Mary John Mary John Mary John Mary

Historic Irish forenames have a reputation for being dull and repetitive to the point of madness. Mary John Mary John Mary John Mary John Mary …

It’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of a John Sullivan in Kenmare in 1840 with fourteen first cousins, forty second cousins, two uncles and six great-great grandparents all called John Sullivan who thought it might be a good idea to name his son … John Sullivan. But he did. And  his fourteen first cousins, forty second cousins, two uncles and six great-great grandparents also called their sons John.

Bartholomew Ahern became Bertie because Dublin ears couldn’t cope with such a richly Corkonian first name.

Look more closely and the picture gets more nuanced. There are  strong local associations between some forenames and specific localities. You’ll almost never find a Cornelius or a Jeremiah or a Bartholomew or a Hanorah outside Munster.  Sabina (or Sally) is heavily associated with Galway and Connacht. A Philip is most likely from the Cavan/Monaghan/Fermanagh area. (But most Phillip McCabes had fourteen first cousins, forty second cousins, two uncles and six great-great grandparents all called Phillip McCabe). Gobnait is almost excusive to the Caherciveen area. Festus or Festy is only found in west Galway, around Clifden.

Knowing there were bound to be instances like this that I’d missed, I set off to mine the civil birth records 1864 to 1913. And ended up mapping them all.

As always, a visualisation makes some things jump out. Kieran is almost exclusively a Westmeath/Offaly name. But spelt ‘Kyran’, it’s almost exclusively Kilkenny.

Kierans: Birr, Athlone, Ballinalsoe
Kyrans: Kilkenny

 

Abigail

Abigail is common only in two distant areas, around Belfast and in south-west Cork. Roger appears almost only in Connacht and Munster.

The main insight, especially from browsing the names, is that mis-spellings and mistranscriptions are depressingly common. And that some names are so numerous your computer will explode if it tries to map them all, so I left them out.  A full list, with the mind-boggling numbers of registrations, is below.

You can play with all of these for free yourself in the Names section of the site. Enjoy.

The most common Irish forenames 1864 to 1913


Note “Unknown” at No. 10 with almost 200,000 registrations. Many Lying-in Hospitals in urban areas block-registered newborns with surnames only. Be warned.

Rank Name Number
1 Mary 622,622
2 John 462,084
3 James 303,156
4 Patrick 290,455
5 Margaret 263,951
6 Thomas 241,965
7 William 239,271
8 Michael 215,226
9 Bridget 207,127
10 Unknown 187,657
11 Catherine 181,431
12 Ellen 156,439
13 Elizabeth 117,622
14 Anne 111,725
15 Sarah 95,600
16 Joseph 86,304
17 Robert 82,974
18 Edward 63,956
19 Jane 55,845
20 Daniel 55,790
21 Eliza 54,221
22 Annie 51,903
23 Peter 49,537
24 Kate 48,902
25 Francis 47,216
26 George 46,505
27 Samuel 42,136
28 Julia 39,788
29 Martin 39,499
30 Charles 39,429
31 Johanna 37,966
32 Hugh 36,411
33 David 36,134
34 Richard 35,456
35 Henry 35,170
36 Denis 33,688
37 Agnes 33,297

43 thoughts on “Mary John Mary John Mary John Mary”

  1. I have noticed how very few native Irish forenames survived in common use into the 19th century, a notable exception being Farrel(l) which survived in north-west Connacht. And a strange one in Duignan families in the Mohill area – Jerome. Ó Corráin notes that Jerome was often used as an anglicised version of Ciothruadh – a very common name amongst the O Duigenan and Mac Firbisigh families. Unfortunately, by the late 19th-early 20th century this wonderful historic link had been lost, and Jerome transmogrified into Jeremiah (!)

    1. Can someone please help me out I’m trying to get info on Mary how do I get it. I’ve been tapping on it. I’m not really computer savvy.

      1. In John’s words, “some names are so numerous your computer will explode if it tries to map them all, so I left them out.” You’re supposed to click on “browsing the names” or “the Names section” and enter the name in the Forenames search box. But if you search for Mary, the reply is “There are too many instances of Mary to display.” No wonder: it’s the top name, twice as common even as John. As George Cohan sang, it’s a grand old name.

  2. Surprised Gobnait (or one of its variations) isn’t popular in west Cork, or to be more specific, the Ballyvourney area. A well-known Saint in centuries past, with pilgrimages to her ‘House’ and Well located there, plus wells, saints stones and more to her cropping up all over West and East Muskerry. You’ve done the research though, will bow to that!

  3. Ha ha! I come from 2 lines that named the first girl – always- Mary. It was so bad that if you walked into a room and called ‘Mary’, at least half the women in the room answered ‘yes?’ By my generation Mary became a double name – I became ‘Mary Jo’ (from Mary Joanne) – but now there is a new ‘thing’ – some countries don’t use double names – India is one – us double name folks have become ‘Mary’ again. My personal solution has been to change my nickname to ‘Maryjo’ – I refuse to be Mary!

    1. I am also Mary Jo Anne, called Mary Jo: I too refuse to be Mary! I have also been using the name “maryjo”….we have to do something to maintain our identity!

  4. Most of the given names on my Dad’s side are on the list- 23 in fact. I never thought about names being regionally relevant. Good thing to know when searching.

      1. Good to know! My grandfather was Thomas Edmond Gibbons from Mullingar area and I have had problems tracking his family history.
        Perhaps I need to expand my search!
        Many thanks!

