Naming Traditions, Irish-Style

Every so often on listserves or genealogy forums the topic of Irish (and Scottish) naming conventions comes up. This is the tradition by which children in a family are named after a specifically ordered sequence of ancestors.

When you have blank spots in your family tree, as I still do with my paternal great-grandmother, talk of the Irish naming tradition can be only a tantalizing clue to shadowy identities. Still, it’s fun to know about. And when it comes to my father’s family, I think it might possibly be a factor behind his quirky first-name story.

Recently I compiled one of my primitive but useful charts, comparing what tradition dictated to what my father and his siblings were actually named. Note that some sources say the tradition didn’t really apply after the third son or daughter — subsequent names were the parents’ choice. But let’s go for the whole enchilada, shall we?

Naming Tradition Should Have Been (if known) Child Actually Named
1st son  after father’s father Joseph Raymond
2nd son after mother’s father Peter Francis
3rd son after father Raymond Joseph
4th son after father’s oldest brother Joseph Peter
5th son after mother’s oldest brother (sometimes father’s 2nd oldest brother) Francis

(father’s 2nd brother: Leo)

Donald

So we see that by the first quarter of the 20th century, when these babies started arriving, my grandparents weren’t following hallowed Celtic tradition. Still, at the time my father, Peter, came along, his parents had already named sons after the father and the father’s father. And that was supposed to be that, because according to one of my aunts, my grandmother had no intention of naming a child after her own father. (Nothing personal; she just didn’t care for the name.) However, her mother-in-law absolutely insisted the new baby be named Peter.

Until I heard about the naming tradition, I could think of no reason (other than bizarre obstinacy) that my paternal great-grandmother would be so worked up about a maternal-side name. But perhaps she felt that the ancient ways must be served. Or perhaps she was just really stubborn. Anyway, my dad was named Peter, and his mother called him by his middle name, Jerome, for the rest of her life. Ah, tradition!

Now, let’s check out the situation with the daughters:

Naming Tradition Should Have Been (if known) Child Actually Named
1st daughter after mother’s mother (or father’s mother) Catherine (Kate) Catherine
2nd daughter after father’s mother (or mother’s mother) Catherine Virginia
3rd daughter after mother Margaret Dorothy
4th daughter after mother’s oldest sister Catherine (Yes, we like this name in my family) Bernadette
5th daughter after father’s oldest sister (sometimes mother’s 2nd oldest sister) Gertrude Margaret
6th daughter after mother’s 2nd sister (possibly) Not known Joan

This is a good time to wonder out loud what was supposed to happen with the naming tradition if several ancestors in the sequence shared a name. In this case, both grandmothers, along with my grandmother’s half-sister, were named Catherine. (There’s a similar problem in my boys’ chart, with two Josephs.) If you know, do not be afraid to be a smarty-pants in the comments.

I don’t mean to pooh-pooh tradition with my chart-making. As I dig deeper into the family’s Irish ancestry, the naming traditions may have stronger meaning. For many researchers of Irish ancestors, the tradition has been important in piecing together family relationships.

But it does seem that my grandparents, if they were aware of the Irish naming tradition, didn’t feel honor-bound to uphold it. They went their own way – which is, really, a typical American story.

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