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  • Writer's pictureCaroline Langley

The Almost Impossible Task of De-Mystifying Irish Names


Tourists beware, the greatest challenge to those alighting upon the Emerald Isle to discover Ireland is not the challenge of driving around hairpin bends on the wrong side of the road, or ordering bacon for breakfast instead of ‘rashers’ and finding oneself being served with an entire gastronome of swine with galleons of very very strong tea to aid the mastication process. No, the greatest challenge is that of the spoken language. “English“ you say, “accompanied by a most delightful Irish lilt? How could that possibly be a challenge? Well, let me just start with the colloquialisms and then gently invite you into the inner sanctum of Irish pronunciations.

To start with, a not unusual term that one might encounter upon first arrival is the word ‘homehouse’. Initial discourse with a local and exchange of pleasantries inevitably includes the usual enquiry: “Where are you from?” The reply to which is an explanation of the location of the homehouse; namely, the place where one was born, where soda bread was consumed in vast quantities and a place that is still likely occupied by a familial relation. One’s health and general well being tends to be the reciprocal question by way of “How’s the craic?” (pronounced ‘crack’), not be confused with, er … well you know. Now the safe reply to any mention of craic is a riposte of “middling” which means that you are fine. Equally, “happy out” or “grand” work just as well. “Dinner” is lunch and “secondary school” is high school. A “soft day promised” is the latest weather forecast meaning that the heavens are about to open and pour forth buckets of precipitation, the likes of which you have never seen and are likely never ever to see again.

Irish directions really do deserve an entire blog of their own but a little taster are that of the so oft used phrase “just down the road” which in actual fact means a three- day journey through rugged terrain, surplus rations are a helicopter evacuation team on standby might be given due consideration. “Sláinte” (pronounced “Slancha”) means cheers. “Een” (sounds like ‘bean’ sans the ‘b’) is attached to the end of a word to denote a smallness of character, for example, “bit-een” means a bit, ”dogeen” denotes a puppy and ”housheen” is a small house. And so on and so forth. So if you are arranging to meet a friend at a festival you simply say “I’ll see ye at the fleadh (pronounced “blah” but with an 'f') in a biteen” (in short while).


Not to be outdone by local colloquialisms are Irish names. Attempting to pronounce anything written in Gaelic fills me with terror, as the written word is so far removed from its actual pronunciation. Let’s start with first names: ‘Caoimhe’ is pronounced 'Qui-vah', ‘Aoife’ is 'Ee-fah', and ‘Ciara’ is 'Keira'. ‘Niamh’ is 'Neeve', ‘Oisin’ is 'Osheen' and ‘Siobhan’ is 'Shi-vaughn'. The lesson here is never ever to attempt to guess someone’s name from what they have written on their name tag or business card. The embarrassment is excruciating, proven recently by a hapless friend in his role as leader of a team building exercise. He stressed the importance of first impressions created by impeccable introductions and proceeded to stride confidently over to a beautiful, fair-haired lass standing shyly in the corner. He thrust his hand forward, demonstrated a solid handshake, made a surreptitious glance at her name tag and announced ‘Welcome, Oyfay, to our company’. Silence ensued. It transpired that her name was Aiofe (Ee-fah). Sadly, much as he ferverantly wished it, the floor failed to magically open and swallow him whole. But the incident was never to be forgotten and indeed has now been written into the annals of business etiquette and team building.


It is with a sigh of relief that I can report that most Irish surnames pose less of the enunciation challenges as forenames, since many surnames have been Anglicised. However, there is a resurgence to preserve the original Gaelic, and as such Murphy reverts to the original 'Murchadha', Kelly is Ceallaigh, O'Sullivan is 'Ó Súilleabháin' and Walsh is 'Breathnach'. The relief was palpable as I began to see a trend emerging and experienced a flicker of hope that I might get the hang of this name thing when I was thrown a curve ball upon learning that the Gaelic version of Smith is 'Mac Gabhann'.


