A friend of mine passed two books on to me last week as he knew he’d get a rise. Both books were in the Celtic fantasy genre, a genre which often involves fantasy stories loaded with ‘Oirish’ cultural elements for branding purposes. Sometimes that’s not too much of an issue but, on this occasion, both books (one written by an Australian and one by an American) dropped a clanger within the first few pages through the names of their protagonists; ‘Liam’ and ‘Seán’.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with either name of course. Most people on the internet have a cousin or friend called ‘Seán’ or ‘Liam’. The issue in this case however was that both characters, Seán and Liam, happened to be having fantasy adventures in a prehistoric time period set several hundred years before either name was even derived (both names are actually far more modern, derived at the very earliest from the 12th or 13th century onwards but not gaining popularity until far later).
Again, you wouldn’t think there’s anything wrong with that. This is fantasy after all …
Except that from an Irish perspective it’s a bit jarring, like watching an episode of the television series “Vikings” where the heroes are called Ragnar, Loki, Steve and Reginald.
Irish names are a lot of fun when you get into how they’re derived. Up until the 20th century, the long-term impacts of colonisation meant that many people had already given into various social pressures and aped their colonial masters by assuming English names or English derivatives. From the start of the 20th century however, the period leading up to (and following on from) the war of independence, there was a major revitalisation of old Gaelic names. It actually became quiet trendy about ten to fifteen years ago, to find really obscure Gaelic names for your children.
There were winners and losers there too of course. Fechín, a very old name associated with a saint in Mayo, was never going to be particularly popular as most non-Irish speakers would pronounce it ‘feckin’ (it’s actually pronounced ‘feck-een’). I also heard a funny story (and I don’t know if it’s true) that there was a competition to come up with a name for the baby of an Irish-speaking woman who had the family name ‘Gunn’. Apparently, one wag came up with the winning submission, which was the old Gaelic name ‘Sonobha’ (possibly a derivative of the Norwegian name Synnove). That makes a lot more sense when you remember that ‘bh’ in Irish often has a ‘v’ sound.