Ireland (Hibernia)
Early Medieval Period: 400 - 1200 A.D.

During the time of Niall Naoighiallach of the Nine Hostages (d. 405 A.D.), the Irish were great seamen. They were feared along the coasts of Wales and south-western England. By the 5th century, Ireland was described as having five kingdoms: Mumha, Ulaid, Connachta, Laighin, and Midhe. Ulaid, Connachta, and Laighin were named after the founding tribes. These names survive in the present provinces of Munster, Ulster, Connacht, and Leinster. In time, Ulaidh split into three kingdoms: Aileach in the west, Oirghialla in the middle, and Ulaid in the east.(3)

By the fifth century A.D., the Irish had learned to write Latin, Greek, and even some Hebrew, and were busily copying Scripture and the ancient literature of the Greeks and Romans. Monks from various countries, but especially those from Ireland, have been credited with helping to save Greek and Roman literature. While the Byzantines copied Greek literature, only the monks preserved Latin literature. Few monks could read Greek so less Greek literature has survived. An estimate from 1973 suggests that one-third of all Latin literature has survived while only ten per cent of the ancient Greek literature has survived.(1,4)

At the time of the monks, few European libraries were still functioning. Roman libraries closed in the 4th century A.D. The profession of copyist had largely disappeared during the 5th century but some private libraries survived in the houses of nobles. These were unsettled times. Vandals, Sueves, and Alans raided Gaul and other areas in the 5th and 6th centuries. Many groups fled the unrest and escaped to places like Ireland. These groups brought their books and learning with them. Copts fled to the Ulster monastery in Bangor and brought with them the convention of using red dots to decorate manuscript initials. Irish monasteries hosted Picts, Britons, Anglo-Saxons, and other guests. A monastery had huts for the monks, a guesthouse, a refectory and kitchen, a scriptorium for copying, a library, a smithy, a kiln, a mill, some barns, and a church. Double monasteries admitted both men and women.(1,4)

By this time, the scroll had been replaced by the codex. Monks wrote on dried sheepskin, which would have looked like mottled parchment. Calfskin, or vellum, was whiter than sheepskin when it dried. Vellum was used for more important texts. Individual pages were taller than they were wide because this allowed for the most efficient use of sheepskins. Sheepskins were cut into double pages which were then folded into pages. The pages were gathered into a booklet, called a quire. Several quires were then stitched together. Important books were then bound between two covers. Less important works lacked this protection.(4)

In the 500s and 600s, Irish monks went to continental Europe and founded monasteries in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. During the 6th century A.D., wandering Irish monks participated with other groups in a small amount of book trading in Italy and Gaul. At the end of the 6th century, Isidore built a library in Seville with 400 codices. At about the same time, the monk, Cassiodorus, had a library at his estate in Calabria. The estate was known as Vivarium. The Irish continued to go continental Europe into the 800s. In time, the Irish would found monasteries in Armagh, Bangor, Derry, Inis Murray, Kells, Kildare, Skellig Michael and other places in Ireland; Durham, Glastonbury, Lindisfarne, York, and other places in England; as well as Berne, Cologne, Ghent, Milan, Naples, Paris, Rome, Salzburg, and other places on the Continent. The northernmost monastery was Iona, in Scotland, the easternmost was Vienna, and the southernmost was Taranto in southern Italy.(1)

The peaceful copying of literature was interrupted by raids from various Irish factions and then from the arrival of the Vikings. The Vikings arrived in the 9th century. Their raids helped to end the golden period of the Irish monasteries. The Vikings brought increased trade to Ireland. In the 10th century, Brian Boru tried to unite all of Ireland under his rule. His death in 1014 put an end to that dream. By 1170, the Anglo-Normans were poised to dominate Ireland.(2, 3)

Irish Names

Over twelve thousand different names are recorded in the early Irish records. Male names are better represented than female names. Thousands of these names fell out of use at an early date. The number of names used became much narrower by the late Middle Ages. The Normans introduced many new names. English and Biblical names replaced earlier names when English became the dominant language. Some of the older names survived but under new spellings. (5)