And just when I thought it couldn't possibly get anymore complicated, it transpires that a surname sporting the prefix Ó is denoted Ní by the unmarried women in the family. So Paddy Kenny also Paddy O'Cionnaoith would be the father of Briget Ní O'Cionnaoith. The word quagmire springs to mind as I persevere in unravelling the intricacies of Irish names.

It seemed that place names might be a bit more straightforward since most of the villages in and around the Wild Atlantic Way have names that bear a striking similarity. But within the simplicity lays the complexity in that having grasped that first longed for syllable, the remaining syllables begin to swim together in a kind of opaque fog, not unlkike the exercises used by hypnotists to slow the conscious mind so as to access the subconscious. Newbrook House is located in County Mayo which is area of 2000 square miles with a population of 137,000. And in that relatively small swathe of land, our forefathers, for reasons known only to themselves, chose to amass a glut of village names all beginning with ‘Ball’:

Balla, Ballaghaderreen, Ballaghamuck, Ballaghfarna, Ballina, Ballinacostello, Ballinafad, Ballinagran, Ballinalecka, Ballinamore, Ballinaster, Ballinaya, Ballinchalla, Ballindell, Ballindine, Ballindoo, Ballindrehid, Ballingarden, Ballinglen, Ballingrogy, Ballinhoe, Ballinillaun, Ballinlaban, Ballinlag, Ballinlassa, Ballinlena, Ballinlough, Ballinloughaun, Ballinphuill, Ballinrobe, Ballinrumpa, Ballinsmaula, Ballintadder, Ballintaffy, Ballintecan, Ballinteeaun, Ballintemple, Ballintleva, Ballintober, Ballinulty, Ballinvilla, Ballinvilla, Ballinvoash, Ballinvoher, Ballinvoy, Ballisnahyny, Balloor, Balloorclerhy, Balloughadalla, Ballyargadaun, Ballyart, Ballybackagh, Ballyballinaun, Ballybanaun, Ballybeg, Ballybrinoge, Ballybroony, Ballycally, Ballycarra, Ballycarroon, Ballycastle, Ballyclogher, Ballycong, Ballycurrin, Ballycusheen, Ballydavock, Ballyderg, Ballydonnellan, Ballydrum, Ballyduffy, Ballyfarnagh, Ballygarries, Ballygarriff, Ballygarry, Ballyglass, Ballygolman, Ballygomman, Ballygowan, Ballyguin, Ballyhankeen, Ballyhanruck, Ballyheer, Ballyheeragh, Ballyhenry, Ballyhiernaun, Ballyhine, Ballyhowly Ballyjennings, Ballykerrigan, Ballykill, Ballykilleen, Ballykinava, Ballykine, Ballykinlettragh, Ballyknock, Ballylahan, Ballymacgibbon, Ballymachugh, Ballymackeehola, Ballymackeogh, Ballymacloughlin, Ballymacrah, Ballymacredmond, Ballymacsherron, Ballymaging, Ballymanagh, Ballymangan, Ballymartin, Ballymiles, Ballymoneen, Ballymore, Ballymoyock,Ballymullavil, Ballymurphy, Ballynaboll, Ballynabrehon, Ballynacarragh, Ballynacarrick, Ballynacarriga, Ballynacloy, Ballynagarha, Ballynaglea, Ballynagor, Ballynahaglish, Ballynakillew, Ballynaleck, Ballynalty, Ballynalynagh, Ballynamarroge, Ballynamona, Ballynamuddagh, Ballynanerroon, Ballynaslee, Ballynastangford, Ballynastocka, Ballyneety, Ballyneggin, Ballynew, Ballyoughter, Ballyroe, Ballyrourke, Ballysakeery, Ballyscanlan, Ballyshane, Ballyshingadaun, Ballyteige, Ballytoohy, Ballytrasna, Ballywalter, Ballyweela, Ballyvicmaha.

And so dear readers, proceed with caution and some hesitation when speaking English in Ireland because things may not always be what they seem. Happy travels!

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