Cad is Ainm? Irish people’s names

In Mountjoy jaaaiiiil one Monday morning...

In Mountjoy jaaaiiiil one Monday morning…


Well blog, it’s been a while… Apologies to all those who signed up to long-gone rugby stats and are now receiving tedium on names.

Because I’m a daring, exciting kind of person, I’ve been playing recently with a dataset I’ve scraped of Irish births from 1864 to 1958. One thing that’s interested me for a while is the popularity of first names over time. There is so much fashion and snobbery around names (myself included) and I often wondered how long a name has to be around before it’s considered a bog standard acceptable normal name. And those names we imagine as being traditional – how long have they actually been popular?

To look at some of this (and as an exercise in data web apps), I’ve made a little app, below, which allows you to track the popularity of the top 600 most popular given names for babies born over the period of 1864-1958 (unfortunately registrations data after 1958 is not publicly available yet). While data is available for the North pre-independence, it’s not available after 1922 so I have excluded it for consistency.

Just start typing a name into the box and click on as many suggestions as you like, then hit “Go” to see a chart. All names are currently showing without fadas or other diacritics – brón orm! The y-axis shows the proportion of all children born that year who were given that name. If you’re having difficulty with the sizing on screen, click here to open the app in a separate window. Apologies as well if this app crashes – the free version of R/Shiny doesn’t allow for much bandwidth!

Some thoughts, having played around a bit with it:

  • Ireland became a lot more diverse in its names over this period. We might think of the eighties as a period when names changed a lot (more Irish language names brought in especially), but this period really was a huge expansion as well. In 1864 the top five names (Mary, John, Patrick, James and Michael) made up over 35% of all children born. In 1958 this went down to 26% (while Bernadette had kicked James out of the top five). In 1864 nearly 12% of all children born were called Mary – not 12% of all girls, but 12% of all children! While the most popular names declined, a huge host of other names we take for granted now rose in popularity.
  • Irish language names were virtually unrecorded before the turn of the 20th century. My own name Cian is barely recorded throughout the period bar one or two brave souls. More common names such as Ciarán and even Kieran are very infrequent until the revolutionary period and independence. Éamon de Valera was practically the first Éamon (or Éamonn for that matter) with almost no births recorded until the twenties. Even Seán was not recorded in great numbers until this period. Presumably this is a combination of nationalist fervour and British authorities recording anglicised versions of Irish names?
  • I had always assumed it was a modern innovation to name a child by a diminutive – e.g. to actually register the name Kate or Lizzie for a child rather than naming them Catherine or Elizabeth and calling them the shortened version. In fact, while this does seem to have been the case for my parents’ generation, it doesn’t seem to be of especially long standing. The name Kate was popular as a registered name for many years until a decline at the turn of the century made it virtually extinct by the fifties. The same is true for Lizzie.
  • Mentioning Lizzie, it was good to see that public events have always had a big impact on what children are named. The name Elizabeth saw a steep drop in popularity in Ireland in 1954, presumably following the coronation of Elizabeth Windsor in 1953. Conversely the name Kevin saw a huge peak in 1921 after the execution of Irish Volunteer Kevin Barry. An phoblacht abú!
  • Some names I think of as old people’s names really are old people’s names. Biddy practically died out as a name before independence. I wonder are we going to start seeing more Biddies and Bridies as they come back into fashion like Lily and Rose have in England (and here)?
  • Other old-fashioned names (in my prejudiced opinion) are not really that old. Nora was almost unheard of as a name before the twentieth century and actually had its peak in the thirties and forties before a decline in the fifties. A name like Brendan, which feels as though its been around forever, was likewise non-existent until the twentieth century and has since become hugely popular.

The CSO has made data on the top 100 most popular babies’ names available from 1998 onwards, which I might have a look at some day, but hope that the 1959-1997 gap is filled in some day. In the meantime, play around with your name, your parents’ names, your grandparents’ names and see if you come up with anything interesting.

This is part of a planned trilogy of data-and-Irish-names. Godfather Part I (the best, obviously) was my @Ireland1911 twitterbot which tweets out everyone alive in Ireland in 1911 one at a time. This post is Godfather Part II (a solid sequel), while an interactive map of names and surnames in Ireland by county in 1911 is due to be Godfather Part III (a nightmarish and incomprehensible mess).


  1. Edward G

    All the common girls’ names drop in 1954, not just Elizabeth. It was a Marian year and, according to the chart, about 1 in 8 girls was baptised Marian, almost more than Mary. Bernadette reached the top 5 only in 1958, the Lourdes centenary.

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