Friday, September 12, 2014

Forename Friday: Irish Naming Patterns & a baker's half-dozen exceptions...

Those of us who deal with Irish records may be familiar with the idea of Irish naming patterns. There are some researchers who insist that the traditional Irish naming pattern is always used; however, I would argue against that, since my own family tree provides living — and dead — proof that there are certainly exceptions to be found which deviate from the traditional pattern. Also, there are many naming combinations and permutations outside the pattern which may appear inexplicable to us, but fit well within the beliefs and practices of some of our ancestors.

Still in all, if you have hit a brick wall in your research, then you may find revisiting the pattern useful in helping you to break through that dead end.

Here is the traditional pattern:

The 1st son was usually named after the father's father.
The 2nd son was usually named after the mother's father.
The 3rd son was usually named after the father.
The 4th son was usually named after the father's eldest brother.
The 5th son was usually named after the mother's eldest brother.

The 1st daughter was usually named after the mother's mother.
The 2nd daughter was usually named after the father's mother.
The 3rd daughter was usually named after the mother.
The 4th daughter was usually named after the mother's eldest sister.
The 5th daughter was usually named after the father's eldest sister.

Are you still with me?

A baker's half-dozen exceptions to the rules:

Here are listed a half-dozen plus one — a baker's half-dozen, if you will — exceptions to the rules of Irish naming patterns which I have found on my own family tree.

1. Siblings with the same name:

You may find children on your family tree who are named after brothers or sisters who pre-deceased them. Think of Henry Smart in Roddy Doyle's A Star Called Henry. Among our Kettle ancestors there is one family with two girls named Margaret, born just a couple of years apart, signalling the existence of a death record for the first born Margaret. In my paternal Dunne family line, my great-grandmother Mary Dunne Magee had two brothers named William. The first William was born in 1876 and died less than a year later. The second William was born in 1880, and was killed on the field of battle in Belgium in 1914.

2. Superstitious?:

There is a superstition of the 18th/19th century variety, in some Irish families, which held that three living individuals could not bear the same forename. The thinking was that it would portend death for one of them. For example, if there were two elder Patricks alive in the same family, then a new born son would not be christened with that name.

Some names seem to have bad karma attached to them. Three generations in one of our family lines named a son Thomas, and each one of those met a tragic end (see one of those stories here). It appears the fourth generation may have been superstitious about the name since there is nary a Thomas to be found.

3. Mam's maiden name:

If you are in search of the maiden name for one of your female Irish ancestors, and it either pre-dates civil registration, or didn't show up in the civil registration records, then take a look at the forenames of her sons. One of them may very well bear the maiden name of his mother as his forename. One clue is a forename which deviates from usual names in the family. Consider, if you will, the name Coleman O'Brien in a family line in which sons bear the names Patrick, Michael, and Thomas. Turns out their mother's maiden name was Coleman.

4. A boy named Sue... or Mary:

Have you ever had the name 'Mary' show up on a baptism record of a male family member who was born in the twentieth century? If so, don't dismiss it as an error. It is a clue to the fact that the child's mother or father may have been a member of the Roman Catholic organization the Legion of Mary. As a symbol of their devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, some Legion members pledged to include the name Mary as part of the baptismal name of one or more of their children, regardless of gender. It may even show up on a marriage record. One relative of mine who was a Legion member was born Bernadette, but pledged Mary Bernadette as her forename when she married.

5. The Celtic Revival: 

The late 19th and early 20th century time period in Irish history — referred to as the Irish Renaissance or the Celtic Revival — had an impact on Irish names. In 1893 the Gaelic League was established to promote the use of the Irish language and the study of ancient Celtic culture. This became a vitally important part of the lives of many Irish, and is reflected in changes in the forenames (and surnames too) of some persons. Men who had anglicized names on their birth records, such as John, James, and Patrick may have changed those names to Eoin, Séamus, and Pádraig, respectively. If you have Irish forenames on your family tree, and have been unable to find records for them, try 're-anglicizing' (to coin a word) their Gaelic forenames and you may strike gold.

6. A change of heart?:

Baptismal Record for Joseph Augustine Geraghty.
You may have an ancestor whose parents decided to change the child’s forename after his/her name was already registered. This was the case with my paternal great-grandparents Patrick and Margaret Geraghty and the name of their fifth born son (eighth born child). Born in Dublin on 24 December 1899, he was christened at the Church of St. James on 2 January 1900 with the name Joseph Augustine. Seems someone had a change of heart, because nine days later on 11 January 1900 his mother Margaret registered his birth name as Arthur. Then, in January of 1914, Margaret, "on the production of a State declaration" made before Registrar John P. Condon had the child's name "corrected" from Arthur to Joseph Austin. My father and his siblings knew their uncle not as Joseph, but as Austin, and everyone called him Uncle Audie.

