You might know the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (it rhymes with Gates, not Keats) from his much-loved poems like The Lake Isle of Innisfree, possibly the most peaceful poem ever written, or memorable lines like “tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.”
One thing (among many) Yeats is remembered for is his retelling of Irish myths and legends. He helped to introduce characters from ancient literature – and their Irish names – to the English-speaking world. Today we take it for granted that it’s easy to access Irish culture – like stories, music, and of course names – but that wasn’t always the case.
Why did Yeats do it? In part, it’s probably connected to Irish nationalism. During his lifetime, Ireland was asserting her independence politically and culturally. He was also deeply interested in the supernatural, and the old Irish tales are full of magic and mysticism. Gods and fairies walk among mortals, druids make prophecies, people change into animals. It’s a world you can easily get lost in.
Here are some of the best Irish names from Yeats’ poetry, ranging from the familiar to the obscure (but still usable!).
I’ve given pronunciations for the trickier names, but it’s only a rough guide – you might have heard them said differently. Some of them have long accents on the vowels in Irish, but Yeats left them out and so have I.
Kings and queens
Maeve: the famous queen of Connacht, it would be charitable to say she was driven and ambitious. There’s even a name story about her: a druid foretells that her son Maine (MY-nya) will kill her greatest enemy, so she renames all seven of her sons Maine to make sure it happens. (It doesn’t, because of another name mix-up.) Maeve combines sounds that are very popular at the moment. She’s risen through the US charts to #450, and is a top 100 name on Nameberry.
Fergus: the name of several legendary figures, including a king who joins forces with Maeve. It means “manly strength”, but I’ve always thought it sounds cuddly, perhaps because it’s the name of several children’s book and TV characters.
Cormac: a common name in medieval Ireland. The king Cormac Mac Carthaig (not to be confused with the author Cormac McCarthy) built a chapel on Cashel Rock that inspired Yeats. This ancient name has a modern sound and gives the nickname Mac, but it was only given to 175 boys in the US last year.
Heroes and warriors
Finn: the most popular name on this list, Finn was a heroic name long before Star Wars. Finn MacCool (was there ever a cooler name? In Irish it’s Fionn Mac Cumhaill) was the legendary leader of the band of warriors called the Fianna (FEE-na). Even today in Ireland, you’ll hear stories connecting Finn with all sorts of landmarks, most famously the Giant’s Causeway. And if you think Fianna would make a good name, you’re not alone. Bijou Phillips and Danny Masterson gave it to their daughter in 2014, and last year it was given to 24 girls in the US.
Oisin (o-SHEEN): Finn’s son, who travelled with his immortal lover to the Land of Youth. It’s a Top 20 name in Ireland and Northern Ireland, while the Welsh version Osian ranks #25 in Wales. Ossian is another variation. Any of them would make an interesting alternative to Oscar (the name of Oisin’s son) or Owen.
Aoife (EE-fa): an immortal warrior and lover of the great warrior Cuchulain (coo-HULL-an). Yeats also used it as a nickname for some of his strong female friends. Aoife is enjoying a moment in Ireland: it’s #8 in Northern Ireland and #13 in the Republic. In the US, it’s under the radar but not unheard of: 98 girls were called Aoife in 2015. Its similar sound to Eva makes it very appealing.
Deirdre: Ireland’s best-known tragic heroine, beautiful Deirdre fell in love with the warrior Naoise (NEE-sha) and they eloped. Unfortunately, this didn’t go down well with the king she was supposed to marry. Most people (including the Beach Boys) pronounce it “DEER-dree”, but the modern Irish way is more like “DEER-dra”, which sounds less dated. It’s one to add to the list of underused D names.
Emer (EE-mer): the long-suffering wife of the warrior Cuchulain. Emer has a lot going for it: it looks like the start of popular name Emerson, and sounds like a smoosh of Eva and Emma. The modern Irish spelling Eimear is in the Top 100 in both parts of Ireland.
Grania: Yeats uses this spelling of Grainne, a lover who runs away from her husband Finn, but eventually returns to him. This name used to be anglicised as Grace, but now it would make a romantic alternative to it.
Gods and fairies
Aengus (sounds like Angus): in most of Yeats’ poems about him, Aengus is the god of love, youth and poetry. But in one of my favourites, The Song of Wandering Aengus, he’s a mortal man who falls in love with a fairy woman. She calls his name and vanishes, and he spends the rest of his life searching for her.
Manannan (MAN-an-nawn): a god of the sea, Manannan would fit into the pantheon of god names being used at the moment, like Odin and Apollo. It’s not the snappiest of names, so it might be better in the middle name spot.
Niamh (NEEV): golden-haired Niamh, the sea-god’s daughter, chooses the mortal Oisin as her and takes him to her home in the Land of Youth. Niamh is a favourite all over the UK and Ireland, but not so well-known in America…yet. It has potential, with Irish credentials and the popular “Eve” sound. To play it safe, you could spell it Neve or Neave.
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