Irish Personal- and Place Names

By Míċeál Ó Loċlainn.

Published: 25th March 2024.

Matronymics and patronymics

Readers unfamiliar with the indigenous Irish system of patronymics and matronymics may be puzzled as to why Máire Ní Ghuairim would be familiarly known as ‘Máire Mháirtín Bheairtle Mháirtín’ and her sister Sorcha as ‘Sarah Mháirtín Bheairtle Mháirtín’.

It’s worth pointing out however that antenymic nomenclature is found internationally; not only in other Celtic countries but also much further afield — notably in Iceland.

Antenymics are easy to understand and simply involve discarding surnames in favour of the personal names, put into the genitive (possessive) case, of one or more immediate ancestors.

In Conamara at least, the practice is referred to as ainm na muintire (the family name) or an t‑ainm baile (the home name).

In the following examples, the inserted letters ’h’ and ‘i’ (emboldened) are what put the names into the genitive in the written form. These letters indicate points where the pronunciation of the name changes to put it in the genitive in the spoken form.

So in the case of muíntir Ghuairim:

  • Máirtín had a son called Beairtle:
    Beairtle Mháirtín.
    Literally, ’Máirtín’s Beairtle’.
    Or ‘Beairtle of Máirtín’, if you want to be all rigorous about it.
  • Then Beairtle had a son of his own called Máirtín:
    Máirtín Bheairtle Mháirtín.
  • And this Máirtín had a daughter called Máire:
    Máire Mháirtín Bheairtle Mháirtín.

The same pattern’s followed when matronymics are included:

  • Peig had a son called Tadhg:
    Tadhg Pheig.
  • Then Tadhg had a son of his own called Peaití:
    Peaití Thaidhg Pheig.

And in a notable example from the literature:

  • Tadhg had a daughter called Máire:
    Máire Thaidhg.
  • Then Máire had a son called Jimín:
    Jimín Mháire Thaidhg.

There’s no hard and fast rule governing the use of matronymics in place of patronymics but they seem to come into play where a female antecedent had a particularly strong personality. Also where there was a particular bond or affection between child (boy or girl) and mother: anecdotal evidence informs me that there have been cases where one sibling is known by an entirely patronymic name, following the father’s lineage, but another by a semi-matronymic one that follows that of the mother.

Names occasionally include adjectives that describe some physical characteristic:

  • Ceaití Stiofáin Mhóir: ‘Big Stiofán’s Ceaití’.
  • Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin: ‘Red Eoghan Ó Súilleabháin’.
  • Tadhg Óg Ó Rodaí: ‘Young Tadhg Ó Rodaí’.
    (Indicating that this Tadhg is the son, or perhaps nephew, of an older one.)

Everyone still has a surname — Máire Ní Ghuairim, Peaití Ó Tuama, Jimín Ó Breasail and so on — but until recently they just weren’t used much outside of formal contexts. In the context of a community’s daily life however, the system of antenymics has much to commend it. In a local area where there might be several people with the same first name / surname combination it provides an intuitive way to differentiate between them. Indirectly, it also serves to preserve generational data about family lines.

Yet it never becomes bloated. Even when a long list of ancestors’ names are known, and the full string occasionally used, day‑to‑day practice is generally to truncate the ainm na muintire to one or two generations at most (possibly skipping some), with the ‘pruning’ done in such a way that the name still serves as a unique identifier. That’s how we get Máire Mháirtín, Sarah Mháirtín and so on…

The tradition has been receding in Ireland over the past couple of generations but it hasn’t entirely died out. And although it’s sometimes assumed to be confined to the Gaeltacht it has in fact survived in some anglophone areas of rural Ireland.

Err, how do you pronounce that?

Update (5th May 2024): Audio clips of the following to be added later this month.