  5. And Felix and George for the McLaughlins of Dromore, Tyrone…??…must mean something about my family…in the 1800s..??..

  6. I wonder to what degree names become concentrated due to the tradition of naming children after grandparents. I have a long line of Terence’s which can be useful for working backwards and identifying potential connections. Would be an interesting statistic to identify the percentage of first boys named after paternal grandfathers, first girls named after paternal grandmothers, second boys named after maternal grandfathers and second girls named after maternal grandmothers.

    1. I thought Dorina/Dolly would be an easy name to track! Not so! So common in Ireland.
      My Cork Harrington’s haven’t been as easy either, even with Jeremiahs involved.
      Helpful to know the Munster connections though. Thanks.

    2. This would be helpful, indeed, if it turned out to be a trend among our ancestors. I have three sets of grandparents from “counties“ in Ireland and I can’t trace them any further. If I knew the names of these grandparents, based on their grandchildren‘s names, that would be most useful. Not that I haven’t tried that, but I would put more weight on those hints.

  7. Thanks for the information. I have so many John’s,and,Catherine’s in my family it is hard to keep the generations straight!

  8. Deborah and Abigail were used as substitutes for Gobnait and are often found in West Cork so Gobnait was not lost in that area after all.

  9. Hi John,
    Great digging! Amazing…we have all dealt with this problem doing research, but wow, didn’t realize the #’s were that extreme.

    Is the whole list available or did you stop at #37?

    Do you have Winifred? In any specific locations?

    Dave

  10. When my dad was suffering with dementia, he knew our names but he had the relationship confused with those we were named after so he thought I was his aunt Bridget not his daughter. My siblings were – to him – his parents and grandparents. Confusing till we realised how his poor brain had sorted things out. The strength of the naming convention!

  11. It’s probably well known to many, but at least in west Cork, in 1800s there was a strong tradition of calling the first son after the groom’s father, the second son after the bride’s father, and first and second daughter after the groom’s and bride’s fathers, respectively.

    Which means that if John Sullivan had a bunch of sons who got married at about the same time, then he had a bunch of John Sullivan grandchildren, born about the same time, and in the same parish or even townland.

    In my own family, I’ve seen a case of Timothy and Patrick alternating with each generation for 7 generations now, while there was another branch of that family that alternated Eugene and John for at least 5 generations.

    It’s helpful in finding a clue if two people are related, but a real problem for finding out exactly how they are related!

  12. The John Sullivan situation sounds like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” with all the cousin Nicky’s. I think in any country where a naming pattern was followed, you might get the same.

  13. Never thought of forenames as being regional. Will definitely have a look, since I only know where 1 set of ggg grandparents came from – this might help give some clues. As alwys, John, you’re a font of information. Thank you.

  14. My grandmother, whose father, Hugh, was from Donegal and mother , Ellen, was from Cork….was the eldest of 12 and named Mary but known as May. Her daughter
    , Also Mary, was then May-May. My father, whose father and grandfather (born in Cork) were both John named the eldest grandson John but he was always known as Jack. So I always knew my parents, both 2nd generation Irish, as Jack and May-May. I didn’t realise these were Irish traditions till I read Maeve Binche’s “Silver Wedding” …

  15. After being cursed with the first two popular names on John’s list, I am always hoping for an ancestor with an uncommon name. Roger and Toal McCullagh from Tyrone County were a blessing awaiting for me after years of Mary and John.

      1. 26 first name references and 99 surname references in John’s database. I didn’t believe it was a real name myself. In one record, it is recorded as Theophelus (Theophilus?), as I guess it was Latinized by the local priest. I’ve found Toal transcribed in many paywall genealogy websites as Joal, Joel, Tolle and Toll, as others probably didn’t think it was listed correctly.

  16. One name you won’t find in the voluminous forenames list is in the 1834 Granard census (see previous post), which has “Ainger Peper” in Castlenugent. He’s also in the Tithe Applotment books and the RC parish records for both Granard and Streete parishes, and that’s what assured me that I was looking in the right place, because my immigrant ancestor named his youngest child Ainger Pepper and I couldn’t believe there could be more than two men with that name, one on either side of the Atlantic. It’s been suggested that the name might have been inspired by the surname of the first Lords of Longford, Aungier. My g-g-uncle Ainger died as a result of being struck by a car in 1922 in Scranton PA, where he and his wife ran a shop selling ladies’ cloaks and suits.

  17. Another interesting post–thank you. I see that girls named Virginia are scarce on the ground. Hugely popular among American Irish Catholics in the first half of the 20c, later than your survey. I am one and there were five in my Catholic girls’ high school class in the 60s.. It was also popular among non-Catholics. But I guess it never caught on in Ireland.

  18. Oh wow! This is a very useful utility, and also a lot of fun. Thank you for this COVID19 distraction.

    Top ten forenames in my family tree: Mary, John, Margaret, James, Thomas, Catherine, Michael, Patrick, Bridget, William. Which is basically the top 11 in your 1864-1913 list (leaving out #10, “Unknown”), though in somewhat different order after Mary and John.

  19. Fascinating! Is there a way to reverse the search and enter a geographic region to obtain a lists of uncommon/rare names in that area? Great resource. Thank you.

  20. I have a granddaughter named Mary. My granddaughter’s mother, my daughter, is named Mary. My daughter’s mother, my wife, is named Mary. My wife’s mother, my mother in law, is named Mary. My mother in law’s mother is named Mary. Five Marys in succession going back to 1868! Tradition is wonderful. I hope my granddaughter continues the tradition should she be blessed with a daughter.

  21. We have all the Hanorah’s, Francis’s and John’s & John Francis & Francis John in our family of Burtons & lots from Kanturk also. So amazing – great work.

  22. What is the Latinised version of Judith or Judy? That was my great-grandmother’s name. I find it very strange that the name seems to have disappeared completely upon her death in 1895. Julia is the closest name which has appeared regularly since.

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