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The Irish For: What do these popular boys' names mean - and what can we learn from them?

Social trends are reflected in different names, writes Darach Ó Séaghdha, whose first name means “like an oak tree”.

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.

AT THE END of February every year, right before Seachtain na Gaeilge kicks off, the Central Statistics Office have their biggest non-census event: unveiling the top baby names of the previous year.

There’s just over two weeks to go and I’m extremely excited about it. How come, you ask?

Well, I have a feeling that this year is going to be the year that Darach finally overtakes Derek.

Derek vs Darach: As a boy called Darach (it means “like an oak tree”) growing up in the 80s and 90s, I was incorrectly addressed as either Derek or Darren on a daily basis. However, these two names – giants of the pre-Celtic Tiger era – started falling out of favour during the boom years, a trend that accelerated during the subsequent recession.

Meanwhile, my own name has maintained its niche appeal… so much so that in 2017 there were four Dereks and three Darachs born (compare that to 338 Dereks and eight Darachs in 1977).

I wrote about the rise and fall of certain girls’ names in Ireland a few months back
and what social changes were reflected in these trends. Can similar patterns be noted in boys’ names?

John vs Seán: If you have an uncle or a grandad called Seán, it’s quite possible that his name is John on his birth cert. Nearly 3,700 Johns were born in 1964 (compared to 171 Seans) and the name held the number one position until 1985, when it began its slow descent out of the top 20.

Meanwhile, Sean climbed steadily, hitting the number 1 spot in 1997 and staying in the top five ever since. This is consistent with a rise in the popularity of Irish names from the early ‘70s onwards. Sean is one of those names which runs afoul of the CSO not making their results fada sensitive – Seán is the name in Irish, sean means old (and séan means to deny). 

Oisín: Thousands of men who were named John on their birth cert have chosen to be addressed as Seán – ditto with Padraigs, Peadars and Seosamhs. This has led to these names being under-represented in the official figures. While this may give a statistical boost to those specifically Irish and untranslatable names such as Conor, Aidan and Oisín, there is no denying that names from mythology and old Irish had a sharp rise in popularity in the 1980s and especially during the increased national self-confidence of the 1990s.

Oisín has gone from three births in 1964 (drawing in popularity with Mario and Lorenzo in that year) to being a fixture in the top 20 since 2003. Best known as the name of the boy who followed Niamh to Tír na nÓg, it literally means fawn – which is especially interesting given that Oisín’s mother was transformed into a deer for a while.

Ruadhán vs Ruán: The popularity of some Irish names is understated, however, by the existence of multiple accepted spellings. This is especially true of names with silent letters, like the dh in Ruadhán. Whichever way you spell this one, this name means red haired (Ruaidhrí, also bearing silent letters which some parents choose to discard, goes a little further and means red haired king).

Fionn: One of the stars of Dunkirk is the young actor Fionn Whitehead, a man who bears the distinction of having a given name and a surname that mean the same thing. Specifically, Fionn means fair-haired. This is one of the fastest-rising given names from Irish for boys of the 21st century, having tripled in popularity since 2002.

Conor: Lover of hounds, King of Ulster – however you choose to interpret the meaning of this one, it has had an uninterrupted 25 years in the top 5 boys’ names and shows no signs of slowing down. 

Art: Finally, this one has a special meaning for me as it is the name we chose for my son who joined us a few weeks ago (which is why this article hasn’t appeared these last few Sundays). Art is an old Irish word for a bear or a hero, and was the name of a high king of Ireland. No pressure on him, so!

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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