In general, names that ended in -an, -ene, and -ine are masculine. Male names can be made into female names by the addition of -nat or -sech. For example, the male Aedan becomes the female Aednat, Beccan becomes Beccnat, Ciaran becomes Ciarnat, Cronan becomes Croinsech, Donnan becomes Duinnsech, Daman becomes Damnat, Gobban becomes Gobnat, Oissine becomes Ossnat, etc. In addition, the name element -flaith now means 'sovereignty' or 'prince'. It is found in many female names and may have once meant 'queen, princess'. Examples include Coblaith, , Dunfhlaith (feminine form of Dunan), Gormlaith (feminine form of Gormman), Saerlaith (from Saeran), Tailefhlaith, and Tuathfhlaith (from Tuathan or Tuathal). The masculine word tigern, which means 'lord', may have meant 'lady' because it also appears in female names. It appears in the female names Caeltigern and Caintigern.(5)

Irish personal names were at one time followed by the word "moccu". The carvers of 5th and 6th century ogam stones used the word "moccu" to denote tribal affiliation. Some of these tribes included the Ciarraige, Dartraige, Muscraige, and Semonraige.

In time, the sense of tribal identity declined. Some say this decline started during the 8th century while others feel the decline began in the 5th century. The word "moccu" was gradually replaced by terms such as "Ui" ("grandson"), "Cenel" ("kindred"), "Clann" ("family"), and "Sil" ("offspring").(2) From the 9th century on, surnames were formed by adding "mac" ("mag" or "meg" if followed by a vowel, "meic" if plural) to the father's name or "ua/uo" to the grandfather's name "Ui" is the plural form of "ua/uo".(5)

The Irish were more willing to borrow names from other cultures for their daughters than for their sons. By the 12th century, Sadb, Cacht, Mor, Gormlaith, and Orlaith were the most common female names. In the later middle ages, Mor was the most common, followed by Sadb and Gormlaith, Finnguala, the borrowed name Siban, Derbforgaill, Ben Mide, Bebinn, the borrowed names Caiterina and Margreg. Earlier names such as Etain, Medb, Taillte, Ailbe, and others also survived. (5)

Irish Female Names

Aideen - Woman mentioned in the margins of a monkish document (1)

Almaith - 7th century Leinster woman (2)

Aoife - Aoife was the daughter of King Dermot of Leinster who married Strongbow, the Norman conqueror (6)

. Be Bhionn - Daughter of King Murchadh of west Connacht and mother of Brian Boru (3)

Brigid - 5th century Brigid of Kildare was a convert of St. Patrick's and was the high abbess of a double monastery (1)

Chrodoara - Buried in Amay, Belgium in the Celtic style with a bishop's crozier (1)

Conandil - 7th century Leinster woman (2)

Concessa - Traditional name of St. Patrick's mother (2)

Conchend - 7th century Leinster woman (2)

Dubhchobhlaigh - Wife of Brian Boru (3)

Eachraidh - Wife of Brian Boru (3)

Etromma - 7th century Leinster woman (2)

Failend - 7th century Leinster woman (2)

Feidelm - 6th century Leinster woman (2)

Gormfhlaith - Wife of Brian Boru (3)

Ita - 6th century hermit (1)

Lassar - 6th century Leinster woman (2)

Lassi - 6th century Leinster woman (2)

Liadan - (Pronounced li'a-dan) - This name may mean 'grey lady'. Liadan was a poet and nun. She was loved by Cuirithir, the poet, who became a monk. (5)

Mor - Brian Boru's first wife (3)

Mugain - 7th century Leinster woman (2)

Orlaith - (Pronounced or-la) - The name means 'golden sovereignty, princess". This was the fourth most popular female name in 12th century Ireland. The name was held by a daughter of Cinneide mac Lorcain and older sister of Brian Boru, who was executed for adultery. The name also belonged to a niece of Brian Boru, a daughter of Dermot Mac Murrough, a daughter of Tigernan O Rourke, king of Breifne, etc. The name became less popular in the later Middle ages. (3, 5)

Ornat - (Pronounced or-nit) - One Ornat was a daughter of Cuan, king of Munster, who died in 641. (5)

Ronnat - (Pronounced ron-it') - This was the feminine form of Ronan. One holder of the name was the mother of St. Adamnan (c 7th century). (5)

Sadb, Sadhbh - (Pronounced seiv) - The name is said to mean "sweet". Sadb was a frequent name in early Ireland that went on to become the second most popular female name in later medieval Ireland. One of the many holders of the name was Sadb, daughter of Brian Boru, who died in 1048. (3, 5)

Saerlaith - (Pronounced ser-la) - The name means 'noble princess'. This was an early name held by the mother of Mael Brigte mac Dornain, the abbot of Armagh (5)

Sarnat - 7th century Leinster woman (2)

Samthann - (Pronounced sav-han) - St Samthann was the founding abbess of Clonbroney near Granard. She died in 739. (5)