Civil registration record for 'Arthur' Geraghty.
On the right, note the explanation for the 1914 change to the name 'Joseph Austin'.
7. A missing child and tragic loss: There may be some forenames in a family tree which do not appear to have been bestowed on descendants; however, such names may provide a clue to a 'missing' child. On my maternal tree, it initially appeared that Jane — the forename of my great-grandmother Jane Early — was not passed down as anything more than a middle name. After some research, I discovered that there had been a daughter named Jane who tragically died at only 18 months of age. Not only was her forename never again used, but until I found her, the existence of this child was unknown to members of my family born after her.

Like the name Jane, another forename on my family tree appeared to inexplicably disappear, again showing up only as a middle name. If they had been following the naming pattern, my paternal grandmother, Anne ‘Annie’ Magee Geraghty should have been named Catherine after her maternal grandmother, mother of Mary Magee (née Dunne). In 1881, when Mary Dunne was only seven years old, her mother Catherine Dunne (née Brien) died in childbirth. In 1900 when her own first daughter was born, instead of christening her with the name Catherine, Mary gave her the name Anne Mary. Mary Dunne's second born daughter should have been called Elizabeth, after her paternal grandmother, but was given the name Mary Catherine. We can only speculate, but perhaps Mary did not give either of her daughters the forename Catherine because of the tragic loss attached to it.


Of course, the other side of the argument is that some ancestors did in fact stick like glue to naming patterns, a practice which can result in nightmares for the lonely researcher. In one time period on my family tree, there are four Kettle men who not only have exactly the same forename, but the same middle name as well, and three of them lived in the same household. At least it would have been easy to call all of them to the dinner table at the same time.
A matrilineal line of 'Mary'

The name Maria (pronounced Mariah), anglicized to Mary, is a very popular one on my Irish family tree. Almost 25% of the women on my family tree bear the forename Maria 'Mary', and several women have Mary as a middle name.

As I mentioned above, one woman on my maternal tree added the name Mary onto her legal forename when she and her husband registered their marriage with the civil registration authority. Numerous women had Mary added upon baptism, and at least one man had the name added to his baptismal name.

What is your experience of naming patterns 
on your family tree?

(some of this post originally appeared in 2011 and 2012)
Click on images to view larger versions.


  1. Jennifer, for every pattern there are exceptions. My Irish branches used names over & over. They did reuse names of children who died young. Sometimes a name was used three times before there was a child who lived long enough to 'keep' the name.

    Naming pattern scan help to show probable relationships but, of course, not enough to prove a definite relationship.

    Thanks for the interesting post!

    1. Thanks very much for your comments Colleen. Indeed there are exceptions to every rule, as my experience of exceptions clearly shows, and yours as well, with the repetition of names of dead children, etc.. Of course, using naming patterns is only a tool for guidance in research; I certainly haven’t suggested otherwise. It is proof of nothing. Only legitimate primary source records (and legitimate secondary sources in some cases) are proof of a relationship.


    2. Jennifer, I agree that it is not proof but names can help point us in the right direction.

    3. Thanks for your comment Colleen. Indeed they are sometimes that tool which helps push research forward, but sometimes not so much too. I've a few names that continue to puzzle me.


  2. My grandparents had a change of heart, Jennifer. My mother’s name was registered as Bernadette. She was then named after her paternal grandmother, who unexpectedly arrived home from England in time for her baptism, and a subsequent daughter was named Bernadette instead. It caused much confusion when Mam went to school; the nuns initially insisted on calling her Bernadette, her registered name, but, as far as Mam knew, the name of her baby sister. It could also cause an unsuspecting genealogist a few headaches!

    1. Thanks very much for your comments Dara. Tra la someone else with unusual naming practices! Your poor Mam, and the nuns too. I hope she didn't get her ears boxed for not answering to the wrong name.

      We have a family member whose birth name was Bernadette, but we never knew her by that name, and she used to like changing her name every now and again. It seemed every few years we'd be told the 'new name' we were to use in addressing her. I made the discovery of her actual name at the GRO. Headaches indeed!



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