14 February 2010

Nicknames, Middle Names, Same Names--How Did the Irish Get So Many Names?

I had posted a short query on the Irish-in-Philadelphia Rootsweb mailing list (link below) last week about the Irish and their use of middle names. I was surprised at the outpouring of stories that researchers shared about researching Irish ancestors with confusing names. So, I have been "asking around" about difficulties other researchers have had with first and middle names in records and am finding a surprising number of people who have been led astray by nicknames, middle names, and fictitious names.
And, before this quest, I thought that pinning down an Irish ancestor's age was the most frustrating part of Irish research!
Naming Patterns. I have been surprised at the number of researchers who have found that their family, especially in the 1800's and earlier, did indeed follow the traditional Irish naming pattern. The first son was named after the paternal grandfather, the second after the maternal grandfather, and the third after the father (with daughters, reverse, with the first daughter named after the maternal grandmother, etc.). Various aunts' and uncles' names followed.  In families where the naming pattern did not seem to be used, I sometimes found that it was used, but that an older child had died and the name was re-used for a later-born. So, if your 1800's family did not seem to follow the pattern, be on the lookout for an older sibling who died or for a sibling that you have not yet discovered, just to leave no stone unturned.
Middle Names.  I have found that Irish families varied in their use of middle names. Every researcher I ask seems to have had a different experience with middle names. I tend to believe the use of middle names, especially in the 1800's, seems to be related to social class and economic level. The more well-off the family, the greater the tendency to give a middle name. I am excluding here those very Irish "double names" such as Mary Kate and Mary Ann that are said in one breath. Even with the double names, their use seems to increase in the latter 1800's and into the 1900's, as does the use of middle names. I tend to find more double names among the American Irish. I would be interested in hearing from others about their ancestors with "double names."
Two stories are often repeated by researchers about the middle names in their families. One is that ancestors were called by their middle names to distinguish between the members of a large family with a number of identical names.  (That tradition continued into my own generation of cousins. My family tended to assign "Big" and "Little"names, as well: my generation has Little Helen and Little Rich, while my aunts and uncles were the "Bigs." Little Rich is over six foot tall).
In the 1800's, baptismal records, both RC and Church of Ireland, in the southern counties rarely list a middle name. I have found more middle names in church records in the northern counties. Perhaps an English or Scots influence?
I have found that many of the Irish researchers I have asked have discovered that their Irish ancestor's middle name was not given at birth, but was taken as a confirmation name.
Many, many researchers have reported that priests at baptism demanded that the parents choose a middle name for a child if that child's first name was not that of a saint's. Stories abound about this practice--well into the 1950's and 60's!
Nicknames. Ahh, the Irish nickname--created by our Irish ancestors just so that they could sit up above one day and laugh as we spend years, decades even, searching for great gramma Nancy's records when Nancy's name was really Anne! And Helen was Ellen, and Ted was Edward, and Biddy was Bridget, and Dick was Richard, and Sallie was Sarah...
One word to researchers of very common surnames: in Ireland, family groups with the same surname were often given family nicknames to distinguish the branches from each other. You might have the Red Brennan's and the Black Brennan's, or the Tarlar Donaghy's, to name a few I have seen. Knowing your family's ancestral nickname, if they had one, is a crucial research tool when researching local Irish records, especially if you are researching a very common surname such as Kelly or Murphy.
Gaelic and Latin Names. Be on the lookout for Anglicized Gaelic names, especially as you go back in time and into Irish records. As you research RC church records, keep in mind that many priests, both in the US and in Ireland, wrote the names in Latin. Often, the Latin names bear no resemblance to the English or Gaelic names--Eugenio for Owen is one example.
I said it before and I will say it again, Irish research wouldn't be so much fun if it were simpler, now would it?
Irish In Philadelphia mailing list:
List of nicknames from Genealogy Today:
Irish and Gaelic names: