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Irish names you’re probably saying wrong and how to pronounce them

Do you know your Gearóid from your Gobnait? Your Fearghal from your Muirgheal?

To the untrained eye, Irish names can seem like a daunting ambush of rogue consonants and surprise vowels.

That’s because while the Irish language uses the same Latin alphabet letters as English, they represent different sounds and have different spelling rules.

To mark St Patrick’s Day this March 17 – and Cork actor Cillian Murphy’s Oscar win last weekend – here’s a guide, with audio clips, on how to pronounce some common Irish names.

We also have some Irish language hacks so you can figure out names yourself.

Read on to find out why Sinéad starts with “Shin,” how a “h” can turn a “b” into a “v,” and why you’ll never hear “St Patty’s Day” said in Ireland.

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To help navigate the minefield, CNN has called in help from Irish language and culture expert Darach Ó Séaghdha, author of the books “Motherfoclóir” and “Craic Baby.”

So if you see the star of “Oppenheimer” in the street and want to call out to congratulate him, the first thing to remember is that there’s no K in the traditional Irish alphabet. 

When you see an Irish name beginning with C, it’s always a hard C, Ó Séaghdha explains. So Cillian is “Kill-ee-an.” The Germanized version, Killian, used to be the dominant spelling in Ireland, says Ó Séaghdha, but in 2003 – the year after Murphy’s breakthrough movie “28 Days Later” was released – the C spelling took over and has reigned supreme ever since.

That same C rule goes for the boys’ names Cían (Kee-an), Ciarán (Keer-awn) and – here you need to forget everything you learned from the US singer of the same name – the girl’s name Ciara (Keer-ah).

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If you’re familiar with Irish actor Saoirse “rhymes with inertia” Ronan, our pronunciation might seem like a curveball. But here’s another hard rule: expect the unexpected.

There are three Irish dialects – Connacht, Munster and Ulster – and the way names sound often varies with regions and accents. Our audio clips are with a northeast accent, influenced by Ulster Irish, so might not sound exactly as you’ve heard the names said before.

Typically a girl’s name, Saoirse, meaning “freedom,” first became popular in the newly independent Ireland of the 1920s and has most commonly been pronounced “Sorsha” or “Seersha.” Saoirse Ronan’s twist on it is “partly her accent,” reckons Ó Séaghdha, but it’s already fast on its way to becoming a new dominant pronunciation.

So if you’re not sure how someone says their name, just ask.

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That apostrophe you see on the O of Irish surnames is an Anglicization of a “síneadh fada,” an acute accent slanting to the right. A fada above a vowel means the vowel should be pronounced “long” – which is what fada means in Irish.

Fadas are often dropped in English, but in Irish pronunciation they are crucial. Take the first name of Irish-American talk show host Conan O’Brian. When anglicized it’s “Co-nin,” but with native pronunciation Conán is “Co-Nawn.” Likewise with Ronan (Ro-Nin) and Rónán (Ro-Nawn) - which, incidentally, means “baby seal.” Aww.

Éabha is pronounced with a long E and sounds similar to the name “Ava,” but it’s actually “the way Eve is spelled in the Irish language Bible,” says Ó Séaghdha.

And why is that bh pronounced like a V? We’ll get to that soon.

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The most famous Siobhán in modern times is Shiv from the TV show “Succession,” played by Australian actor Sarah Snook, but how does Siobh become “Shiv”? Ó Séaghdha – whose full name, if you’ve been wondering, is pronounced Da-rach (rhymes with Bach) O Shay – explains.

“In Irish, you’ve got broad vowels and narrow vowels. When an S is next to a broad vowel like an A or an O, it sounds like ‘Sss,’ but when it’s next to a narrow one like I, it’s ‘Sh.’” It’s called the “caol le caol” rule.

The name Sean has a fada when written in Irish – Seán (Shawn) - which is why the endings of Seán and Siobhán rhyme with “lawn” and not “can.” Another example is Aisling – meaning “dream” - which is pronounced Ashling (and sometimes spelled that way too).

You’re still wondering about that bh, aren’t you? Okay, we’ll explain.

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Because fadas are dropped in English, Ó Séaghdha says a quick hack is often to “look at the Hs. If a h comes after another consonant, it’s usually softening it. ‘Bh’ and ‘mh’ are often treated like a single letter and pronounced ‘v’.” Hence - drumroll, please - Siobhán.

The alarming gaggle of letters above is one of Ireland’s oldest girl’s names and has more variants than it has consonants. It can be Medb, Méabh or Méibh, but Maeve is the closest to English phonetics – it rhymes with “wave.”

