What’s in a name?

Gwebarra Bay, near my great grandparents home.

Gweebarra Bay, County Donegal. this photo was taken not far from my great grandparents home.

Our names are who we are. This grouping of words define us in society from birth to the grave and everything in between, including education, chosen careers, marriage, parenthood, pensions and accomplishments, as well as who our parents were, and who our ancestors were. Nicknames or pet names are common in every family and can be either totally different to the given name or a version of it. For example my eldest granddaughter is called Bibi by her younger siblings, even though she is Sophie, and I was always known as ‘Wee A’ pronounced ( ‘aaah’)  in our family. In fact I used think it was my real name!

Then there are common substitutes in Ireland. My great-aunt Margaret was known as Peg and signed herself thus. Delia was used for Bridget or Una or Uney for Winifred. This goes beyond shortened version of names, such as Dan for Daniel or Mandy for Manus. Formal registration normally adopts the formal version of first names as in Edward for Ted or Patrick for Paddy or Pat. There is no issue here as we are generally familiar with the substitute names.

I was born into a family having one of Ireland’s most common surnames. In the 1901 census, we have almost 20,000 with this surname with in excess of 2,000 named Mary and about 1,600 named John. A nightmare, if a family historian does not know the location of their family! Even if we know for example that the family came from County Donegal, there are still over 900 incidences of Mary recorded on the 1901 census in that county. So researching my Gallagher family would have been almost impossible but for the fact that at least five first cousins that I knew about were named Isabella. So where did that come from?  My father and his siblings never knew the surname of their paternal grandmother or where she was from. We knew that their grandfather was Daniel. Of the 16 houses in their townland in 1901, there were no fewer that 12 Gallagher families, but only one had a Daniel married to an Isabella. I was fortunate in that I knew the townland as I had often visited there as a child.  In 2001, I asked my father to give me the names of his father’s siblings and he wrote them down on the back of an envelope. This envelope is now a treasured possession!

The back of an envelope

Priceless information written by my father on the back of an envelope,  in 2001.


The 1901 census for my paternal great grandparents

The 1901  census for my paternal great grandparents and their children including my grandfather. Uncle John, mentioned on back of the envelope above is ‘missing’.

So I was very fortunate to have all this information to hand for my paternal forebears, making research a bit easier.

The absolute delight of having a maternal line with reasonably unusual surnames cannot be described. Add to that the relatively unusual first names such as Amelia, Robert, Richard, Eva, Maud…..not a John or a Mary in sight!  Oh joy unbounded! In total contrast with my challenging paternal family research, this was going to be a joyride.  With fewer than 1,000 with the surname in 1901 and only 50 or so recorded in the 1901 census in Westmeath, this had to be a doddle. Famous last words! My grandfather’s family was relatively easy to find on the census as they were railway men and they had slightly unusual first names. BUT there was still a hurdle. My grandfather was named Christopher Robert, his brother was Richard William. However, they were referred to by the second given name –  my grandfather being Bob and his brother was Willie! Who would have thought!

Then there is a traditional girl’s  name in our family that has come down 4 generations that we know of. This is Eva Maud.. and we have my great-aunt on the 1901 census. But where is her birth certificate? Where is her baptismal record? Where is her marriage certificate? These cannot be found, or could not be found until last week! Last week I discovered that Eva Maud was baptized and registered as BRIDGET EVALINE! Bridget Evaline???? I can only presume that Eva Maud was not acceptable to the catholic church as baptism names and a compromise had to be made. I am basing this guess on the fact that my  younger sister Eva, had to have the name Mary added at baptism as the priest insisted that a  saint’s name be included. Eva, whoever she was,  apparently was no saint!

So certificates have been requested to see can we have evidence for going back another generation.  So what is in a name?  Not a lot on one side of my family at least… as things are not always as they seem!

Swinford Railway Station where my maternal greatgrandmother lived until her death in 1953

Swinford Railway Station, now disused, where my maternal great-grandmother lived until her death in 1953.






Filed under Family History, Genealogy, Ireland, Living in Ireland, My Oral History

17 responses to “What’s in a name?

  1. I have to agree Angela, trying to find William and Patrick Murrays in Roscommon and Boston was a nightmare. I knew my paternal uncle was born in Boston yet I never found a birth record for him online. Since I live near the vital records archive in Boston I decided to go in person and request his birth certificate. It turned out his first name wasn’t recorded on the certificate. Compared to that searching for Bransfields in Cork was a breeze.

    • So you found your uncle ‘nameless’? How strange is that! And here i am complaining that Eva Maude is really Bridget Evaline! It has never occurred to me to search WITHOUT a given name! Bransfield sounds like a gift alright! Glad you made progress anyhow, and thanks for dropping by! 🙂

  2. Lovely post; and I agree that names are powerful forces in “who we are.” In Scotland there used to be a set of conventions for naming children which my ancestors (luckily and unluckily as it turns out) adhered to quite strictly. First born-sons were named after paternal grandfathers; first-born daughters after maternal grandmothers. With the second-born, the it was the opposite. Third children were named after the parents and any after that took pot luck, or were named after their parents’ siblings. It can be really useful for sorting birth order, or finding children who died young (a name you expect to see is “missing”). The downside of course, is that where siblings used the same conventions to name their children, you can get a whole bunch of cousins with the same name. As they are often of a similar age, it can be a bit of a ‘mare to sort out.

