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The Irish For: The varieties of cailín and the deductive Coleen Rooney

Coleen is derived from cailín, the Irish word for a girl, writes Darach Ó Séaghdha.

Darach Ó Séaghdha Writer

MY FRIEND’S UNCLE claims that in the 1960s, there was a power cut across the West of Ireland during the final episode of hit TV show The Fugitive because during the ad break, everyone put the kettle on at the same time.

An equally urgent craving for tea happened this week when an lucht ar líne (the online community) were treated to a scéal mearscaipthe (viral story) packed with sleuthing, celebrities, betrayal, gossip and drama.

I am referring, of course, to Coleen Rooney’s Scooby-Doo epilogue in which she explained the detailed process of deduction used to identify the traitor in her circle of friends.

If only Game of Thrones had such a satisfying ending. It just so happens that this crafty Liverpudlian is the bearer of a very Irish name, one which leads us down an appropriately long and twisty rabbit hole.

Coleen is derived from cailín, the Irish word for a girl. This name (more frequently spelled with two Ls) is far more popular in Irish communities abroad than it has ever been in Ireland, never exceeding 25 births in a year in the Republic.

This was once also true of the name Erin, although that name has soared in popularity in 21st century Ireland while Colleen has not.

Compare this to Massachusetts where roughly 150 Colleens a year were born in the 1980s, or New York where over 200 Colleens a year arrived in the same time period.

Irish emigrants didn’t bring the name Colleen with them, but they did bring the word, which was used intentionally in song lyrics when the word girl just wouldn’t do.

This was one of a suite of Irish loanwords used in sentimental songs about Ireland to evoke authenticity and nostalgia. Consider this extract from The Bard of Armagh.

At a fair or a wake, I could twist my shillelagh
Or trip through a jig with my brogues bound with straw
And all the pretty colleens around me assembled
Loved the bold Phelim Brady, the bard of Armagh

Another example is the Oedipal dirge Mother Machree (a phonetic rendering of mo chroí - my heart), originally from the show Barry of Barrymore but probably better known to modern audiences from Netflix film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. 

There’s a spot in my heart, which no colleen may own
There’s a depth in my soul, never sounded or known
There’s a place in my memory, my life that you fill
No other can take it, no one ever will 

Just as the loanwords mañana, schadenfreude and ennui have their literal meaning enhanced by Anglophone perceptions of the language they originated from, colleen does not merely mean girl in these lyrics – in English, it means an Irish girl.

This understanding must have been fairly widespread in New York City when Dion Boucicault’s play The Colleen Bawn (the fair Irish girl, or the darling girl) opened there in 1860.

Unlike his better-known fellow Dublin writers with streets and bridges named after them, Boucicault wrote smash hits and this play was filmed three times in the silent movie era.

Silent movies also give us one of the earliest recorded incidences of Colleen as a woman’s name with actress Colleen Moore, a style icon during the flapper era of fashion.

Although this was a stage-name (as was also the case with other early adapters like Coleen Gray) her popularity contributed to more baby girls being so named over the coming decades.

Finally, many Irish teachers like to stun their pupils by telling them that cailín is technically a masculine noun. However, you shouldn’t block all but one languages in your search: the English word girl originally meant a child regardless of gender.

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About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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