guardian of irish mythology

What’s in a Name? Well, in Ireland, quite a lot!

Irish place names and anglicised versions both displayed on road signs
Irish place names and anglicised versions both displayed on road signs

This following is an excerpt taken from an earlier post, in which I discussed the meaning of Irish names. On Friday, I will be discussing Irish place names in a little more detail.

Most of us don’t really think too much about what a name means, except perhaps when naming a new born child. Even then, there may be other more pressing factors affecting our choice, such as naming the child after a dearly departed loved one, for example. But Irish names all have meaning, and therefore, they have power. And it’s one of the many reasons why I love Ireland and its language so much.

Take for example the name ‘Conor’; it’s one of the more familiar Irish names, short, strong-sounding, easy to spell and say, a very popular choice amongst parents all around the world, not just in Ireland. It’s also the name of the hero of my books, as many of you will know, and I chose it for those very reasons. But did you know that in its Irish form, it would be spelled ‘Conchobhar’? Not quite so easy to spell or say, is it? It comes from the legendary High King of Ireland, Conaire Mor, who was reputed to have lived at the time of Christ, and actually means ‘lover of hounds’, I’m presuming as in he was fond of his dogs!.

The name ‘Rory’ is an anglicised version of ‘Ruairi’, or ‘Ruaidhri’, which also features in my books, and means ‘Red King’. Red-haired, or red with the blood of all the enemies he killed? We don’t know, but we do know that Ireland’s history and mythology is full of kings named ‘Ruairi’. Quite possibly, these names were titles or epithets, just as England’s King Arthur was called ‘the Bear’. (Incidentally, ‘Art’ or ‘Artur’ is also an old Irish name meaning ‘bear’.)

And this doesn’t just apply to people, but to places, too. I live near a small town in Co Cavan called Virginia, but in Irish, its name is ‘Achadh an Luir’. This is believed to mean ‘the field at the fork of the river’, some say ‘the field of the yew’, but ‘luir’ also derives from an old Irish word meaning ‘water’. As the town is built on the shores of the vast Lough Ramor, to me ‘field of water’ makes more sense. The Irish language seems to be as complex, and ambiguous, and open to interpretation as its mythology!

My Tir na Nog Trilogy is based on this land, this language, this mythology, and readers have often commented to me on their confusion over characters names and pronunciation. If you have read the books, you will know it comes with a guide. If you haven’t, you will find the guide on this site. I say, don’t get hung up on correct pronunciation, or you will allow it to get in the way of your enjoyment of the story. Just say the names how they most feel comfortable to you.

I have never heard anyone criticise Tolkien for the strange names of his characters, of which there were many, most just as indecipherable as my Irish ones. He based them on his own made-up languages; the language mine are taken from is real. The same can be said of Eddings, and practically all other fantasy writers. It’s a fact; fantasy novels are full of weird, unpronounceable names, and no-one bats an eyelid. Why should the names of my characters be treated any differently?

Someone once suggested that I get rid of all these ‘ugly names’ (true!) and swap them for nice, easy ones like ‘Eric’ and ‘John’ (also true!). I nearly choked on my cappuccino! He was so missing the point.

This is IRISH mythology. Whether these characters actually existed in reality is irrelevant; the fact remains, they are solid and epic and larger than life in mythology, and those are the names they were given. Could you imagine Cuchullain becoming ‘Eric’? Or Fionn Mac Cool becoming ‘John’?

No. Neither can I.

9 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? Well, in Ireland, quite a lot!

  1. I so agree with you, Alison! One of my favourite bugbears is the self-consciously ‘different’ names that are used in fantasy, the names with apostrophes instead of vowels, that make you sound as though you’re choking if you try and say them out loud. I had exactly the same experience with an agent who rejected The Green Woman because the names were too confusing. He said they were made up. I pointed him in the direction of the Bible, the Irish and Greek and Sumerian myths. Made up? Yet, as you say, they don’t bat an eyelid over names like K’ghra or Ch’ugh’chr.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gaeilge has been one of the more difficult languages for me to learn, but I still remember how it felt the first time I looked at a short Irish sentence and knew how it was pronounced, without having to look up the rules.


  3. I can’t pronounce Irish names to save my life, but I wouldn’t want to see them disappear. Just by themselves they look beautiful and ancient and mysterious. The very idea that you should change them to John and Eric is disrespectful and sheer intellectual laziness.

    I’m off now to find out how these random collections of letters are really pronounced 😉


    1. Havent had any snarky comments since I first started out with book1 Craig, but I do know the Irish words and names are bothersome to a lot of people. I try to keep it to a minimum, but there’s no hiding it… I’m proud of the Irish-ness of my stories!


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