Irish Names : Who is who when everyone is John and Mary?
A Brief history
From the 1960's onwards, the quality of life for working class people steadily increased. Improvements in education meant higher literacy rates and better work conditions meant more money and free time to travel. With this came inspiration from around the world, and an increasing consciousness about Irish history and a language suppressed by the English. Names such as Siobhan, Fiona and Sinead for girls and Connor, Sean and Niall for boys began to enter the top 50 most popular baby names. This was in response to nationalist sentiment rising from the beginning of the 1900's and climaxing in 1949 when Ireland finally becoming a republic.
Today, whether you make a statement by choosing a unique name or by choosing a traditional one, a lot more thought goes into it than in19th century Ireland. Realistically speaking, before the 1960's names were functional, traditional and religious. Throughout Irish history, occupying English sought to eradicate the Gaelic language, issuing penalties to those caught speaking it. This meant Irish names were Anglicised or English names were chosen for newborns instead. Furthermore priests expected their parishioners to give their children respectable Christian names. As a result of high illiteracy rates throughout the 18th,19th and early 20th century, the working class Irish had only a small pool of names to choose from. These consisted of the ones they heard in church through mass and the most popular saints of the time.
So who is who?
The lack of variation of first names mixed with the most common surnames of Ireland can make researching your Irish lineage feel impossible. Enter John Kelly into irishgeneagy.ie and you will get 14 results born in 1910 in Dublin compared to only one John Power.
So how do you determine one John Kelly from another? Starting with whatever information you have already, pay attention to close details. If you have a marriage record for your "John Kelly", then it should state his fathers name but not his mothers. Look at the witnesses of the marriage and look out for other Kellys for they may be the mother, grandparents or siblings. Take note of John's residence and what church they married in and all occupations on the record, as these could be distinguishing factors in a birth or census record.
https://www.townlands.ie/ and google maps are useful websites when trying to pinpoint what area a residence is in. This is useful when searching in the 1901/11 census when trying to distinguish between two families, sometimes living in close proximity to each other.
Naming practices or traditions refer to the practice of naming children after family members. These traditions can often follow a specific pattern. This can be helpful to know when you are not sure of the names of "John Kelly's" parents, but you know his children's names.
1st son was named after the father’s father
2nd son was named after the mother’s father
3rd son was named after the father
4th son was named after the father’s eldest brother
1st daughter was named after the mother’s mother
2nd daughter was named after the father’s mother
3rd daughter was named after the mother
4th daughter was named after the mother’s eldest sister
This is just a guide and not a rule because many things can affect this. Having a bad relationship with a parent would naturally make a child less likely to name their first born after them. A recently deceased relative may take priority over another and there is always the slightly creepy occurrence of reusing the name of a deceased child. This is something I have seen in my own family tree, 2 Mary Ellens died before the name was inherited by my 2x great grandmother. So don't skip over multiple occurrences of the same first name by the same parents when searching for birth records, you may just need to double check death records. This you can do for free at irishgenealogy.ie.
Name variations, aliases and errors
When searching for your ancestor be sure to always enter a variety of spellings of the said first and last name. Records and indexes can display a different name due to recorder or transcriber errors. For example the recorder of a census might hear Kane, but really the name might be Keane, due to accents... or mumbling. Furthermore one person may write Kane, Cain or Cane. The best way to cover all bases is to think phonetically. Does K sound like C? if so swap it. Swap vowels also, Catherine could be Katharine, Neill could be Niall. Be sure to do this because not all search databases will include every possible variation of a name.
Those transcribing records for a genealogical website, may interpret the spelling of a name incorrectly. The handwriting on old records before a typewriter was used was just abmisal! Trying to make out what anything says on some records is a mission in itself, so always try to view the original if you can. For example, in searching for one branch of my family tree, The Keanes, one record had been transcribed and indexed as Beane but upon viewing the original I could clearly see that it said Keane. And that record held useful information as to the next generation of that branch, so imagine if I had dismissed it.
Completely different first names could be due to nicknames or going by a middle name later in life. As we know from the records above, names were not varied and people were named after family members, therefore there could be 5 James all on the same street. The Irish had to get very creative with their nicknames, just to tell one person from the other. The same person could be recorded slightly differently from record to record so keep an open mind if other information on the record sounds familiar. James or John may go by Jack, Michael by Mick or more strangely Margaret by Daisy. Use google to find all known nicknames of your ancestors name before you start their research.
One thing you may see is people being baptised with a first and middle name but always going by the middle name. My own great aunt was registered Margaret Ellen, but was always referred to as Ellen from birth. She did not even know her real name was Margaret so when she applied for a copy of her birth certificate years later, she could not be found. She just assumed she was never registered and left it at that.
In conclusion trying to pinpoint your ancestor when there are 10 others with the same name, or you are confronted with varying spellings and terrible handwriting is definitely a challenge. The key is to take note of all evidence on the records you are sure of. Compare these to other records and if that fails, search side ways. This means searching for the witnesses, godparents or known siblings, where do they live? Are there any "Kellys" living near them? Who did the siblings marry and what information is on their marriage certificates? Work things out methodically and if still stuck, sleep on it. A fresh mind means a fresh approach.