Once, almost every family had a Mary. Some villages had so many that Marys needed an identifier, like Mary The Rakes or Mary The Ghost. In recent years, we’ve gone for ‘hipster’ Irish names, but what’s behind the popularity of these names abroad?
The world’s largest website devoted to baby names has boldly made its predictions for 2023. Based on the searches of expectant parents, online site Nameberry reckons the Irish name Maeve will explode in popularity to shoot up to No 2 in the world this year.
For context, even at its most popular in Ireland in 1977, Maeve only ranked 79 in our top 100 names. In our most recent records, 2021, she limped in at 106.
The reason for her forecasted rise is probably not a sudden interest in Queen Maeve of Connacht, who ruled more than 2,000 years ago and is buried, “standing up, to face her enemies” on the top of Sligo’s Knocknarea mountain.
More likely it has something to do with brilliant but vulnerable Maeve Wiley in hit Netflix series Sex Education, played by British-French actress Emma Mackey.
Before we get into how baby naming reflects popular culture, we should point out that Nameberry predicts Maeve will be pipped to the No 1 spot by Luxury. This is certainly an aspirational baby name and an ironic choice for anyone even remotely familiar with the levelling experience of nappy blowouts.
As for the predicted No 1 boys’ name? Kylian, the French variant of the Irish saint’s name, and the appellation, not coincidentally, of one of the world’s greatest football players right now, Kylian Mbappé. The Irish versions, Cillian and Killian, skyrocketed in popularity at home during the 2000s, with Cillian ranked at No 9 in 2021.
Hopefully, this latest Irish name exported to France will prove less contentious than Kevin, our Glendalough saint, whose name became the most popular in every region of mainland France in 1991. This may have had less to do with the Irish abbot and more to do with the character Kevin McCallister in Home Alone or the actor Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves, as both films were released in 1990.
But, in France, the name has become a byword for a certain kind of flashy, uneducated ‘himbo’. So much so there’s now a crowdfunded movie being made called Sauvons les Kevin (Save the Kevins) directed by Kevin Fafournoux and addressing how the national mockery is rooted in unacceptable class prejudice.
What’s in a name? Our football, television and luxe dreams made manifest and something deeper too — fascinating patterns and trends.
Dr Dylan Connor is a Dubliner, social scientist and population geographer lecturing at Arizona State University. He works with big data — massive population datasets such as ancestry.com — to study topics such as the history of immigration as well as baby-naming patterns.
A research question that intrigued him was why Irish people, unlike their British and European neighbours, were so much slower to reduce their family sizes in the 20th century.
“I was trying to understand which people in Ireland were the first to start reducing their family size — so trying to understand who were the innovators reimagining what family life could be. What was really striking was that, actually, the single most powerful predictor of smaller family size — and you’re looking at economics, religion, location and occupation — was whether those couples also chose unusual names for their kids.”
Dr Connor then had to ponder why on earth the Erics and Irenes in the sea of Johns and Marys were less likely to have a scatter of siblings.
“The argument we were making was basically, well, these are couples who are starting to kind of rethink what it means to have children; what it means to have a family. And so, as they start thinking about more individual names, they also start to have fewer kids. It’s almost like a transition from a continuity-focused view of family life to a more individualistic view.”
TRADITION VS FREEDOM
“Once I started to see how powerful those patterns were, I was, like, ‘wow, this is kind of amazing’,” says Dr Connor.
How we name our progeny can signal a nod to tradition or a bolt for freedom. When did Irish people first begin to look beyond the shallow pool of baby names for something more imaginative?
“It’s changing on the ground so it’s not like there’s one year where it happens. Clusters of people start to do it first. You start to get it first, typically, in urban areas. Actually, the first people to do it are usually immigrants. The Jewish communities in Dublin and Cork started to be quite creative with names, picking names that are not quite Jewish, not totally Irish, somewhere in between, like Harry and these kinds of names.”
He sketches out how the name pool deepened steadily over the last century.
“In 1900, people are choosing from 100 boys’ names and 150 girls’ names. In 1970, you’re looking at 300 boys’ names and 450 girls’ names. Now you’re looking at 1,000 boys’ names and somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 girls’ names. So that’s a tenfold increase in the number of names people are choosing from. That dynamic is very striking.”
To understand just how striking, let’s delve even further into our more vanilla naming history, back to when names were picked “not just because they were ‘nice’ but because they had a particular purpose”, says Dr Clodagh Tait, a lecturer in the history department of Mary Immaculate College in Limerick and whose research has looked at naming practices in early modern Ireland (1540-1700).
Looking through the Catholic parish register of Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, in 1664, the name John was given to 26pc of all newborn boys.
IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY
“People recycled names a lot,” she confirms. “Even by the 20th century, and certainly in the 19th century, you probably find similar percentages in various parts of Ireland, of Johns and Marys in particular. But other names are up there as well.”
In 1821, the top six names account for more than half of all baptisms: John, Mary, William, Michael, Margaret and Ellen.
“The reduced selection of names speaks to the importance of family. People are being named for their fathers and grandfathers who had those same names over the generations. Even in cases when you have a child called John and that child dies — which was often the case, there was very high child mortality — the name John might be reused for a subsequent child.”
There was also a practice of naming children for their godparents — “another way of extending and preserving connections by means of naming”.
Remarkably, Dr Tait found several instances where the wife died, the husband remarried and the children from the second marriage were given the same names as their siblings from the first marriage.
“I don’t know if that’s just because of a lack of imagination or it’s speaking to the importance of those names. But calling one child Catherine and one child Kate is extraordinary.”
