“Why Patrick?”

I was asked this by another volunteer during last year’s Cork International Film Festival.  From the conversation, I knew she was asking me, “Why is an American named Patrick?”  I explained that I was three-eighths Irish, and gave a quick rundown of my ancestry.  She laughed and said, “We’re all just Irish.”

Upon hearing my name, one Irishman grinned and put on what I think was his version of an American accent, saying, “My name’s Patrick, and I’m an American.”  True, the man was asking for directions to a pub, and may have been a little drunk, but many people have been taken aback a bit at my Irish name.

Tens of millions of Americans have Irish ancestry, so it doesn’t surprise me in the least that so many Irish names are common in America.  When I listed the names of my family members to one woman here, after each one she declared, “Irish.”  While my siblings’ names may not all be uniquely Irish, none of the names would be out of place here.

What does surprise me is that so many names DIDN’T cross the Atlantic.  When we first arrived and were calling people about apartments, we came across the name Clodagh.  Before we could call, we had to ask how to pronounce the name and whether the name was that of a man or woman (it’s pronounced CLOE-duh, and it’s a woman’s name).

Pronouncing Irish names can be tricky and even when a name looks familiar it can sound different over here.  For example, Marie is pronounced Mary, and Maurice is pronounced Morris.  In Irish, what looks like an accent is actually a fada, which affects each vowel differently.  For some names, one person will have a fada on one vowel, another person will have a fada on a different vowel, while a third person will have no fada at all.   The letter c is always pronounced k, and both bh and mh sound like a v, which seems crazy until you begin to wonder why Stephen is the same as Steven.

Here is a selection of women’s names, with a pronunciation guide:  Derval (DER-val), Orla (OR-la), Aoifa (EE-fuh), Maebh (Mave), Niamh (NEE-uv), Siobhán (Shuh-VAAHN), Deirdre (DEER-druh), Áine (AHN-yuh), Graine (GRAHN-yuh), Caoimhe (KWEE-vuh), Ciara (KEER-uh), Eilis (eye-LEASH), Eimear (EE-mer), Máire (Mara), Ita (EE-tuh), Mairéad (Muh-RADE), and Sadhbh (Sive).

A selection of men’s names:  Eoghan (I think I’ve heard both OW-en or OHN), Donncha (DON-uh-kuh), Finnbarr (FINN-bar), Declan (DECK-lun), Cillian (KILL-ee-un), Colm (CAHLum), Gearoid (gair-RODE), Fenton (Fenton), Ronan (ROE-nun), Diarmaid (DEER-mid), Fergus (FUR-gus), and Fergal (FUR-gul).

It should also be noted that many of the names have multiple spellings or variations, such as Dervil, Derval, Dervla, or Dearbhla.   Sometimes the variations reflect how Anglicised the name has become.  An example would be Michael Collins, the great Corkman and Irish patriot.  The completely Anglicised version of his name is just that, Michael Collins.  His Irish name, though, is Mícheál Coileáin and that’s the way it appears on one plaque we’ve seen in his honor.