Irish Baby Names: How do you pronounce that?

January 6, 2010 Linda Rosenkrantz
Irish baby names

Since there has been so much interest in (and confusion about) the pronunciation of Irish names, we turned to someone with some real expertise–Norah Burch, who runs the long-running website —and who has lived in Ireland and made a study of the Irish Gaelic language.

Irish names seem to be all the rage these days, and one of the most recent trends among Americans with Irish ancestry is using Irish Gaelic names for their kids, rather than the anglicized versions.  For example, in the past few years I’ve met little girls with the names Aislinn /ASH-lin; Sorcha /SUR-uh kha/ and Saoirse /SEER-sha.  Ditto for Liam and Cillian, which are becoming increasingly popular, as they are fairly easy to pronounce in English.  However, Irish is a language all its own, and many names are very difficult to pronounce for foreigners—names like Toirdhealbhach, Maelshechlainn, and Fionnbharr, for example.

When the British took over Ireland, they spelled out names phonetically, and thus the three names above became Turlough, Malachy and Finbar. In Irish they are pronounced something like TUR-uh -lokh, MAIL-ukh-lan and F’YUN-uh-var/. Or, they gave (sometimes puzzling) already-existing English names as “translations” of the Irish names based on sound alone. Thus Sorcha became Sarah, Donnchadh/DUNN-uh-kha became Dionysus, and Feardorcha /far-DUR-uh-kha/ became Frederick.

The problem comes when people take Irish Gaelic names and pronounce them as one would in English. This is how Caitlin became Kate-lynn, when in Irish, it is pronounced more like KOT leen or KOYT leen. It’s difficult to write these out phonetically, because, like other foreign languages, Irish contains sounds that English does not have. To pronounce Caitlin like Katelynn would be a bit like calling a Spanish person named José  “Josie.”

Here are some Irish Gaelic names that you may find easy to pronounce (keeping in mind that the letter “r” is rolled much as in Spanish and Italian), given first using the Gaelic alphabet, followed by the authentic pronunciation.

It may be easier for an English-speaking child, however, to just be given the anglicized version when applicable , which is given in parentheses:


 Áine /AWN yeh (Anya)

Aisling /ASH ling (Ashling)

Aoife /EE fa

Béibhinn /BAY vin (Bevin)

Brónach /BRO nakh (Brona, Bronagh)

Brid /BREEJ (Brigid)

Caitriona /kah TREE uh na (Catrina)

Caoimhe /KEE va, KWEE va (Keavy, Keeva)

Ciar /KEE ur (Keir)

Ciara /KEE uh ra (Keira)

Cliona /CLEE uh na (Cliona)

Dearbhail /DJAR vil (Dervil)

Derbhile /DJER vill  (Dervla, Dervila)

Eibhilin /EH leen (Eileen)

Éilis /AY leesh (Eilish)

Gráinne /GRAWN yeh (Grania)

Grian /GREE-un

Íde /EE-da (Eda)

Laoise /LEE-sha

Máirín /MAW-reen (Maureen)

Máire /MO-YA or MAW-ra (Moya, Maura)

Méadhbh /MAVE (Maeve)

Neasa /NESS-a (Nessa)

Niamh /NEEV or NEE-uv (Neve)

Nuala /NOO-uh-la

Órla, Órlaith /OR-la (Orla)

Riona, Rionach /REE-uh-na, REE uh nakh (Riona)

Róisín /ROE– sheen (Rosheen, Rosaleen)

Sadhbh /SIVE

Saorla /SAIR-la

Saraid /SAR- id

Síle /SHEE-la (Sheila)

Sinéad /shih-NADE (Sinaid)

Siobhán (sh’VAWN (Shivaun )

Siomha, Siomath /SHEE-va

Treasa /TRASS-a

Úna /OO-na (Oona, Una)


 Árdal /AWR-dul (Ardal)

Barra /BAR-ra (Barry)

Brógán /BRO-gawn (Brogan)

Cathal /CAH-hul (Cahill)

Cian /KEE-un (Kian)

Ciarán /KEE-uh-rawn (Kieran)

Cillian /KILL-ee-un (Kilian)

Colm /CULL-um

Conor /CUN-ur (Conor)

Cormac /CUR-a-muk (Cormac)

Cúan /COO-awn

Dáire /DAW-ra (Darra, Darragh)

Dónal /DOE-nul (Donal, Donnell)

Éamon /AY-mun (Eamon)

Eoghan, Eoin /OH-in (two separate names, but pronounced pretty much the same)

Fial /FE– ul

Lochlann /LAWKH-lun

Lorcán /LUR-uh-khan (Lorcan)

Marcán /MAR-u- khawn

Naoise /NEE-sha Neesha )

Niall /NEE-ul (Neil)

Oisin /USH-een (Osheen )

Pádraig /PAW-rick (Patrick)

Ruadhri, Ruari /ROO-uh-re (Rory)

Tadhg /TYG (Teague)

Tóla/T?la /TOE-la

Norah Burch received her first name book at age seven, and has been obsessed with origins and meanings of names ever since. She studied anthropology, linguistics and archaeology while living in Ireland. She currently lives in Boston with 2 cats, 2 frogs, a snail and a turtle, all of whom have exquisite names (at least by her standards). She created her site in 1998.


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