Segnat - (Pronounced s'en-it) - This is the feminine form of Segan. Segnat was the abbess whom St Abban put over his holdings in Meath. (5)

Uallach - (Pronounced ual-ach) - The name means "proud". Uallach, daughter of Muimnechan, was the chief poet of Ireland. She died in 934. (5)

Uasal - 7th century Leinster woman (2)

Irish Male Names

Adomnan - 7th century, Abbot of Iona (1)

Aidan - 6th/7th century, established the monastery at Lindisfarne (1)

Aileran - 7th century scholar at Clonard (2)

Ainmire - "Great Lord" - The name was held by St. Ainmire, a monk of Co. Donegal, and Ainmire, king of Tara, who died c. 569 (6)

Airtre - Leader of Armagh during the Viking period (3)

Aodh - Aodh Oirdnidhe was a high king during the 9th century (3)

Breandan, Brendan - Brendan the Navigator explored Iceland, Greenland, and perhaps North America (1, 6)

Cadhla - "Handsome" - The name was used in the Middle Ages (6)>

Caoimhín - "Comely birth" - The English form is Kevin. St. Kevin died in 618. (6)

Cathal - 8th century Munster claimant to the high kingship. Another Cathal died in 1224 (2, 6)

Ceallachan - 10th century king of Munster (3)

Cinneide, Ceinneidigh - Father of Brian Boru (3)

Colman - 7th century Leinster man (2)

Colum, Colam - Name of many individuals, including a name on an ogam stone (2, 3)

Columbanus - Monk at Bangor and then continental Europe, b. 540 in the province of Leinster (1)

Columcille, Colam Cille - 6th century founder of many monasteries. His name means, "Dove of the church." The Roman form of the name is Columba (1, 3)

Cónán - "Small Hound." - The name appears in mythology and was the name of a saint who lived in the 6th century. (6)

Conchad - 7th century bishop of Sletty (2)

Conchobhar - 9th century high king (3)

Consaidín - "Constant one" - The English form is Constantine. The name was used by the O'Briens since the 12th century (6)

Cormac - Name of a 7th century Leinster man and many others(2, 3)

Crimthann - "Fox", the real name of the 6th century monk, Columcille; also a 5th century Irish king (1)

Cronan - 7th century abbot of Bangor (2)

Cummian - 7th century Irish abbot (1)

Deicola - 6th century colleague of Columbanus (1)

Diarmait - 6th century Irish king (1)

Domnall, Domhnall - Name of a 7th century Irish king and others (2, 3)

Donnabhan - Irish king (3)

Donnchadh - Name of a 10th century high king, a son and heir of Brian Boru, and others (3)

Donn Cuan - An older brother of Brian Boru (3)

Éanna - (English Edna) - The name may mean "birdlike". St. Edna died c 590 (6)

Echthighearn - Another brother of Brian Boru (3)

Eidigean - A father-in-law of Brian Boru (3)

Eoin - An early form of John that is similar to the Scottish Iain and comes from Johannes. The later form, Sean, comes from the French Jehan, which was introduced by the Normans. (6)

Fachtna - Fachtna was the name of the Irish 6th century saint and bishop of Ros Carbery. (6)

Faelan - 7th century king of Leinster (2)

Feidhlimidh - Feidhlimidh mac Criomhthainn was the high king in 820 (3)

Fergus, Fearghus - Name of several Irish leaders, including a ruler from 470 A.D. (2, 3)

Fiachra - 6th century Leinster man (2)

Fianamail - 7th century king of Leinster (2)

Findcath - 5th century king of Leinster (2)

Finian - 6th century bishop and teacher of Columcille (1)

Finsnechta - 7th century Irish king (2)

Fionnbhárr - "Fair head" - St. Finbar lived from 470 - 548 and established a monastery at Cork (6)

Flann - Flann Sionna was a high king (3)

Froech - 5th century king of Leinster (2)

Guaire - 7th century king of Connaught (2)

Kevin - 6th century hermit (1)

Lachtna - An older brother of Brian Boru (3)

Laidcend - 7th century man (2)

Laoghaire - Son of the 5th century Niall of the Nine Hostages (3)

Lorcan - Grandfather of Brian Boru (3)

Lugaed - Name on an ogam stone (2)

Lugaid - (Pronounced lu-i) - The seventh most popular name in early Ireland (5)

Manchan - 5th century convert of St. Patrick (1)

Marchan - An older brother of Brian Boru (3)

