top of page

What's in a Name?

   As Irish researchers we spend a lot of time focused on names…surnames, given names or localities.  Acknowledging that many of our ancestors were illiterate, names were written down as they were heard by the priest, minister or clerk. It can sometimes also be frustrating trying to separate those people living in the same place with the same name.  But what about given names?  We all have plenty of Marys, Patricks, Bridgets and Michaels in our families and in my husband’s line there are multiple Bernards and Brians in every generation.  A Cornelius might indicate your ancestor was from Munster, particularly Cork or Kerry.  I also  had one family who called the children by different given names in every census.  What’s a researcher to do?

   First keep an open mind.  My husband’s grandfather (the immigrant)  swore that the surname MOUGHTY was always spelled that way.  However, a copy of his son’s birth certificate from New Rochelle, New York listed him as Bernard Moody.  Going further back in Ireland I’ve found multiple versions of the name.  I love John Grenham’s IrishAncestors site, but going back about five years, if you typed MOUGHTY into the search box there were no instances of the name (it uses Griffith’s as its basis, and the name was spelled MUGHTY in those records).  I wrote John about this, and now you’ll find MUGHTY and MOOTY as Griffith’s names, as well as nine other variants in other records such as church records.

   Given names can be a problem depending on the type of record.  Names could be abbreviated (Corn, Cornl, Cornls, Cors, Corus for Cornelius) or translated by a clerk.  One well known application of this is the name SMITH/SMITHE/SMYTH in County Cavan. McGowan or in Irish, the sept Mac an Ghabhan translates to “son of the smith,” and so during the time of the penal laws, many McGowans became some version of Smith.

   For Roman Catholics, priests frequently wrote the Latin version of a given name in a church records (baptism, marriage or burial).  Being that many priests were not Latin scholars, a suffix might have just been added to the name Williamus for William instead of the Latin, Gulielmus). One name that frequently confuses new researchers is Jacobus which typically indicates James (not Jacob which is Iacomus).

   At the time of Catholic Emancipation (1829) and later in the 19th Century with the emphasis on returning to the Irish language, you may find Irish names indicated, which in some cases can have multiple meanings.  Siobhan for example could be Jane, Janet, Joan, Johanna, Judith, Julia, Hannah, or Susan.  I had an individual that appeared in multiple records as Darby but on his death record was listed as Jeremiah.  It took me a while to figure out this was the same person!

   Confused yet?  I have an answer thanks to Dennis Hogan, a professional genealogist in Upstate New York. Dennis has created a “Given Name Alternatives for Irish Research” handout.

Given Name Alternatives for Irish Research, Dennis, A. Hogan (used with permission)

I have referred to this resource in the past during lectures, but have not been successful in linking to it as a resource since the URL changes giving an error message. To show you what it includes,  I am providing a one page image with Dennis’ permission.  Dennis provides it as a free resource and here is how to find it.  Go to Dennis’ website. Click on Lectures and Handouts and then scroll down the page to “Other Resources.”  You will see “Given Name Alternatives for Irish Research,” a PDF file dated 21 March 2020.  I can’t guarantee that the links will always work, so use the above instructions if you get an error.  Also he has excellent information in his Course III, but the Handout for the Given Names on that page dates back to 2014.  I keep a copy of this in my pop-up menu so I can access it easily.  It has frequently solved the problem of dealing with multiple people of the same name, where one might use a nickname. It also helps where an individual changes the form of his/her given name. Enjoy this great resource and thanks, Dennis.

   Happy Hunting!

You can order copies of my Quick Reference Guides as PDFs from my Store

If you have a great resource or case study you would like to share, email me!

503 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page