Let’s give it up now with a bualadh bos (“boola bus” – round of applause) for the girls’ names Dearbhla (Dervla), Aoibheann (Aveen), Caoimhe (Queeva or Keeva), Sadhbh (Sive), Ailbhe (Alva) and Niamh (Neeve).

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This masculine name was once so ubiquitous that it became an ethnic slur for Irish people (and, as “Taig,” for Northern Irish Catholics), in the same manner as “Paddy” or “Mick.”

The g is clearly heard in Tadhgh, but, depending on the consonants around it, the “g” in “gh” might not be heard at all. Take Bronagh (Bro-nah) or Oonagh (anglicised as Una), for example.

The presence of the “h” also assists the disappearing act done on the “d” in Odhrán (Or-awn) and the “m” in Domhnall (Do-nal).

“Saltburn” star Barry Keoghan is yet another Irish actor making waves in Hollywood right now, but his pronunciation of his surname isn’t the standard form. His name is said “Barry Kyo-Gann’ with a hard “g,” but typically this name would sound more like “Kyo-ann.”

Says Ó Séaghdha, “It’s a lot like the ‘gh’ in ‘through’ in English. If you can get your head around the ‘gh’ in ‘through’ in English, you can get your head around the one in Irish.”

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Here’s another one where the “d” takes a day off. The girl’s name Fiadh (Fee-ah) is perhaps “the biggest Irish name of the 21st century,” says Ó Séaghdha. It was the second most popular girl’s name in Ireland in 2023, after Grace.

“In the late 20th century, popular Irish names tended to come from mythology – Deirdre, Niamh, Oisín and Gráinne – but in the 21st century there’s been a shift towards adjectives” and nouns, he says. Fiadh means “grace and wildness” while Rían (Ree-an) – the fourth most popular boy’s name in Ireland last year – means “kingly.”

Says Ó Séaghdha, “There’s been a vibe shift in the kind of Irish names people are picking.”

Oh, and this is as good a time as any to mention that the name for the Irish language is “Irish” or – in the language itself – “gaelige” (the pronunciation varies by dialect). If you want to impress your Irish pals, don’t call it Gaelic.

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Here’s one with some regional variation. The boy’s name Oisín and the girl’s name Róisín are Ush-een and Rush-een in most parts of the country, but O-sheen and Ro-sheen in others. When a fada appears over an i at the end of a name, it always sounds like “een.” 

Witness the transformative power of the fada in the Irish version of the name Maureen: Máirín. They’re pronounced exactly the same. See also Máire and its anglicised forms Maura and Moira.

A fada on the girl’s name Áine turns it into “On-ya” and the feminine moniker Gráinne (Grawn-ya) also undergoes a similar transformation.

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Take a deep breath, don’t panic, you can do this. Caoilfhionn is simply “Keel-an.”

“The ‘fh’ is the very hardcore version” of this unisex name, says Ó Séaghdha. As the “fh” isn’t pronounced, “it’s often spelled Keelan because the Irish language version terrifies. “They’ve seen the ‘gh’ before but then an ‘fh’ sounds bananas.”

Variants of Caoilfhionn include Caolán, Caoileann, Kealan and many more. There are a few reasons for all this wide variation in Irish spelling, says Ó Séaghdha. One is that “often those names were popular before people knew how to spell. A relatively old name like Meadhbh would have different versions because people spell it different ways.”

Another reason is that “there were different stages of spelling normalization in the Irish language. In the 1950s, they decided to kind of modernize the alphabet.” That’s when a lot of simplified, anglicized spellings took off.

Finally, Ireland is an English-speaking country where only a small minority claims to speak its native language “very well.” So, says Ó Séaghdha, “Another part of it is, yeah, people just having a go.”

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See that D right there? That’s why you should never call it St. Patty’s Day. Pádraig (pronounced Paw-rig or Pawd-rig) is the Irish version of the anglicized name Patrick. Its many variants and diminutives include Pádraic, Pádhraig, Páidín and Páidí (Paddy).

Patrick is often shortened to the anglicized Pat or –- going back to those Irish roots – Paddy. Patty is never to be heard. So in Ireland, the holiday is St. Patrick’s Day, Paddy’s Day, or nothing.

Oh and those names at the start of the story? Hopefully we’ve given you some tools to make a fair stab at them by now, but a wise gaeilgeoir (“gwale-gore” – Irish-speaker) never assumes. They are, of course, Gearóid (Ger-ode – pronunciations vary), Gobnait (Gobnit), Fearghal (Fergal) and Muirgheal (Mur-yal).

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