Mathghamhain - King of Tuadhmhumha or Thomond and older brother of Brian Boru (3)

Maoil-Seachlainn - 9th century high king (3)

Muircheartach - 10th century general and son of a high king (3)

Muirchu - 7th/8th century writer (2)

Niall - Name of many Irish leaders, including Niall Naoighiallach of the Nine Hostages (d. 405 A.D.)(2, 3)

Nuadu - (Pronounced nua) - Some think the name means 'cloud-maker'. Others suggest he was a fisher-god. Nuadu was an ancestral deity and lord of the Otherworld. The name is found among many legendary founders of families. It was also the name of two abbots, who died in 781 (the abbot of Tuam) and 811 (the abbot of Armagh) (5)

Oengus - (Pronounced en-is) - Many legendary heroes and founders had this name. It also belonged to a 5th century Irish warrior. Also a 6th or 7th century Leinster man. Oengus mac Oengusa was a chief poet of Ireland who died in 932. (2, 5)

Olchobar, Olchobhor - (Pronounced ol-chur) - 9th century abbot of Emly, who died in 851. The name was largely confined to Munster. (3, 5)

Oissine, Oissene - (Pronounced us'-in) - This name is the diminutive of oss, which means "a deer". The name appears in legend and history. Oissene was an abbot of Clonmacnoise who died in 706. (5)

Orthanach - (Pronounced ur-han-ach) - The name means "potent in prayers". The name was held by a bishop of Kildare who died in 840 and an abbot of Roscrea who died in 952. (5)

Rechtabra - (Pronounced r'acht-ur-a) - One holder of the name was the son of Flann Feorna, a prince of the Ciarraige, who died in 741. An abbot of Clonfert held the same name. He died in 850. (5)

Robartach - (Pronounced ro-art-ach) - One holder of this name was an abbot of Aghaboe, who died in 836. Another was an anchorite of Clonmacnoise, who died in 1007. (5)

Ronan - This name, which comes from the word for 'seal', was relatively common in early Ireland. There were ten saints by this name. St Ronan Finn died in 664 and St Ronan of Lismore died in 763. (5)

Ruaidri - (Pronounced rua-r'i) - The name means "great or red king". Ruaidri was a common name in medieval Ireland. It was used by a king of Connacht who died in 1118 and by Ruaidri Ua Conchobair (O Connor), king of Connacht and last high-king of Ireland, who died in 1198. The name was especially common amongst the O Connors of Connacht during the Middle Ages. (5)

Ruarcc - (Pronounced ruark) - This early name was not commonly used as a personal name but from it came the surname O Ruairc (O Rourke). Ruarcan was the diminutive form. (5)

Rumann - (Pronounced ruv-an) - This was not a common name in early Ireland, but a Rumann mac Colmain of Trim (died c 747) was described in an early Irish text as follows, "There are three great poets of the world: Homer of the Greeks, Virgil of the Latins, and Rumann of the Irish". (5)

Saerbrethach - (Pronounced ser-vr'a-hach) - One holder of this name was the abbot of Emly, who died in 1025. (5)

Seigine - (Pronounced s'e-in, s'ein) - This name comes from seig, which means "hawk". One holder of the name was the fifth abbot of Iona, who died in 652. This may also have been a feminine name. (5)

Segan - (Pronounced s'e-an) - This rare early name may come from the word for "hawk". It was feminized as Segnat. It may be the same name as Segene. (5)

Segene - 7th century bishop of Armagh (2)

Senach - (Pronounced s-an-ach) - This common early name comes from the word sen, which means 'ancient, old'. It was originally the name of an early god. A later holder of the name was St Senach of Lough Erne. (5)

Senan - (Pronounced s-an-an) - This is the diminutive of sen, which means 'ancient, old'. The name was used during an early period in Clare. There are many saints who hold this name. (5)

Senchan - (Pronounced s'an-chan) - This is a diminutive of Senach. One Senchan was an abbot of Emly, who died in 781. Senchan Torpeist was one of the most famous early Irish poets. (5)

Tadhg - Name of a son of Brian Boru and an Irish king (3)

Tirechan - 7th century writer, from Armagh (2)

Ultan - 7th century bishop of Ardbraccan (2)

Male Names from Latin

Patraic - This name came from the Latin Patricius. The early Irish did not use this name out of respect for St. Patrick. Variants of the name were used instead, such as Gilla Patraic ('servant of St Patrick') and Mael Patraic ('devotee of St. Patrick'). Patrick was first used again as a personal name by colonists of Ireland rather than by the native Irish. When the Anglo-Normans used the name, the Irish wrote it as Padraigin. The name Paitin, which may come from Patraic, is found amongst the O Maolchonaire in the 13th century. The female form, Patricia, was not created in Scotland until the 18th century. (5)

