Celtic Christian Names

Tomas O Flannghaile
For the Tongue of the Gael
Start of essay Celtic Surnames

Many Irish names began with , a hound, figuratively a hero. These all took Mac, with apparently one exception, which took the O, namely, Cú-cheanann, which gave rise to the surname O Conceanainn, anglicised ‘Concannon,’ and sometimes even ‘Cannon.’

In all the names of this class the Cu under the government of O or Mac, took the genitive form Con, which is preserved in most of these names in their English form, as Conway (Mac Con-bhuadha, sometimes also for Mac Con-mhaighe) Conmee, or Conmey (Mac Con-Midhe), Confrey (Mac Confraoich), Conroy (Mac Con-raoi), &c.

Some of them have retained the Mac and suppressed the Con; but have put in a syllable ‘na,’ which does not occur in the Irish; as Macnamee (for MacConMidhe), Macnamara (for Mac Con-mara), from Cu-mara, sea-hound, shark—figuratively a pirate—identical with Murchú, (Welsh Morgi,) with the syllables transposed.

Irish names which begin in their English form with H, as Hogan, Healey, Hennessy, Hayes, &c., take the O in Irish; the H being a euphonic letter thrown in between the O and the vowel of the ancestral name. Hogan =Ir. O h-Ógain, Healey = O h-Éiligh, Hennessy = O h-Aonghusa, Hayes = O h-Aodha; also Englished ‘O’Hea,’ ‘O’Hay,’ and ‘Hay.’

Whilst the greater part of our Irish surnames have no doubt retained some trace of their Celtic origin, a good number also have lost every sign of their Celtic nature by ‘translation,’ half-translation, and mis-translation; so that they are often cited as evidence of English origin.

How often do we find Irish families with such names as ‘Fox’ and ‘Cox’ and ‘Wood’ and ‘Ford’ and ‘Smith’ and ‘White’—names which would lead strangers, and do sometimes lead their owners themselves, to think they are of English race!

Not of course that there are not many families of English name and origin in Ireland; but there are hundreds of families who bear such names who are well known to be pure Irish, and who themselves are well aware that their names are but translations, or quasi-translations of their Irish names.

Others have not been translated at all; but assimilated to something of like sound in English, and in their new form look quite Saxon—as when ‘Hardiman,’ ‘Harrington,’ ‘Sexton,’ ‘Hart,’ ‘Ward’ are made out of such Irish names as ó h-Eireamhóin, O h-Aireachtáin, O Seascnáin, O h-Airt, and Mac-an-Bháird.

So much for our surnames. If havoc has been played with them in the course of a century or two, still greater havoc has been made with our Christian names.

Mr. Laurence Ginnell, in his interesting article in a late number of the New Ireland Review, has pointed out that the Highlanders have preserved their Celtic Christian names much better than we have preserved ours.

Even when their surnames may have changed, still we find such markedly Gaelic Christian names as Angus and Malcolm and Duncan and Murdoch and Kenneth and Donald quite popular amongst them, and sometimes even in Lowland families.

Of thousands of Celtic Christian names current amongst us, so late even as a couple of centuries ago, scarce half a hundred survive: among the most usual being Brian, Colman, Donagh (Ir. Donnchadh, Scottish ‘Duncan’) Felim, Fergus, Finnian (Ir. Finnghin), Fintan, Kieran (Ciarán), Kevin (Ir. Caoimhghin) Jarlath (for Iarfhlaith), Mogue (Maodhóg), Murtagh (Muircheartach), Neill (for Niall), Owen (Eoghan), and Theigue (for Tadhg). And most of these are very rare.

No doubt a great many more are used in Irish, but they are generally Englished by some travesty, as when Diarmuid (‘Dermod,’ ‘Dermot’) is rendered by ‘Jeremiah,’ or ‘Darby,’ Domhnall (‘Donald’) by ‘Daniel,’ Conchubhar (‘Conor’) by ‘Cornelius,’ Cathal (‘Cahal’) by ‘Charles,’ Flaithri by ‘Florence,’ Maol-Mhuire by ‘Miles,’ ‘Myles,’ &c.

Mr. Ginnell’s explanation of the rise of these names is probably the true one in a great many cases. They are the product chiefly of the eighteenth century—the century of the penal laws.