Near enough; as best as can be put into phonetic English:

  • Máire is pronounced more-ih.
    • Rhyme the ‘ih’ with ‘tin’ and don’t breath out the final ‘h’.
    • It’s never, ever ma-REE.
  • Sorcha is pronounced sorra-chuh.
    • The ‘ch’ is the guttural one you get in ‘loch’, ‘bach’, ‘achtung’… It’s not the ‘tsh’ you get in ‘chips’, ‘chaps’ and ‘chops’ and it’s most certainly not a hard ‘K’.
    • It’s never, ever surra-KAH, surrick-AH or surrr-SHAH.
  • In the Irish of the West-Galway Gaeltacht,
    Mháirtín is pronounced WARRtseen.
    • Rhyme the ‘AAR’ with ‘car’.
    • There are, of course, other, perfectly valid native pronunciations elsewhere in the Gaeltacht.
  • In the Irish of the West-Galway Gaeltacht again,
    Bheairtle is pronounced VART-lih.
    • Rhyme the ‘AR’ with ‘marry’.
    • Rhyme the ‘i’ with ‘tin’ and don’t breath out the final ‘h’.
    • And again, there are other, perfectly valid native pronunciations.
  • Ní Ghuairim is pronounced NEE-ghoo-rim.
    • The ‘gh’ is basically the guttural ‘ch’, mentioned above, but also voiced in the throat. It is not a hard ‘G’.
  • Ó Guairim is pronounced OH-goo-rim.
    • Err, actually, yes. The ‘g’ here is a hard ‘G’!
  • Neither Ní Ghuairim nor Ó Guairim have apostrophes.
    • And without the acute accents they’re incorrectly spelt.
  • Roisín na Mainiach is pronounced risheen-na-MAN-yuch.
    • The ‘ch’ is, again, the guttural one: ‘loch’, ‘bach’…
  • Iorras Aithneach is pronounced orrus-AN-yuch.
    • ‘Loch’, ‘bach’…

Máire, Máirín or Mary?

In the extant literature, we see Máire Ní Ghuairim referred to by several variations on her name — even in fairly formal contexts where you might expect consistency. Come to that, while Sorcha is more consistently known as ’Sorcha Ní Ghuairim’, you’ll still encounter occasional references to ‘Sarah Gorham’ and ‘Sally Gorham’.

In strongly anglophone environs, if you’re Joe Soap then apart from occasional formal circumstances when you have to be Joseph Wickham Gascoyne Beresford Sape‑Soap for a while, you’re, well, Joe Soap. If you’re Jack Soap, no one rational’s ever going to stamp their foot and insist you’re really John. And no one rational is ever, ever going to insist that Giuseppe Verdi’s really Joe Green and it’s rude and ignorant of him to expect those of us that can’t speak Italian to call him Giuseppe Verdi.

It’s that simple.

But in Irish-speaking Ireland, and undoubtedly in other minority language domains, it’s often not that simple.

In countries where the indigenous language has come under pressure from an encroaching one, proper nouns often find themselves subjected to particular squeeze. At the time of Máire’s birth (and even now, to a certain extent), the language of officialese in Ireland was English. It went entirely without saying that if it was set down on an official form, that was the language it was set down in — proper noun or not. Hence, her name was recorded as ‘Mary’ on her birth certificate (Nolan, 2022). Now, that said, there’s absolutely no reason Irish parents shouldn’t have the freedom to give their new-borns any name they wish; be it in English, Irish or anything else. The point is that in previous times there was a certain imperative at play that strongly favoured English. And inevitably, decades, stretching into centuries of that imperative duly had an effect on societal norms. The upshot of all this is that in Ireland, someone with an indigenous Irish name does not enjoy the same simplicity enjoyed by Messers Soap and Signore Verdi in the Anglosphere.

To complicate the equation, it may surprise some younger readers that Máire’s birth certificate makes no provision at all for recording her surname. Indeed, as can be personally attested by the author, the practice whereby birth certificates issued by the British state specified the surname of the parents, along with the mother’s maiden name, but not that of the child itself was still being followed in the 1960s and continued to be for some years subsequently. So much for the redoubtable anglophone challenge, endured by many an Irish speaker, of ‘what does it say on your birth certificate?’ Yet even to‑day, attitudes persist in some quarters to the effect that indigenous Irish names — surnames in particular — aren’t actually valid. Demands to “give me that in English” are still occasionally issued, and unauthorised anglicisations performed.

In adult life, Máire’s name on official documents did, nevertheless, follow the more generally expected pattern. Her marriage certificate records it as ‘Maire Ni Ghuairim’ [sic] and her death certificate gives it as ‘Maire Brady’ [sic] (Nolan, 2022).

There was, however, some variation in the professional arena, with the result that during the 1920s and 1930s she was sometimes credited in print as Máirín Ní Ghuairim. In his diary of his visit to Ireland in 1927 (Ó Catháin, 2014:77–84), Ole Mørk Sandvik consistently calls her that. Yet in the course book of the Linguaphone Conversational Course — Irish (Linguaphone, 1931), to which she contributed at about the same time, she’s credited as ‘Máire’.

