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Irish Place Names from Avoca to Valentia

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By Jane Ní Chaoimh

There are many Irish place names that could happily be used as baby names — in the US or elsewhere–of which this list is just a sampling. I have chosen names which are easily pronounced outside of Ireland and which have a positive meaning or origin. I’ve purposely omitted some well-known options (Kerry, for example, which probably suggests politics – à la US Secretary of State John Kerry – more than the Emerald Isle, at the moment!). Several of these could also fit into the nature name category (river names and so on).

Avoca — pronounced “A-voh-ka”, this evocative sounding name belongs to an Irish river and town in County Wicklow. The town is known for its hand-weaving industry and copper mines, and Wicklow itself is popularly known as “The Garden of Ireland”. Avoca would be a pretty and fresh-sounding name for a baby girl. (A little warning though, avocadoes could also spring to mind.)

Annalee – this at-a-glance “smoosh name” is actually a river in County Cavan, named for the surrounding area of Annaghlee (from the Irish eanach lao: fen + calf). It is also reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem, “Annabel Lee.” With several nickname possibilities, this is a very usable baby name option with a hidden slight Gaelic influence.

Brandon – the Anglicization of Cé Bhréanainn, Brandon is a beautiful Irish-speaking village on the coast of County Kerry. A neighbouring sandy bay and mountain share the title. The name Brandon has been well used in the US over the years, but few people seem to realise this direct Irish connection. Brendan/Brendon also originates from the Irish name “Breanainn”.

Cashel – this is the name of several different townlands in Ireland, and of Tipperary’s famous Rock of Cashel with its spectacular Cathedral and Round Tower. Cashel is a viable option for a baby boy, with the Nashville-esque “Cash” an obvious nickname.

Clare – synonymous with the French Claire, meaning bright or clear, Clare is also the name of an Irish county and island (from the Irish “Clár”, meaning bridge or meadow). County Clare is home to the magnificent Burren limestone plateau, a wildflower hotspot.

Carlow – another Irish county, this strong yet sweet-sounding name is fresh and traditional all at once.  It’s instantly reminiscent of the more familiar Carlo, but with a Celtic twist: Carlow means “place of cattle,” from Irish, “Ceatharlach”. With its subtle hint of Irishness, this might prove a good option for an Irish-Italian American family?

Connemara - this area on the west coast of Ireland is a favourite haunt for tourists, and for good reason. With its many beaches and villages, it epitomises everything Irish. It seems to derive from “Conmacne mara,” meaning “Conmacne by the sea”, as the Conmacne clan was a large group in ancient Ireland. With nicknames Connie and Mara, this is an interesting baby name possibility.

Ennis – the name of a County Clare town was brought to our attention by the character created by Annie Proulx and played by Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain. It has a somewhat relaxed and lazy feel, but confusion with Dennis might prove irritating. Ennis means island in its original Irish form.

Nenagh – pronounced Nina, this is a town in County Tipperary. Meaning fair (as in a marketplace), it’s an easy way to incorporate some Irishness into a name, while keeping the familiar “Nina” sound.

Nore - an alternative to the popular Nora, this is not just a nickname for Eleanor or Leonora. The River Nore is one of the “Three Sisters” rivers in Ireland’s sunny south-east, so might be interesting as a name for a third daughter. (The two other sister rivers are the Barrow and the Suir, however… so it may be best to avoid using those as names!)

Rosslare – this is the name of a seaside village and nearby harbour port in County Wexford (and it’s the sunniest place in all of Ireland!). It comes from the Irish “Ros Láir”, meaning ‘central (wooded) peninsula’. This could definitely be used for a baby boy, with the equally Celtic Ross as a viable nickname option.

Shannon – the name of Ireland’s longest river, with a harbour town named after it, Shannon has long been used for baby girls. Easily pronounced and familiar to the ear, this is an obvious place name from Ireland.

Sligo – a county on the rocky Atlantic coast, this is a unique and cool-sounding name for a boy or a girl. Pronounced “Sly-go,” the only drawback is the possibility of having Sly as a nickname. It means “a shelly place” in its original form, Sligeach. (Sligo as a place name is to be found on record earlier than any other Irish town or city.*)

Tara – the Hill of Tara in County Meath was, according to legend, the home place of the High King of Ireland for many generations.  As a historical site, it has many monuments of interest. What a regal way to pay tribute to Ireland! Like its Cara, Lara, and Zara sisters, this name still sounds fresh and pretty, with a healthy amount of history and folklore behind it, as well as a connection to Gone With the Wind.

Valentia – pronounced Val-EN-cha or Val-EN-sia, this island is one of Ireland’s most westerly points.  A slightly different take on the better-known Valencia, it is pretty and exotic-sounding. This would be an interesting choice for a baby girl, with its an almost secret Irish connection.

Wexford/Wicklow – Two counties in the southeast, these names might be considered too clunky to use as first names, but they would very happily take the middle name spot. Both come from Old Norse in their original form, and mean “fjord of the mudflats” and “meadow of the Vikings,” respectively.

*according to research by Dr Nollaig Ó Muraíle, MRIA, Roinn na Gaeilge, NUI Galway. (Formerly Placenames Officer, Ordnance Survey – 1972-93.) See www.sligoheritage.com/archsligeach.htm.

Jane lives in Ireland and is currently a university student of English and History. She has loved names and words for as long as she can remember, and always gives her pets and hens unusual and interesting ones.

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