    • Yes, we had some of those naming conventions on the Gallagher side, and it was the repeated use of Isabella among my dad’s first cousins that led me to my great grandmother. My father, eldest son was named for his father’s father, but they only used his second name! His next brother was named for his fathers brother, John, and the youngest son James was named for his father. The girls are odd..eldest named for her mother and paternal grandmother – Mary Isabella, the next randomly named Eileen with second name of Ann after an aunt. So much for convention!
      Thank you for your lovely comment and for dropping by! 🙂

      • It is confusing when they seem to follow a pattern, but then don’t. I was really thrown when I discovered that some children got the same name as a dead sibling. Cheers, Su.

      • Yes I know of living families who reused a deceased child’s name. I have not ever found that in my own tree ( that doesn’t mean it did not happen) . It is a strange phenomenon, but when you scratch the surface there is a certain sense in it — reincarnation probably not, but ”one taken away another given back ”, for a religious family trying to make sense of the death of a child has a certain logic and maybe a therapeutic effect. Hard to think yourself into their shoes, isn’t it ? 😦

      • That’s so true. I’ve found a couple of families in my tree that reused a name. My reaction was to wonder how the living child felt about it. Did they feel like a “replacement” or was it so normal that it only seems an issue in my 21st century perspective.

      • I wonder if they were even aware of it …so many names in families are reused between the generations it probably does not impact on the child at all. Perhaps we see things differently through our 21st Century eyes. 🙂

      • I think you are right. It’s so easy to impose our sensibilities on others’ lives, but we are all products of the social environment we live in.

  3. I am but one of five that had the same Christian name… four of us still living. My brothers were in the same boat, though 4 of one, with three alive, the other was lucky, only two of them with the same name. However, some decided to go back a generation or two, so we end up with the multiples again… that’s just my paternal side…
    My maternal side has also multiples of both the first and second names on my grandfather’s side, including him… while on my maternal grandmother’s side, Irish, well, of course, we have a number of Bridget/Biddy, Margaret/Maggie/Peg, Mary/MollyElizabeth/Betty, Paddy/Patrick/Pat.. and the list goes on including a whole lot of Michael/Mick/Mickey.

    Oh, well, if it was too easy, we’d have no fun at all…

    • I have often seen comments on genealogy sites suggesting that the our forebears ‘lacked imagination’ by reusing names down the generations. The truth is of course that it was a mark of deep respect to elders, parents and grandparents and a ‘glue’ that linked us back to our roots. I love the reuse of names and am delighted that my own daughter has chosen names for her children that echo back to the 19th century in our family. My paternal great grandmother was Isabella, My grandaughter is Isabella. My maternal grandmother was Jane,another grandaughter has Jane, as I do,and the third has Amelia who was my maternal great grandmother. So what an honour that you are your cousins were named for the strong, loved and respected women in your family! An honour doesn’t mean its not a blessed nuisance of course! 🙂 Thanks for dropping by! 🙂

  4. The traditional names ended with my generation of the family I’m afraid.
    Only yesterday I was in my husbands home and his mother was telling him ‘the baba’ died. When I asked what her real name was she said it was, Julia. She was in her seventies and had been named that as she was the youngest, hence ‘the baba’.
    I also remember mum telling me that my dad was christened names by the priest without him consulting my dad’s parents.
    Very interesting post Angela.

  5. I was *just* reading a similar post from blogger in England, talking about the joys and frustrations of trying to trace family history. I wonder if it is the detective work and mystery that draw us to the search? Maybe we wouldn’t want it to be too easy.

  6. Our ancestors did not make it easy for most of us, did they? I ran into the same obstacles when researching my father’s side. There were so many Johns and Williams. Then trying to trace women down is even harder when they marry and take the husband’s name and then as a widow take another husband’s name. One can only hope to have birth and death dates. Yet it is always fascinating what one can find in those old records and census to help solve the mystery! Good post! By the way, a great-great niece, her husband and daughter were in Ireland recently for a wedding and shared photos on Facebook. I really enjoyed seeing them. She said it was a lovely Irish wedding.

  7. When I was researching our family surname (O’Gorman) I found that it was fairly uncommon. Especially those who immigrated and dropped the ‘O’ so as not to be targeted as Irish in the New World.
    I also noticed that through generations children were named after their ancestors until around the 1930’s. I asked my dad about this and he thinks thats when people started to follow trends and began naming their children after famous actors and public figures. Any thoughts on this? Maybe it was a North American trend? Mind you in places like Britain, Royal names are certainly used a lot.

  8. Same here with the McCarthys of West Cork. The chap that did the research had his work cut out making the correct links with some educated assumptions.

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