What Are the “Approved” Irish Names in Your Family?

One thing I notice is that some first names that have traditionally stayed in certain families - often quite unusual names. So, let's take a tour around the island - and drop off to examine these names in some of the illustrious families of Ireland.

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What Are the “Approved” Irish Names in Your Family?

Many Irish families seem to feature multiple instances of the same forenames e.g you might find dozens of Johns, Marys or Richards – but very few Joans, Timothys or Michaels. This cumulative effect is often down to “Irish naming patterns” – but sometimes families have a special place for some given names.

Last week, I received the following from one Mary Stout:

“I am looking for my ancestor – John Ryan from north Tipperary who immigrated about 1856. It is so frustrating trying to track down a person with the first name John and last name of Ryan in Tipperary – there are thousands of them – and often dozens in the same extended family.”

There are indeed Mary! In fact, Ryan is the most numerous name in County Tipperary – as for John! Don’t get me started. But, it got me thinking. I know we mostly focus on Irish surnames in this Letter – the counties and stories behind them. Have you ever noticed, though, how certain FIRST names seem very popular with particular surnames?

Saints and Ancestors. 

As maybe you know already, most Irish surnames came about as a derivative of a first name. We have O’Brien meaning “descendants of Brian” or O’Connor meaning “descendants of Connor”.

Over time, many Irish first names were given after saints – and not too large a pool of saints either! We seem to have plenty of Bridgets, Patricks, Johns and Marys to go around – these names often “sticking” to a family because of Irish family naming patterns.

One thing I notice, even today, is that there are some first names that have traditionally stayed in certain families – often quite unusual names. So, let’s take a tour around the island – and drop off to examine these names in some of the illustrious families of Ireland. For now, we’ll stick with the male names for the simple reason that these are the ones on record for the past thousand years.

COLLINS – Starting off with my own surname in Cork and Limerick, it seems that half the male Collins’s are called MICHAEL. This is not as result of “The Big Fella” who was martyred in 1922 – but Michael just seemed to stick with this family through the centuries.

Staying down south in Cork and Kerry – McCARTHY is a name that has ruled Munster for many the year. Three names that you hear associated with McCARTHY – even today – are CORMAC, TADHG (pronounced Tie-g) and Florence (often turned into Florrie).


In Munster we also had the Norman families of FITZGERALDS and BARRYS. Even today, I know a few GARRETs, MAURICEs and BARRYs in the FITZGERALD clan. For the BARRYs – one of the first Barrys in Ireland was named GERALD – and there are plenty of GERALD and GERARD BARRYs today.

Into West Cork and Kerry, we find the O’SULLIVANS – probably the most numerous first name down through the centuries in this clan was DÓNAL/DOMHNALL (pronounced Doe-nal). This is often considered the equivalent of the English DANIEL – which was associated with another Kerry family, the O’CONNELLs.

Moving up to County Clare we come to the O’BRIENS. I have lost count of the number of CONOR O’BRIENS I know – and they are also very happy to use BRIAN on occasion. Over the years, JEREMIAH has risen up the ranks in this family also.

Into Connaught, we visit the O’CONNORS – and come across the names RORY and BRIAN in quantity. The local Norman family of BURKE were very fond of the first names WILLIAM/LIAM and RICHARD.


First Names of the O’Donnell Kings

Into the land of O’DONNELL in Donegal, we come across many HUGHs and RORYs – with the more unusual CAHIR attaching itself to the O’DOHERTYS in quantity along with DAVID.

Just beside them, the O’NEILLS also liked the sound of the Irish names HUGH and RORY – along with one of their originals, OWEN/EOGHAN.

A little further down again in County Leitrim, one of the original O’ROURKE names was TIERNAN.

Into the midlands, and that famous poetic family of O’DALYS seem happy to keep their original famous first name of CEARBHALL alive.

We finish off back down south in Kilkenny, where the Norman BUTLERS like their JAMESs, PIERCEs and WALTERs. Beside them we had the POWER family who had a fancy for the first name RICHARD.

And back to Mary Stout and her RYAN family from Tipperary – I have noticed that the RYANs seem particularly fond of the names MICHAEL and THOMAS. What do you think, Mary?

So, that’s it – a lightning tour around Ireland looking at just a few of the first names that seem particularly attached to certain surnames. How about your Irish families – are there any names that are particularly numerous compared to other families?

Slán for this week,

Mike and Carina.

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