Irish name variations

Recently Mary Ellen Grogan at NEHGS shared a great resource with me. It is called the Special report on surnames in Ireland [together with] varieties and synonymes of surnames and Christian names in Ireland by Robert E. Matheson. It is available in the NEHGS library. Copies of the “special report on surnames” and the separate “varieties and synonymes of surnames and Christian names” are also available digitally on HathiTrust.

First published in 1894 and then with updates in 1901 and 1909, these volumes were put together by Robert Matheson, who was the Registrar-General of Ireland. Using data from 1890 birth registrations and his correspondence with local registrars, he created a detailed summary of names found throughout Ireland. If you cannot find someone in Irish records, it may be useful to consult Matheson to find variations for further research.

For example, according to Matheson, the Holland surname was found in Counties Cork, Dublin, and Galway…

The surname chapters include spelling variations and the counties where the surnames were found in 1890. For example, according to Matheson, the Holland surname was found in Counties Cork, Dublin, and Galway, and sometimes was reported as Wholihane. My own research verifies this. My husband’s Holland family was from Lislee parish in County Cork, and in 1833 their surname was recorded as Wholahane. Their Holland surname is the anglicized version of Ó hUallacháin.

First name variations can be challenging. When you are researching in Irish records, it is important to understand the fluidity of Christian names. Did you know that Moss is another name for Maurice or that Cassie is a variation of Catherine? These are examples of diminutive names that can be quite different from their original name.

Finally, there are the Irish equivalents for English names.

Matheson also has examples of names that might be used interchangeably. These include Owen for Eugene and Bridget for Delia. Finally, there are the Irish equivalents for English names. Instead of the English Jeremiah a man might be known as Darby or Dermot. And Johanna could be Shavaun or Siobhan.

But my favorite parts in this book are the insights into naming practices. Because Robert Matheson oversaw civil registration records he had access to notes from local registrars. Matheson included some of these notes such as this humorous one. “Some years ago a man gave me ‘Eden’ (pronouncing ‘E’ like the long English ‘A’) as the name of his daughter. I told him I knew no such name. He rather indignantly asked me did I never hear of the Garden of Eden, and said he called her after that.”

About Pam Holland

Pam is a certificate holder from the Boston University Genealogical Research program and has researched family history for over 14 years. She has attended numerous genealogical institutes, including Samford University Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research (IGHR) and Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG). She also has a B.A. from the College of Wooster and a M.S. from Northeastern University. Her areas of interest include New England, New York (both city and state), Ireland, Germany, Social History, and DNA.

16 thoughts on “Irish name variations

  1. As for the name HOLLAND, my 2X great grandmother was always Ann Halloran in my family, but shows up as Ann Holleran, and also Ann Holland, on various records. In fact, in half of the extended family, she is named Ann Holland. She came from County Clare, where there are many Hallorans and O’Hallorans. Thanks for this information~

  2. My daughter-in-law’s father hoped for a boy whom he would name Stephen. She was named Stephenie instead; red line underneath that every the time.
    As for my given name, I worked in Akron OH for a rubber company whose email system changed Howland to Holland until I found the right I.T. person to change the system; Howland was still underlined in red but at least it wasn’t changed.

    1. Thank You! Like Debra, I had an Owen/Eugene issue. My 3xGGfather’s name on most documents in Ireland and the US was “Owen”. He had 6 children in Ireland and 3 more in the US. I think it was on the 1875 RI census that “Head of house” was Eugene, but his wife, Catherine and children who were still in the home had the same names, birth dates and places of birth as Owen’s family. There were a number of “Eugene”s in the family so I created various scenarios that would put Eugene in that household.

      1. Owen must have died and a brother or cousin must have stepped in to take care of the family.

      2. Eugene and Catherine had been eyeing each for quite a while and finally they had an opportunity to be together without creating a big scandal in the family and the small community.

      3. Owen and Catherine got a divorce, but not likely in a very close RC community.

      4. Eugene just happened to be there when the census taker came and assumed he was the head of household and verified the children’s name and ages.

      5. Catherine and Owen had a troubled relationship which came to a head and she killed him, but I didn’t want to pursue that line of thinking. Eugene comes to take care of the children while Catherine was in prison.

      This only took 5 to 10 minutes to conjure up these possibilities. Then I had a reasonable thought. Why not look up when Owen died? Duh! He actually died 13 years later. He was back in the house on the 1880 census.

      So glad I did not delete this post; you never know how you will solve a nagging problem.

  3. Hi Pam,

    I’m always intrigued by the wide variations among Irish surnames and given names. I ran into multiple name variation challenges researching my Irish immigrant ancestors. I learned that my 3rd great grandfather, David L. Scanlan, also went by the given name “Daniel.” Apparently, the given names “David” and “Daniel” are used interchangeably in Ireland. His wife, Johanna, was known as “Hannah” and “Anna” and I later discovered their daughter Nora’s full given name was Honora after her maternal grandmother. The nicknames for mother and daughter are logical. Daniel = David is unexpected. Thanks for posting the reminder. Important information to have when undertaking this research.

    1. Hullo, Alane, I’ve run into Honora(h) and Hanora(h), used interchangeably for my 2Xgreatgrandmother in Ireland, so that isn’t a surprise. But now I will re-research my great-grandmother’s brother David, who came to the US in the early 1890s and died, in Long Island City, on 14 August 1896. Having found the record of his death, but no other mention of him, I will now be looking under Daniel. Who knew, indeed?

  4. Hi Pam
    Have you come across any references that give German name equivalents. I know both my husband and my family have Carl and Charles used interchangeably. Since I have many German ancestors this would be very helpful. Thank you for the great reference above.

    1. I haven’t found the same type of resource for German names. However, I have a German ancestor named Carl Behnke who always went by Charles in the U.S. In the case of Germans I think they used American names to fit in better.

  5. What a great and wonderful contribution to those of us struggling with finding our Irish ancestors. Kudos to you for this great find.

  6. Oh, off I go down another delightful rabbit hole! So far as I know, I have no Irish ancestors (though that is, of course, subject to revision). But I delight in names and their variations, so have spent the last hour happily reading, and doubt I’ll stop until the end. I do have Welsh and English Gaelic ancestors, and will bet that many of the same changes apply – and may well be useful in tracking down some ambiguous folks in the west and southwest of England.

  7. I can attest to the many years of chasing down my gggrandfather Darby Branigan through Ireland,Liverpool and the US – until I found that Jeremiah. I will now go double checking for Dermots as the Catholic record are also sometime in Latin/Gallic. Compounding was his spouse Mary Catherine Lenihan/Lennon/Linehan, as well as being called Caterin, Katherine, Kate, and Caty.

  8. Are there other names for Anthony? I can’f find Anthony Coolican from Galway according to his immigration records, born about 1824.

  9. Thank you for this info. There is definitely a confusion in our family concerning Edmond & Edward and I’ll watch for the suggested variation for Jeremiah and others.

  10. I have often wondered about my father’s mother’s middle name: Mary Imelda O’Donnell. She was an only child, born in the U.S. (Waterbury, Connecticut) in 1892 to Julia Breen and James Bernard O’Donnell after they emigrated from County Cork (I have no other information about them in Ireland).

    My father was named for his grandfather. My brother and his son are also named James Bernard, but “Imelda” has not been passed down in the family.

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