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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: 1°C

The Irish For The rise of Rían - the latest baby names in Ireland

Darach Ó Séaghdha take a look at the most popular baby names last year.

LAST WEEK THE CSO unveiled 2021’s baby name charts for the Republic of Ireland and, to very little astonishment, Jack remains the top given name for boys.

Jack has been in either 1st or 2nd place since the beginning of the century and it’s quite possible that a few of 2021’s baby Jacks are actually Jack Jrs, named after a father who was born when the name was on its current unbroken wave of popularity.

In fact, even though it has been in first place since 2017 and shouldn’t even want to be any more popular, the number of Jack births actually increased anyway last year. What name could possibly dethrone this long-standing champion?

Irish parents are significantly more conservative in naming sons compared to daughters and the big six boy names on the charts (Jack, James, Noah, Conor, Daniel, Seán) while shuffling a bit, have remained fairly constant for the past 10 years.

If it had not been for a rule change in 2018 where fadas were finally recognised – splitting the Sean/Seán vote – there may have been no change at all. In this context, the arrival of a new entry to the top five is a fairly big deal. So who is Rían and where did he come from?

A fada can make all the difference

The rise of Rían is especially noteworthy when we consider the decline of Seán. Both names are widely spelt without a fada but while Sean and Seán dropped, Rían’s growth accelerated.

The stats favour abbreviation-proof, fada-less names like Jack, Noah, Grace and Lily; so just as Kate and Katie would be a top-five girl name (instead of languishing at 28 and 35 respectively) if they were counted jointly, Rían and Rian would be the biggest Gaeilge-origin boy name if counted together, edging ahead of Conor.

A ‘Vibe Shift’ in Irish names

In the late twentieth century, Irish parents leaned towards Irish names from history and mythology – Gráinne, Emer, Diarmuid, Oisín and so on. And while some of those names are still popular there has been a thematic change in the most popular Irish names as abstract qualities (Fiadh – respect, wildness, or a deer; Saoirse – freedom) have overtaken those warrior-poet kings and queens.

Rían, despite being an old word for the sea or the right direction, does not fit easily into this trend. The fact that baby name websites (and celebrity parents) widely state that it means king or kinglike (rí is the Irish for a king) suggests that it is part of a separate trend.

Although many Irish parents consider giving a surname as a first name to be very American, Ryan has been widely used since the 1970s. Ryan comes from Ó Riain in Irish, which is taken to mean kingly.

Given that the first name Ryan started to decline in popularity in the 2010s around the time Rian and Rían began to ascend it is reasonable to see Rían as an update or replacement to Ryan, much as Éabha has climbed in popularity as Eve, Ava and Aoibhe have wavered.

Celebrity influence

In a previous article on naming patterns in Ireland, I noted that Irish parents recoil from giving a child a name closely associated with a current celebrity, and I stand by this. However, the children of celebrities might be a different matter, especially if the names given are consistent with other trends.

For example, is Lyra on the rise because people like Philip Pullman’s novels or because that’s what Ed Sheeran named his daughter? It’s hard to tell unless the celebrity in question has multiple children.

I would not have considered the fact that Conor McGregor named his second son Rían last year to have been relevant except for the fact that his daughter’s name, Críoa, has also climbed the charts rapidly (from 255th in 2018 to 52nd on 2021). However, no other famous parent appears to have such an influence in Ireland.

Irish phonetics

Consider this very scientific survey: in the top 50 names for girls in 2021, there are two silent DHs (Fiadh and Sadhbh), one MH that sounds like a V (Caoimhe), two BHs that sound like Vs (Sadhbh and Éabha), and one silent GH (Clodagh). That’s five names if you don’t want to double count. Compare this to the boys’ top 50: one DH (Tadhg), no MH, no BH, one GH (Darragh).

Are parents more open to giving a name with Irish language phonetics to their daughters than their sons, and if so, is there an element of sexism in the complaints that these names are “hard to pronounce”?

What is certain, however, is that Irish parents overwhelmingly prefer the version of a name with Irish phonetics when given the choice, as the rise of Rían shows.


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