Female Names from the Vikings

Ragnailt - (Pronounced rein-ilt') - This was the feminine form of Ragnall. It was a favorite female name in later medieval Ireland. Holders of the name included the mother of Domnall Mor O Brien, the King of Thomond. Another Ragnailt was the daughter of Aed Ua Conchobair, king of Connacht, who died in 1393. (5)

Male Names from the Vikings

Lochlainn - (Pronounced luch-lin') - The name means "Viking". It was used in the early Middle Ages among the northern Ui Neill and other families. It was common among the O Hanleys of Connacht and others during the later Middle Ages.(5)

Ragnall - (Pronounced rei-nal) - This name came from the Old Norse and was the name of many Vikings in Ireland. Ragnall mac Amlaib was killed at the battle of Tara in 980. Ragnall mac Imair, the king of Waterford, died in 1018. The name became popular amongst the Irish. Ragnall Ua Dalaig, the main poet of Desmond, died in 1161. (5)

Female Names from the Anglo-Norman Influence

Eilionora, Ealanor - The name of Eleanor became popular in England from Queen Eleanor, wife of Edward I. The Normans brought the name to Ireland. St. Ealanor was an Irish martyr. (6)

Siban - (Pronounced s'iv-an) - This was adapted from the French Jehane or Jehanne, which comes from John. Jehane was popular in the 12th century and was brought to Ireland by the Anglo-Normans. One holder of the name was Siban, daughter of the third earl of Desmond and wife of Tadg mac Carthaig. (5)

Sibeal, Isibeal - (Pronounced s'i-bel) - Isabel, the medieval French form of Elizabeth, became popular in England in the 12th century. It was brought to Ireland by the Anglo-Normans. (5)

Sile - (Pronounced s'il-e) - This name comes the Latin Caecilia and was brought into Ireland by the Anglo-Normans.

Male Names from the Anglo-Norman Influence

Piaras - This name was adapted from Piers, which was the Anglo-Norman French form of Peter. The diminutive form Piarag appeared in the 14th century. (5)

Pilib - This name comes from the Greek Phillip ('horse-lover') and was brought to Ireland by the Anglo-Normans. Phillip was a very common name in medieval England. The name became popular amongst the Irish, especially the Maguires. (5)

Remann - (Pronounced r'e-mun) - The name comes from the German for 'counsel' (ragan) and 'protection' (mund. The Normans introduced the name to England. The Anglo-Normans brought the name to Ireland. It was popular in Ireland in the later medieval period and remained common until the 19th century. (5)

Ricard, Risderd - Ricard and Richard were common names in medieval England. In Ireland, they became Ricard and Risderd, respectively. Risdeag is a later medieval diminutive. (5)

Seaan - (Pronounced s'an) - This name comes from Jehan, the French form of the Latin Joannes. The name did not become popular in western Europe until after the First Crusade. It was fairly popular in England from the 12th and 15th centuries. It became very popular after that. The name was brought to Ireland by the Anglo-Normans. The native Irish soon adapted it. (5)

Seafraid - (Pronounced s'ef-ra) - This is the Irish form of Geoffrey, which was common in England in the later Middle Ages. The name became common among the O Donoghues. (5)

Seamus - (Pronounced s'em-as) - This name came from the Latin Jacobus through the English and French. The name was common among Anglo-Norman settlers and was adopted by the native Irish. The form Siacas, from the French Jacques, was common in the 13th and 14th centuries. (5)


(1) How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill, New York: Doubleday, 1995, 1996.

(2) Early Medieval Ireland 400 - 1200, Daibhi O Croinin, New York: Longman, 1995, 1996.

(3) Brian Boru: King of Ireland, Roger Chatterton Newman, Dublin: Anvil Books, 1983, 1986.

(4) Ancient Scrolls, Michael Avi-Yonah, Minneapolis, Lerner Publications, 1973.

(5) Irish Names, Donnchadh O Corrain and Fidelma Maguire, Dublin, Lilliput Press, 1981, 1999.

(6) Book of Irish Names: First, Family, and Place Names, Ronan Coghlan, Ida Grehan, P.W. Joyce, New York: Sterling Publishing Co. Inc., 1989.

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Last Updated November 30, 2009