How The Irish Took Over America

by Bernard McCormick Wednesday, March 17, 2021 No Comment(s)

The Declaration of Independence had 45 signers. Only two had distinctly Irish names: Charles Carroll of Maryland and Thomas Lynch of South Carolina. And, there was not a single signer with the first name of Sean, Patrick, Kelly or Ryan. Such was the Irish influence (or lack of it) at the nation's birth date. Four score years later, there was a huge wave of Irish immigration prompted by the famine of the 1840s. Multitudes of half-starved Irish arrived in the U.S. determined to become good Americans. They proved it by volunteering in huge numbers for the Civil War and gave history a record of valor exemplified by the legendary Irish Brigade.

Now, a century and a half later, they celebrate St. Patrick's Day with the knowledge that they have not only become Americans, they have made America Irish. At least that's the impression one gets if you go by the names Americans proudly wear. Unique among the various nationalities who compose the American mix, the Irish have their traditional names adopted by other blood lines. For some reason, not too many babies are being named Cuomo, Brezenski or Spoelstra.

Part of the reason is that many Irish last names have been adopted as first names. Of the top 10 Irish family names in the U.S., six of them have served as first names. Among the most common are Kelly, Ryan, Brian and Neil, the last two variations of O'Brien and O'Neil. Less frequently found are Murphy and Conner. Going deeper on the list of Irish surnames produces an abundance of names which have appeared as first names. Riley, Quinn, Brady, Donovan, Nolan, Duffy, Carroll, Casey - the list goes on.

This is a fairly recent trend. Growing up in a neighborhood and going to schools with a number of Irish families, we knew only one person with the first name Ryan. It appears the name came into common use when Ryan O'Neal became a well known actor in the 1960s. Today, it is popular with both sexes. You hear it every day.

A newcomer to the last-to-first names club is one familiar to our family. Cormac is beginning to appear as a first name, partly thanks to Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Cormac McCarthy. He actually changed his name from Charles to Cormac. The name illustrates the full-circle trend of Irish names. Cormac is derived from medieval Irish kings and prominent clergy. In that time, Irish only had one name. When second names were introduced, many Irish who had taken a royal name became McCormick. That happened with all the Irish names beginning with Mc or O. Those prefixes simply mean "son of" or words suggesting a family lineage.

This is only half the story. Traditional Irish first names have become so common among other ethnic groups that some of the most popular, such as Sean, Kevin and Barry, have lost their brogue. But, there seem to be new ones waiting in the wings. Liam, the Irish form of William, owes increasing use to the actor Liam Neeson. And rarer names, such as Colin, Aidan, Eamon, Dillon, Seamus and Shane, are gaining in numbers.

Irish names for women are also common. We already mentioned Kelly and Ryan. Then there's Caitlin, Cara, Maeve, Shannon, Deirdre, Fiona and Shauna, all beginning to creep into common use.

These rarer names are often Irish versions of English names. Sean is John, Seamus is James, for instance. Those names normally emigrate to the U.S. with Irish families anxious to preserve their heritage. But once they are attached to a prominent person, they tend to go mainstream. We find no research explaining this, but our theory is that ethnic groups with surnames that are difficult to pronounce pick Irish first names, not because they are Irish, but because the names strike them as solidly American.

The irony is that original Gaelic names were at least as difficult to the Yankee ear as any European or Asian name. For example, Kennedy is the English translation of Ó Ceannéidigh. For reasons lost to history, emigrants from the Emerald Isle had the good sense to translate them to English spellings as they found their way across the seas. If they hadn't, maybe today we would be naming babies DiMaggio.


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