There are several ways that we know the names of authentic historical Celts who lived in Europe 2,000 years ago. Royalty and military leaders, for example, were mentioned by Greek and Roman writers. Because the Celts never developed their own alphabet but were good with language teaching, they borrowed from Latin and Greek alphabets, as well as two minor ones, Lepontic and Galatian, to do their writing — most of which has come down to us almost entirely as names.
Votive tablets are another important source of names. Composed of thin sheets of metal, the tablets carried requests to the gods and goddesses for healing, benefits, or for revenge, and were cast into holy places such as wells, springs, and rivers. It is from these tablets that we know the names of many early Celts who were asking for divine intervention. People also inscribed their names on drinking vessels: “the cup of so-and-so.” We have the names of a large number of Celtic potters because pottery was fired in central kilns and, in ancient times, the makers would write their names on each piece in order to claim ownership of the finished product.
THE FATE OF CELTIC NAMES
Traditional names survived and thrived in Celtic realms until the 16th and 17th centuries. Their prevalence was encouraged by the Catholic tradition of naming children after saints. In the early days of Celtic Christianity, thousands of clerics, monks, nuns, abbots, abbesses, and bishops became saints, and nearly all these local saints had traditional Celtic names. The native Celtic names suffered a terrible setback, however, in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Protestant Reformation had an effect on naming everywhere in Western Europe as saints’ names, associated with Roman Catholicism, quickly fell out of favor. Instead, names from the Bible became popular, and between 1600 and 1750 the native Celtic names almost disappeared in the Protestant regions of Wales, Cornwall, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. At the same time, the central governments of Britain and France were attempting to force their Celtic-speaking subjects to adopt their official national language, as well as English or French names. Thus similar-sounding Christian names were chosen to replace their native language names, such as Hugh for Aodh in Ireland, Charles for Tearlach in Scotland, and Rene for Ronan in Brittany.
Just when Celtic names seemed doomed to oblivion, however, strong cultural and political movements emerged to aid in their revival. Beginning in the late 1700s, with the publication of James Macpherson’s “Ossianic” poems, there was a resurgence of interest in Celtic culture. Macpherson claimed his poems were genuine 3rd-century literature, but his work was later proven to be a hoax. He had written the poems himself, based on Scottish folk tales and ballads. No matter. The forgery had inspired people throughout Europe, who became fascinated by Celtic literature and folklore. Scholars and writers collaborated to archive and publish contemporary folk tales, legends, and ballads, and to translate genuine, older literary works. After being banished for so long, many Celtic names appeared in print for the first time in centuries, inspiring, as literature so often does, baby naming.
The Irish people were the third in Europe, after the Greeks and Romans, to develop a written literature in their own language. It is said that when the Irish converted to Christianity, they were appalled to find that they were not mentioned in the Bible, and they lost no time recording their own history to make up for this oversight. Early Irish writings that have survived to the present include poetry, myth, legend, biography, and history, and from these we know that there were more than 10,000 different personal names in use before the Middle Ages.
Throughout history, Irish names have changed right along with the language; Modern Irish differs significantly from Old Irish, just as Italian differs from Latin. A name may have two or more historical forms as well as modern anglicized spellings; for example, the Old Irish name Caemgen in Modern Irish became Caoimhin, anglicized as Kevin. Certain Irish personal names were traditional in various families, and when these families were required by the Penal Laws to use English names, the new names continued to be passed on in the traditional manner. In this way, anglicized names like Myles and Malachy gradually came to appear “Irish” because they were associated with so many famous Irish men and women.
Irish versions of European Christian names like Sean and Sinead have also come to be thought of as quintessentially Irish. These names were, in fact, brought to Ireland in the 12th century by invaders and settlers from England who were descendants of the Norman companions of William the Conqueror. Sean is from the Norman French name Jehan, Sinead from Jonet.
Irish is now the official first language of the Republic of Ireland, and all young people must study it in school. Most of the nation’s business is conducted in English, however, and few people are fluent in Irish. Still, it has become a matter of national pride to return to older names, both for oneself and for one’s children, no matter how immigration affects the family.
The Modern Irish spellings of these names, complete with accents, are used mainly by the people of the Gaeltacht (the predominantly Irish-speaking areas) and by artists and intellectuals. Some people have adopted the Irish form of their English given name, such as Tomas for Thomas, or Padraigin for Patricia. More and more parents throughout Ireland are choosing the old traditional names for their children, though most of them choose an anglicized spelling, such as Cliona, instead of Modern Irish Cliodhna, or Orla rather than Orlaith.
The Irish and English languages vary significantly from one another in terms of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. The sounds of Irish are not easy for an English speaker to hear and repeat, since they lie elusively betwixt and between familiar English consonants and vowels. The pronunciation of the “r” in Maire, for example, is a combination of the “s” in pleasure and a Spanish “r.” Syllable stress is less emphatic in Irish than in English; it’s more a matter of lengthening than emphasis.
The spelling of Modern Irish presents a great challenge to the uninitiated. In the list of Irish names that follows, the Modern Irish version of a name is given first if, when read by an English speaker, the name appears to sound the way it is spelled. For other names, an anglicized spelling is given first — Tara rather than Teamhair, for example. The names of early saints and of characters from myths and legends are typically written using their Old Irish spellings, which are often different from the Modern Irish.
The pronunciations given for the names are only approximations, since there are always regional dialects that require some translation (as here). You will probably want to change the pronunciation to what you consider a nice-sounding name in your part of the world, knowing that it isn’t exactly what it would be in Ireland. If American parents choose the name Caitlin, for example, they will have to fight to get people to pronounce it in the proper Irish way: kayt-LEEN, rather than KAYT-lin.