Innovation in naming — such as two children called Lancelot and Rosinda, both born in 1832 — “stands out very starkly”. Dr Tait also found a Methuselah Fudd in Wexford and a Neptune Blood, who was born at sea before arriving in Ireland.
But mostly it was Johns and Marys.
WHAT’S IN A NICKNAME?
“There’s a limited number of names but at the same time people expanded naming by other means; by using nicknames or by identifying people with the places from which they had come,” says Dr Tait.
UCD’s National Folklore Collection is a treasure trove of such nicknames, which can be accessed via duchas.ie.
For example, in the small village of Belcarra, Co Mayo, 19 nicknames were collected, including the Duck, the Goose, the Mouse and the Calf, apparently because of the men’s resemblances to these creatures. Meanwhile, Waterford had Mary the Dummy, Mary the Teapots, Mary the Rakes, Mary the Sweep, Mary the Ghost and Biddy the Crow.
But, of course, on official records such as births, marriages and deaths — and the census — only official names are noted. It must be difficult for historians to differentiate between families when the same names keep cropping up?
“It’s extraordinarily frustrating,” Dr Tait says, “especially when you’ve got two families who are related to one another and living in a similar area and they’re both using Edmund or John or Thomas or Richard for every second child.”
A MATTER OF FAITH
In the 17th century, Protestantism brought in different naming practices, such as using Old Testament names like Methuselah (“which didn’t catch on,” Dr Tait quips) and virtue names such as Faithful, Prudence and Charity.
“I’m from a Protestant background myself, so it’s something I’ve thought about. The saints’ names remained strong into the 20th century in Catholic naming. At the same time you have the infiltration of baby-naming books. The Catholic families are perhaps a little bit more resistant to the newer names than Protestant families.
“My aunties are called things like Doris and Audrey and my mother is Eunice. I was quite astonished that my grandmother had come up with these names. I then found out they had been suggested names in a child-rearing manual in the 1940s, the kind of literature that people are increasingly exposed to in the 20th century.”
At the same time, people also began giving their newborn babies two names, automatically widening the family naming pool.
Baby names tend to “trickle down through society” so the name choices of the middle classes “may have influenced people”. Movements, too, changed naming habits. “The greater emphasis on the Irish language more generally from the mid-1950s made Irish names attractive throughout the 20th century.”
But up until the 1960s, the traditional, limited set of names more or less prevailed.
THEN WE GET NOTIONS
“From the 1960s up until, let’s say, 1996, the Celtic Tiger, you’re seeing more of an adoption of American names,” Dr Connor says. “Names like Linda and Sandra and Chloe and Sinéad start to pop up around that period. You get more Adams and Jacks and Ryans over that period. But, actually, in the Celtic Tiger, that’s where you start to see a big transformation. You start to see names like Sienna and Lexi growing very quickly. They’re not common but they shoot up from where they were before.”
Sienna was registered first in Ireland in 2002, reached a zenith of number 52 in 2017, and remains in the top 60 names. The first Lexi appeared in 2006, ranked 56 in 2013 and has been falling sharply since.
Did the Celtic Tiger give us more global notions?
“I also think it was a bit of a freedom thing. It’s a little bit of cultural influence. This is a time when people are thinking about themselves as being kind of global citizens for the first time, maybe, and kind of modern.”
A different trend has taken over since.
“In the post social-media era — so after, let’s say, 2013, 2014 — we have seen a striking rise in local Irish names, which are clearly Irish and identifiably Irish. Names like Finn and Oran — there’s a whole list of those types of names,” he says, and Fiadh, Ireland’s top girls’ name in 2021, is another good example.
“I think what’s going on is there is kind of a grab for a cool, authentic Ireland. So it’s almost like your hipster coffee.”
But we may as well embrace our own baby names because no one else will. “Irish-language names don’t really take hold in the US. I think it’s a pronunciation thing. Like Saoirse Ronan; I mean, people butcher that again and again. The biggest pattern, I think, that usually starts in the US and comes back to Ireland is the adoption of the surname as a first name. Like my own last name Connor, and names like Brady, Riley, Logan.”
Dr Tait points out that since the arrival of the internet the sky’s the limit with baby naming. Meanwhile, she says, new communities in Ireland are adding to the variety of naming traditions.
THE FUTURE OF NAMING
“I think from the beginning of the 21st century and the rise of Polish people in Ireland, you will find a growth in the number of Polish names on the records, for example.”
Thanks to the CSO’s nifty Baby Names of Ireland app, you can track the popularity of names since 1964.
In 2021 Mary slipped out of the top 100 ranking for the first time and is now ranked 127. John is ranked 28, overtaken in popularity by Jack since the 2000s.
Both Dr Tait and Dr Connor’s first names — Clodagh and Dylan — are more popular today than when both were born. “I don’t know why Clodagh has kind of resurged when a name like Deirdre seems to have disappeared, almost,” Dr Tait says. “I would have considered them to be names within the same kind of general category.”
In 1966, Deirdre was ranked seventh, with 613 babies given the name. In the past 10 years, only 10 are recorded on the CSO online, though it should be noted that, for confidentiality reasons, in years where three or fewer babies are given a particular name, these are not included.
Dr Connor agrees the name Deirdre is an interesting case and is the victim of the wider pool of female names compared to male names; itself a symptom of a patriarchal tradition of keeping male baby names in the family.
But Dr Connor has his eyes — and his data models — set on another horizon. “One trend that I’m watching for are gender-neutral names. I think we are definitely going to see an increase in names that are harder to gender in some way. Names that could be either for a boy or a girl and are not, I don’t know, super masculine or feminine.”
Which brings us back to those Nameberry predictions for this year — maybe the name Luxury is more versatile than we thought.