At that time, the Catholic clergy were educated mostly abroad, and knowing little of Irish history, civil or ecclesiastical, when they were called on to christen the children, they generally gave some Biblical name or some foreign name with which they themselves were familiar, satisfied if it had any distant resemblance at all to the native names: so ‘Daniel’ was given in preference to Domhnall, ‘Jeremias’ to Diarmuid, ‘Thomas’ to Tomaltach, &c.

But at all times there seems to have been a great desire on the part of the Gaedhil for ‘translating’ their native names into well-known Latin and Greek forms—as Aonghus (not into ‘Aengusius’ but) into Aeneas, Conn (not into ‘Connus’ but) into Quintus, Flann (not into ‘Flannus’ but) Florentius, &c.

What with the denial of all education in the eighteenth century, and the un-Irish ‘National’ education on the one hand, and the ‘Superior English education’ on the other in the nineteenth century, little wonder if our people knew no Irish history, had forgotten that their land was once the “Isle of Saints,” and were no longer familiar with their beautiful and pious and heroic old names.

We have, of course, countless Patricks and Brigits and Michaels, but our ancestors did not confine themselves to a few names.

And though, indeed, they honoured and venerated their saints, it does not appear that they often gave a saint’s name directly to a child as the custom is now. They rather preferred—probably on account of their great reverence for the saints—not Patrick, or Brigit, or Colum, or Brendan, but ‘Giolla-Pádraic,‘servant of Patrick,’Maol-Coluim,’ ‘disciple of Colum,’ Céile-Peadair, ‘servant of Peter,’ &c.

Some think our native names long to write and difficult to pronounce, but though many, no doubt, are of “learned length and thundering sound,” we have also many which are very short, very simple, and very euphonious—many that have not so much as one aspirated letter in them. Such are the monosyllabic names Art, Bran, Breas, Brian, Conn, Donn, Fionn, Flann, Niall, Treun, and dozens of others; and the dissyllabic names Ardán, Artán, Anluan, Breasal, Cairbre, Bréanainn, Colla, Earárd, Diaclán, Eunna, Guaire, Fearnán, Mórna and Tórna, Lorcán and Morán, and Rónan, and Niallán, and very many more.

Nor are these merely pagan names, for numberless priests and bishops and saints of Erin bore those names in the ages of most faith and piety.

And of the hundreds upon hundreds of women’s names once prevalent in Ireland, hardly a dozen pure Celtic names have been carried into English use; though no doubt many are used in speaking Irish which are always rendered in English by ‘equivalents.’

Of the few pure Irish names for women still used are Brigit (sometimes shortened to ‘Bride,’ from the modern Irish Brighid, where the aspirated g is silent): Eveleen or Eileen (Eibhlín—sometimes used for ‘Ellen’ and ‘Helen’), Gráinne (sometimes used for ‘Grace’), Nuala for Fionnghuala, ‘Finola’ lit. ‘Fair-shoulder,’ Sauve or Sive (Sadhbh used for ‘Sabia,’ ‘Sabina,’ and even ‘Sarah’); Sheela (Sidhle, also used for ‘Julia’); Sorcha (‘Sarah’ and ‘Clara’), and perhaps Una, anglicised ‘Oona,’ ‘Winny’ and ‘Winifred.’

Some generally considered Irish, as ‘Kathleen’ and ‘Nora,’ are really not so—the former being the English spelling of Caitilín, a late Irish form of Caitrín or Caitríona, that is, the Greek Katharina or Catherine. The Spanish also has two forms of the same name—Catarina and Catalina.

‘Nora’ was formerly Onóra, from the Latin Honora or Honoria, ‘the honourable’ or ‘honoured’: it is sometimes Englished ‘Honor.’

And Mór, the ‘Great,’ and Grian, the ‘Sunny,’ and Niamh, the ‘Splendid,’ and Aille, ‘Beauty,’ and Binne, ‘Melody,’ and Eithne, ‘Knowledge,’ and Gorm, the ‘Blue-eyed,’ and Bláthnaid, ‘Floweret,’ and Eimear, the ‘Gentle,’ and Meadhbh, the ‘Tender,’ and Scoithin, ‘Little-Blossom,’ and Muireann, the ‘Sea-white,’ and Múirne, ‘Affection,’ and Aoibhínn, the ‘Delightful’—such were some of the names borne in the days of Erin’s prime by the fair daughters of the chiefs and princes of the Gael.