What’s in a Name?

In Irish folk tradition, certain cultural significance is attached to surnames and forenames alike. Aside from being a general signifier of family and genealogy, certain surnames might also be culturally important for other reasons. Many will know that the banshee is said to ‘follow’ [i.e. lament for and be heard by] certain families, particularly those with surnames containing the prefix ‘Mac’ or ‘Ó’. Other family names such as Cahill or Keogh are indicative of curative powers, as are those who marry another with the same surname as themselves

Forenames could also carry extra significance. Children would often be named after relatives of their parents or they might be named after saints. In smaller communities, it is fairly common to find many families of the same surname, and as particular forenames were often in constant circulation, it is therefore likely that there may be two or more people in one community with the same first and last name. As a result of this, we often see the use of auxiliary names and nicknames as a means to differentiate between individuals.

The singer Róise Mhic Ghrianna, also known as Róise Rua (Róise of the Red Hair) and Róise na nAmhrán (Róise of the Songs), Árainn Mhór, Co. Donegal. Photographer: Leo Corduff, 1953
The storyteller Anna Nic a’ Luain, also known as Anna John Chiot, Na Cruacha Gorma, Co. Donegal. Oil painting by Simon Coleman, 1949

The use of auxiliary names is common in Ireland and they appear in many forms. Adjectives may be added to the forename to describe a particular trait of the person in question. Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, composer of the famous lament ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, is named Eibhlín Dubh as a result of her dark hair. Gráinne Mhaol, the epithet of Gráinne Ní Mháille/Grace O’Malley, refers to a story in which a young Gráinne cut her hair short, leaving her bald or short-haired. Both of Grainne Mhaol’s husbands had prominent auxiliary names; her first husband was known as Domhnall an Chogaidh Ó Flaithbheartaigh (Warlike Domhnall Ó Flaithbheartaigh), and her second was Risteard An Iarainn de Búrca (Iron Richard Burke). Auxiliary names could also be given as a result of the home of the recipient, their occupation or political associations. They could also be inherited, so that the epithet does not describe the current recipient, but their ancestor.

Entry in the Schools’ Collection about poet Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn

A commemorative stone in Camus, Co. Galway in honour of Risteárd an Iarainn. Photographer: Ríonach Uí Ógáin, 1997.

As well as descriptors, auxiliary names can be given by adding the name of a parent (and sometimes also a grandparent) to a person’s forename. This distinguishes the individual from others with the same family name and provides a short idea of their genealogy. Generally, the father and the grandfather’s name are used, as is the case of the titular character of the emigration song by Pádraig Ó hAoláin, ‘Cóilín Phádraig Shéamuis‘. From this name we understand that Cóilín is the son of Pádraig, who is the son of Séamus. This naming convention is still very common in Gaeltacht regions in Ireland to this day. Male names were commonly applied in this practice, but there are many examples of female names used as well. This might occur if the person’s mother was a widow and raised the children by herself, or indeed if she was the more prominent parent in the community, as is seen in the short story ‘Idir Shúgradh agus Dáiríre’ by Máirtín Ó Cadhain:

‘Bhí tús comhairle agus ceannúis ceann ag Máire agus ag Nóra. Dá dteastaíodh banbh a cheannach is iad a théadh chun an mhargaidh … Is iad a théadh chuig sochraidí agus bainiseacha, freisin, mura mbeadh gaol gar ann go díreach, agus bhíodh an bheirt fhear agus an bheirt phutach ina mbail, ar ócaid den tsórt sin. Go fiú is na páistí féin muinníodh as na mná iad – Taimín Mháire Rua agus Cóilín Nóra Mharcais.’ 

Máire and Nóra had all of the authority and influence. If a piglet was to be bought it was them that went to market … It is also them that attended funerals and weddings, if there was no direct relation, and the two men and the two boys would tag along with them on those occasions. It is even for the women the children were named – Taimín Mháire Rua and Cóilín Nóra Mharcais.

This informal naming system was naturally of great interest to the Irish Folklore Commission, and a large section in ‘A Handbook of Irish Folklore’ was dedicated to questions about surnames, forenames, the many by-forms of surnames and forenames, auxiliary names and nicknames. As a result, plenty of examples of different nicknames have been gathered, referring to persons appearing in folktales and legends, as well as lists of local nicknames known within the community. Nearly forty years after the Handbook was first published, one such list led to the recording of a man named Lyrics Murphy as part of the Urban Folklore Project (UFP) in 1979. In the earliest days of the project, two collectors visited Smyth’s pub in Ringsend, to follow up on a list of nicknames of people in the local area that had been pinned on the wall there, which led them to Lyrics, the writer of the list. Nicknames were common in the area, according to Lyrics, as many people had the same family names.

‘You had Muttsy Fulham. You had Hoppy Reilly. Another Byrne, this town is saturated with Byrnes, nearly as much as Murphys. You had Bass Byrne. You had Pollowalks Lacey, Tear the Herring Allen and Hoppy Allen, no relations to one another.

[Why was he called Tear the Herring?] 

He was a remarkable man. He was always talking about herrings. They’re great people for herrings, you know. And wait till I see now, you’d Hen Atkins. He used to bushel the grain on the boats over there, you know. They used to call him The Hen, he was so fast at bushelling the grain, they called him The Hen. The grain would disappear so quick …

You had Chase the Corpse Murphy, and Shave the Corpse. What’s this his name was? Larry O’Neill. We’d call him Shave the Corpse. 

[Why was that?] 

Anyone would die, you know. You know years ago most of them died at home. He’d go around and do the Good Samaritan, shaving them. And they christened that on him. 

[Why was someone called ‘Chase the Corpse?’] 

This fellow was always… he was a sort of agent for Massey, the undertakers, you know? He’d be going around like, before you’d be cold he’d be knocking at the door ‘How are you fixed? ”How is your insurance?’ Soften you up.’

Auxiliary names and nicknames are a part of a cultural tradition that stretches back centuries and continues in ordinary usage even today. Many of us will know people solely or primarily by their nicknames, and behind each epithet is an anecdote about who they are or where they come from. It also places them as part of a wider tradition of creative and colourful names that has been in use for generations.

This post was written by Ailbe van der Heide, Cúntóir Leabharlainne | Library Assistant, Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann | National Folklore Collection.

Further Reading:

Breen, Richard. “Naming Practices in Western Ireland.” Man 17, no. 4 (1982): 701–13. https://doi.org/10.2307/2802041.

Ní Dhuibhne, Éilís. “‘They Made Me Tea and Gave Me a Lift Home’: Urban Folklore Collecting 1979-80.” Béaloideas 73 (2005): 63–83. 

Ó Danachair, Caoimhín. “Auxiliary Family Names.” Béaloideas 39/41 (1971): 228–32. https://doi.org/10.2307/20521357.

Tait, C. 2006, “Namesakes and nicknames: naming practices in early modern Ireland, 1540-1700”, Continuity and Change, vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 313-340.

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