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Irish first names in 1864

What were the most popular Irish first names in 1864?

School pegs with traditional Irish first names written on them.
Irish first names had become pretty predicatable by 1864, the year Ireland introduced an obligatory system for the civil registration of births.

By this time, English was the language of the majority (less than 25% still spoke Irish) and all the stirring Celtic names of Old Ireland had been swept away in favour of anglicised names, especially those of saints.

Historic studies suggest this is because some priests refused baptism to a child unless it was taking the name of a saint. Ireland has a vast number of saints and their names are repeated over and over, so it is no wonder that the selection of names given to infants followed the same pattern.

While modern trends in Irish first names have been published every year since the mid-1990s, I had never come across any similar enquiry into mid-19th century Christian names in Ireland.

So, with historical birth records from the civil registration indexes easily accessible online, I decided to carry out my very own research.

Having made a selection of surnames from the indexes – the surnames chosen included Cleary, Connell, Minihane and Kennedy – I had a pool of more than 1,700 birth records. I then simply counted the occurrences of each name, ignoring spelling variations ie Denis and Dennis were accepted as the same name. Mary Jane and Mary Ann were not treated the same as Mary alone.

I accept that my methods would probably not pass too much expert scrutiny but I stand by them as a kind of 'vox pox' of first names in Ireland in the year 1864.

Below are the findings for my survey of Irish first names for girls and first names for boys. The number beside each name gives the total count of entries for that name.

Top ten first names for girls in 1864

  1. Mary (232)
  2. Margaret (120)
  3. Catherine/Kate (81)
  4. Bridget/Biddy (62)
  5. Ann/Anne (54)
  6. Ellen (48)
  7. Eliza/Elizabeth/Betty (22)
  8. Johanna (20)
  9. Sarah (19)
  10. Julia (15)

Also in double figures were Hanora/Honora and Jane.

What is most surprising about these figures is the proportions of baby girls given the name Mary. If my sample was truly representative, nearly one little girl in three was called Mary.

By 1963, it was still the most popular Irish first name for newborn girls but, with only one in eight female infants receiving it, the fall of favour had clearly begun. In the last fifty-odd years, the name had tumbled, achieving 81st place in the Republic in 2013.

It still features very highly, however, as a second name, on both sides fo the border.

Top ten Irish first names for boys in 1864

    Irish boy names on school pegs
  1. John (143)
  2. Patrick/Pat (142)
  3. James (90)
  4. Thomas (89)
  5. Michael (86)
  6. William (67)
  7. Martin (18)
  8. Peter (16)
  9. Timothy (16)
  10. Denis/Dennis (15)

Also in double figures were Robert, Daniel, Francis, Hugh,
Edward, Mathew, Maurice and Richard.

The top names for boys show a much more spread out numerical pattern than those for girls. Less than one boy in six would have been called John in the mid-19th century. The same is true of Patrick.

Incredibly, John was still the most popular boy's name for new-borns in the Republic in 1963! Its popularity started to slip in the 1980s (in 1983 it was the fifth most popular name) and the slide has continued, while Jack, originally a pet name for John, has completely taken over. It's been in the top spot or the top five boy's names in the Republic from 1998 to 2013 and has held the number one position in Northern Ireland from 2003 to 2013.

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