priests after Vatican II, and a growing interest in traditional Irish names.

Sinéad: Throughout the seventies, as Mary held the top spot, Sinéad – the name of President De Valera’s wife – was the most serious challenger and the most popular of all the girls’ names with a distinct Irish language origin (as opposed to translations of saints’ names, like Máire and Bríd). However, although Irish names became increasingly popular in the nineties, this name left the top ten forever in 1991 – coincidentally, around the time Nothing Compares 2 U was a hit.

Órla: Unfortunately, the CSO data set doesn’t include fadas. This is frustrating as it can change the meaning of a name; Órla means golden princess, orla means vomit. This form of the name is an abbreviation of Órfhlaith and, as with names such as Fionnghuala, Fiadh and Caoilfhionn, bears multiple accepted spellings – in fact, the version spelled Órlaith overtook Órla in popularity in 2015.

Aoife: Thirty-something readers will surely have a friend called Aisling or Sinéad, but it’s unlikely they have a niece with one of those names. Not so with Aoife. The number one name on the year of the millennium has held a place in the top 15 Irish girls’ names since 1981. What’s the secret to its staying power? It’s easy to spell and pronounce as Irish names go, it’s been around long enough to be a family name and yet it hasn’t been ruined by an association with a controversial celebrity yet.

Saoirse: In 1990, five of the top ten girls’ names came from Gaeilge (Sinéad, Ciara, Niamh, Aoife, Aisling) names as pride in Irishness reached peak levels. Nearly thirty years later Irish names are still widely sought after, but the pool of names is far wider and no individual dominates. So it is interesting that the most popular Irish language girl name of 2017, Saoirse, is one that was barely even considered a name at all a generation earlier. Likewise, names like Fiadh, Caoimhe and Cara have gained ground in the new century. Some of this change is down to a change in attitudes to Gaeilge itself: no longer a talisman against modernity but something contemporary, beautiful and open to change.

Darach’s new book Craic Baby is the follow-up to his acclaimed Motherfoclóir and has just been published  under the Head of Zeus imprint. He runs @theirishfor Twitter account and the @motherfocloir podcast.

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Darach Ó Séaghdha

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