I write crime novels. They’re mostly set in Ireland. Many of the characters have Irish first names, sometimes Irish surnames too. It goes with the territory, as they say. But some readers won’t have the foggiest clue how to say these names.
In that sense these characters are “The Unpronounceables”. Sounds like a dream team of comicbook superheroes, eh?
Take “Niamh”. One of my main characters in Ghost Flight is called Niamh. Niamh is a fairly common Irish name, so people in Ireland wouldn’t think twice about how to say it.
This Niamh character happens to be on holiday in France. The poor French characters in the book have no idea how to pronounce “Niamh”. It’s a mouthful.
I’ve seen – or rather heard – this at first hand: real French people having problems with “Niamh”. I’m guessing they’d have similar problems with her surname too, “McElhinney”, just as Irish people would make a dog’s dinner of many French names.
If one kid in your family has an Irish name, there’s a fair chance that the others will have Irish names too. So the Niamh character has a sister called Áine.
Áine’s married name is Kettle – so an Irish first name followed by an English-sounding surname. You’ll find quite a few Kettles around north Dublin. It’s probably an anglicisation of the Irish name Mac Coitil, which in turn has Norse origins.
I’ve no evidence for this, but I’ve a hunch that of all the Irish first names that make little sense outside Ireland, the girls outnumber the boys. Sorcha, Saoirse, Siobhan, Sadhbh, Maedhbh, Mairéad, Roisin, Caoimhe, Gráinne, Aoibheann (or Aoibhinn), Aoife, Ailbhe, Bláthnaid…
Even Sinéad used to pose a problem to people in England and North America, until Sinéad O’Connor came along – and Sinéad Cusack before her.
But babies’ names go in and out of fashion of course. The Central Statistics Office, which compiles stats of the names of newly registered births in Ireland, notes that:
The top five girls’ names in 1964 were Mary, Catherine, Margaret, Ann and Anne. None of these names featured in the top five names registered for baby girls in 2014. Apart from Mary, none of the other four names (i.e. Margaret, Catherine, Ann and Anne) featured in the top 100 names for girls in 2014.
Nowadays it’s all Emilys, Sophies, Emmas, Graces and Avas. Well it was in the 2014 stats.
One regular character in the Moss Reid series is a chef called Aisling. That’s another common enough name in Ireland over the past century or so, though some younger people do that thing of spelling it phoenetically or “Englishing” it, turning it into “Ashling” (or the increasingly popular North American equivalent,”Ashlyn”). But even if you’re a proper old Aisling you’ll probably end up being called Ash by all your mates.
Two bits of Aisling trivia: The Ashling also happens to be a hotel on Parkgate Street in Stoneybatter. And the LÉ Aisling is a famous patrol vessel in the Irish Naval Service, along with the LÉ Róisin, LÉ Niamh and LÉ Eithne. The Irish tend to know all these ships’ names because we don’t exactly have a huge navy.
As for the LÉ bit in those ships’ names, it’s usually pronounced L.E. – as individual letters with a standard English pronunciation. LÉ stands for “Long Éireannach” or “Irish ship”, our equivalent of the “USS” and “HMS” bit that other navies use.
Bear in mind that Irish names will have layers of extra meaning. For example, “aisling” is the Irish word for dream or vision. The aisling or vision poem is a genre that developed during the 17th and 18th centuries in Irish-language poetry, and was later much parodied.