Directory of Irish Genealogy
Notes on Irish First Names (or Why is Michael the Most Popular TD's Name?)
By Sean J Murphy
Surnames identify families as a whole while forenames or first names of course refer to individuals. Forenames long predate surnames and probably arose soon after the invention of human speech. As Hanks and Hodges have pointed out, in the western world biblical figures and saints have provided a major portion of first names over the centuries, examples including Adam, Eve, Benjamin, Sarah, Mary, Peter, James and Catherine (A Dictionary of First Names, Oxford 1996). The Celts were great namers of places and people and many forenames from this source are increasingly popular in the English-speaking world.
As in other cultures there is a fascination with patterns of naming in Ireland, so that each year the Central Statistics Office (CSO) releases a list of the most popular babies' names which usually receives significant media coverage. The most common babies names in the Republic of Ireland (26 counties, excluding Northern Ireland) in 2010 were as follows:
Boys: 1 Jack, 2 Sean, 3 Daniel, 4 James, 5 Conor, 6 Ryan, 7 Adam, 8 Alex, 9 Luke, 10 Dylan
Girls: 1 Sophie, 2 Emily, 3 Emma, 4 Sarah, 5 Lucy, 6 Ava, 7 Grace, 8 Chloe, 9 Katie, 10 Aoife (http://www.cso.ie/releasespublications/documents/births_d_m/current/babynames.pdf)
Were past naming habits significantly different? The online 1901 Census of Ireland (covering the whole 32 counties) enables us to determine the most common first names of the population at the beginning of the twentieth century:
Males: 1 John, 2, James, 3 Patrick, 4 Thomas, 5 William, 6 Michael, 7 Joseph, 8 Robert, 9 Edward, 10 Daniel
Females: 1 Mary, 2 Bridget, 3 Margaret, 4 Ellen, 5 Anne, 6 Jane, 7 Catherine, 8 Annie, 9 Kate, 10 Sarah (http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/)
A sampling of births in the Republic of Ireland (26 counties) for 1950 revealed that there had not been a radical change in naming preferences in the decades after independence:
Males: 1 John, Patrick (joint), 2 James, 3 Michael, 4 Thomas, 5 William, 6 Joseph, 7 Martin, 8 Francis, 9 Edward, 10 Peter
Females: 1 Mary, 2 Margaret, 3 Bridget, 4 Catherine, 5 Elizabeth, 6 Anne, 7 Patricia, 8 Kathleen, 9 Ann, 10 Ellen (Ronan Coghlan, Irish Christian Names,
When Ireland was primarily rural and undeveloped it was considered important to use pious and traditional names, whereas as Ireland developed and urbanised from the 1960s onwards there was a growing emphasis on giving children distinctive and fashionable names. Some formerly very frequently encountered names which have fallen out of fashion include Jeremiah, Cornelius, Agnes and Bridget. Indeed Bridget, Ireland's female patron saint, was the second most common woman's name in 1901 as noted above, but today it is not to be found in the CSO's top hundred list, while Margaret has also gone from third place to a position outside the top hundred. Patrick, our national male patron saint, has fared better but still has lost ground, falling from 3rd place in 1901 to 18th in 2010. Mary is an interesting case, in that it topped the list in 1901 with one in five females so called, whereas in 2010 the name had fallen to 60th place (bear in mind that the 1901 data is for the total Irish population wherease that for 2010 relates to births in the Republic of Ireland only).
Traditional names which have held their own include Daniel, James and Sarah, while certain Gaelic names remain popular or have been revived, such as Sean, Conor and Aoife. Ancient Gaelic Ireland had an extensive stock of first names, but these tended to contract with the advance of Anglicisation from the eighteenth century on, so that the top ten names in 1901 listed above represent respectively 50% and 61% of the male and female population. Today the stock of first names is much broader, with girls names significantly outnumbering those of boys, and forenames of celebrities frequently providing inspiration. The influx of migrants to Ireland in recent decades is reflected by the appearance in the CSO list of substantial numbers of exotic names, for example, Jakub and Muhammad. Incidentally, while the CSO's annual list of babies' names is a fascinating snapshot in time, a study of surname frequencies based on recent census returns, not yet released for genealogical and historical research, would be even more useful and would involve no breach of confidentiality as it would deal with aggregate totals only (the USA publishes surname analyses derived from recent censuses).
The question has also been asked as to whether certain first names might be disproportionately associated with people who play prominent roles in business and politics. Thus LinkedIn surveyed its international database and discovered that the following first names were most common among chief executive officers (CEOs) of firms: Peter, Bob, Jack, Bruce and Fred for males, and Deborah, Sally, Debra, Cynthia and Carolyn for females (http://blog.linkedin.com/2011/04/27/top-ceo-names/). Analyis of the first names of the CEOs of the top 300 Irish companies in 2011 provided the following list of most common first names:
1 John, 2 David, 3, Paul, 4 Brian, 5 Michael, 6 Mark, 7 Patrick, 8 Peter (The Irish Times Top 1000 Companies, supplement 29 June 2011)
While numbers of females in senior business positions are on the increase in Ireland as elsewhere, their names are still insufficiently numerous to establish a pattern, but it may be of interest to note that small clusters of bearers of the names Anne and Christine feature in the source just cited. Strangely, the above LinkedIn survey identifies Tony as the top CEO name in Ireland, but there is only one Anthony and no Tony in our sample of 300 names.
Turning to the world of politics, a sampling of lists of public representatives or TDs at three points in the history of the Dáil or Irish parliament, in 1919, 1969 and 2011, gave the following as the most common first names over the whole period:
1 Michael, 2 Sean, 3 John, 4 Patrick, 5 Thomas, 6 Joseph, 7 James (http://www.oireachtas.ie/members-hist/default.asp?housetype=0)
Again due to under-representation, female names are too few to establish patterns, but among the 25 ladies in the current Dáil (just 15% of the total membership), there are two Catherines and two Joans. While Michael was the 12th most common name for a baby boy in 2010, and was just within or outside the top 10 in years preceding, it is perhaps surprising that it has not been outstripped among TDs by more common first names such as Sean and James. Although there were only three Michaels in the first Dáil in 1919, including the famous Michael Collins who perhaps influenced the trend, by 1969 there were 11 TDs with this name, while in the current Dáil Michael is the most common first name, with 12 TDs from a range of parties so called, and another two named Micheál and Mick whom we have not included in the total. If patriotic Michael is the most common first name for an Irish politician and honest John for a business leader (of course Michael features in that sphere also), then among the new born, Jack, Sean, Sophie and Emily currently hold greatest sway, although it should be borne in mind that naming patterns are not fixed but are subject to changes of fashion.
Last revised 1 July 2011