When An t‑Éireannach published her Ceol na Mara series of children’s stories she was credited as ‘Máirín’ but when these stories, along with others originally published in Scéala Éireann, were collated and published in book form by Nualláin ⁊ Brún (Ní Ghuairim, 1938) she was again credited as ‘Máire’.

Máirín.
Máire.

The reason for this particular inconsistency is unknown. Possibly, the —ín suffix reflected an affectionate form used by family or close friends and picked up on by others. It doesn’t seem to have persisted however and none of her surviving children recall hearing her called ‘Máirín’ (Ó Loċlainn, 2022a).

Villages, dwelling places and bailes

There are a number of references to Irish ‘villages’, ‘districts’ and ‘areas’ on this web site. These words have been chosen carefully to avoid giving convenient but inaccurate descriptions of what each place actually is.

The word baile, as anglicised in the many, many Irish place names that start with Bally—, is as good a place to begin as any. No more than ‘home’, it’s English equivalent, baile (pronounced, roughly, BILE-ih, but without breathing the ‘h’ out) has several meanings; all closely related but highly dependent on context. These sometimes get jumbled up in translation, however.

The most rigorous general-purpose translation of baile would be ‘dwelling place’. True, this English form’s a bit on the clumsy side but it’s greatly preferable to ‘village’ — probably the one most commonly offered — for the good and sufficient reason that while all villages (and hamlets) are bailes, not all bailes are villages! A less clumsy albeit rather loose-fit compromise might be ‘district’.

But for interested readers, a baile may refer to:

  • Where someone lives; be it in a general or specific sense.
  • Where someone considers their true home to be.
  • Some fairly localised rural geographical area, often centred around one single bóithrín (‘small road’), or bounded by two of them. It may also be bounded in part by one or more streams or rivers or by other natural features. The area will be known by a generally-recognised place name (or two!) and be considered a distinct ‘neighbourhood’.

Then you have what’s known as a baile fearainn (townland; pronounced BILE-ih FARR-ring, the FARR rhyming with the English ‘cat’ and the ‘ring’ sounded without hard ‘g’ at the end ). Townlands are very much part of the fabric of rural Irish life but they can be a bit heterogenious. Some are basically just bailes whilst others are made up of bailes.

Then there are the ones that are islands!

As the Open Data Unit (g.d.) explains:

A townland is a small geographical division of land used in Ireland. The townland system is of Gaelic origin, pre-dating the Norman invasion, and most have names of Irish Gaelic origin. However, some townland names and boundaries come from Norman manors, plantation divisions, or later creations of the Ordnance Survey. The total number of inhabited townlands was 60,679 in 1911. The total number recognised by the Irish Place Names database as of 2014 was 61,098, including uninhabited townlands, mainly small islands.

Open Data Unit

Roisín na Mainiach is a townland.

Inevitably of course, some bailes and baile fearainns, once small, sleepy rural idylls, are after being devoured whole by conurbation — many within living memory — and are now suburbs, if not town centres.

Another word to be aware of is sráidbhaile (SRAWD-vall-yih). Literally ‘street-dwelling-place’, this term is pretty much the direct equivalent to ‘village’, with its implication of a cluster of dwelling houses on either side of a thoroughfare. It’s a perfectly naturalistic word in everyday Irish speech but it doesn’t have an anglicisation; you’d just say ‘village’ in English. It’s anglicised everywhere in place names though. Just look at how many S(t)radballys there are in Ireland!

Dictionary definitions sometimes give baile beag (little baile) as the Irish for ‘village’ and baile mór (big baile) for ‘town’.

But there are dictionary definitions and there’s actual real world usage. These terms may not always necessarily be found in naturalistic use or they may have other meanings. In a given place, sráidbhaile may be what the sráidbhaile is called, with baile beag having no currency whatsoever. And in the West-Galway Gaeltacht, the term an baile mór (the big baile) has currency in reference to Galway City; the English language equivalent being ‘town’ — not, however, ‘the town’!

A city’s more formally a cathair (KOH-hir) but many cities were still towns not so long ago and ‘town’ can often have great resilience in everyday speech.

References

The references cited here may be found on the Tagairtí page.