Spotlight on: Moira

Whew! Moira caused a little bit of a ruckus yesterday in the comments! Have any of the rest of you heard an Irish person tell you Moira is “made up” or “not a real Irish name”?

So I consulted my trusty sources, and this is what they say:

Withycombe (3rd edition: 1977; originally published 1945)
apparently an attempt at rendering phonetically Maire, the Irish form of Mary. Not uncommon in England now.”

Hanks, Hardcastle, Hodges (2nd edition: 2006; first published 1990)
Anglicized form of Irish Máire, now used throughout the English-speaking world.” (Entry on Máire: “From Old French Marie … Moira (Anglicized form)“)

Rosenkrantz and Satran in Beyond Shannon and Sean: An Enlightened Guide to Irish baby naming (1992)
Sometimes particular individuals were responsible for introducing — or popularizing — their Irish monikers. The Names who carried these names include: … Moira Shearer,” who was an “internationally renowned British ballet dancer and actress,” born in Scotland in 1926.

Behind the Name
Anglicized form of MÁIRE. It also coincides with Greek Μοιρα (Moira) meaning “fate, destiny”, the singular of Μοιραι, the Greek name for the Fates. They were the three female personifications of destiny in Greek mythology.” (The pronunciation they give for Máire is “MOY-ra”)

Baby Name Wizard site, from the comments for the Moira entry:

  • First off, it’s pronounced MOR-a not MOyRAH. Sources: it’s my name. It’s the real, original correct Celtic pronunciation. It aquired the moyrah pronunciation when it was translated into English. I took several Irish dance classes when I was younger, and there were 3 other Moiras In it, all with the correct spelling also and correct pronunciation too. When pronounced Moyrah, in my opinion, it loses it’s beauty and it sounds like an old Jewish woman with nasal problems is trying to pronounce it, unsuccessfully”
  • We named our daughter Moira because we wanted a derivation of Mary that wasn’t too common and we love Gaelic names. I had heard the name before (always pronounced MOY-rah)

Abby at Appellation Mountain
Mary became Máire among Irish families, probably via the French Marie.  Like many an Irish name, there’s debate over pronunciation.  I’ve come across MOY yah, MAW yah, MAW rah, MY rah, and even MAY ree, though I think that last one is probably a novel American interpretation.  In any case, pronunciation seems to have varied over place and time.

She was Anglicized as Moira, and is usually pronounced phonetically – MOY rah.  Except that sometimes she was Maura instead, with a different sound … Occasionally you’ll meet a Moira who pronounces it more like Maura … making the whole thing complicated.

But wait – there’s more.  In Ancient Greek mythology, the Three Fates were known as the Moirai.  Moira means portion or part, but is also related to the word moros – fate, and links to our word merit.  You could argue that Moira implies a proper share, a sense of order in the universe, that one gets what one deserves – making her something of a virtue name, a sister to Destiny … Between associations with the Virgin Mary and the classical idea of man’s fate, that’s quite a lot of meaning for a two-syllable name.”; from the comments: “Irish singer Enya has an older sister who also sings. Her name is Maire Brennan, and she apparently pronounces her first name MOY-yah. Actually, I believe in her latest releases she’s used an Anglicised phonetic spelling of her name

Interestingly, I discovered that the actress Moira Kelly, born 1968, is the daughter of Irish immigrants. I put dates where I could (like the birth dates of Moira Shearer and Moira Kelly, and the publication dates of the books) to see if there was historical evidence of its use rather than a modern innovation, because it seems to me when people talk about a name being “made up,” they mean a new name they’ve never heard before. The funny thing is that so many old, established, traditional names were “made up” at one point! Consider this conversation on one of the Baby Name Wizard discussion boards:

Ceilidh versus Cailey
I love the Gaelic spelling of Ceilidh but I hate how trendy Kaylee and every other spelling is. Do you like Ceilidh or Cailey, however?

RESPONSES (a sampling)

  • “When you say Ceilidh are you talking about the Gaelic folk music festivals?”
  • “the Gaelic spelling is a word for a type of party, not a name. The word happens to sound the same as Kaylee”
  • “I do know how to say ceilidh, but as far as I know it’s not a name. It strikes me as similar to naming a child Potluck or Rave” (that one made me laugh!) 😀
  • “As a Scottish person, though not a Gaelic speaker, I can tell you definitively that ceilidh is not a name, it’s a word for a traditional party. I know it sounds like the name Kaylee but it’s not a name”
  • “The Gaelic word ceilidh just happens to sound the same as Kaylee. That doesn’t make it a name. This is true the other way, too: I’ve met people who turn up their noses at Kayleigh/Kaylee/etc. because “that’s a type of party”, but they’re wrong: the name isn’t Gaelic, it just happens to sound like it.”

But then:

  • “I think Ceilidh, like the dance party, is a great name, specifically because it’s an Irish word that sounds like a familiar name. Just because it isn’t used much as a personal name doesn’t mean that it can’t be — I suppose Rose/Daisy/Pearl/Noel/Colleen/any-other-noun-turned-name started out that way as well?

    I say “isn’t used much” rather than “isn’t used” because I do know a little girl with this name. Her mother spelled it differently, in order to make it clearer to Americans — I think she used the spelling Kaeli — but her intention was to give her daughter the Irish word ceilidh as a name.”

  • “I think “you were named for a dance party!” would be a very satisfying name origin story that would help a little Kaylee/Kaeli/whatever spelling feel distinctive from the other Kayleighs/etc”
  • “I probably wouldn’t choose Ceilidh because the pronounciation isn’t clear to me, but I agree, I don’t see why it cannot be used as a name. There are plenty of names that are essentially non-English words.”

I’ve also seen Irish people fuss about Colleen, Erin, and Tara, because those names are more familiar to them as words rather than names. Perhaps like our Tiber, Vesper, Rosary? This also reminds me of the list of invented literary names that have become so commonplace that many (most?) of us don’t realize they came straight out of an author’s head. Like:

  • Imogen — a particularly good example for our purposes here, since Imogen appears to be a mistranscription of the princess Innogen in Shakespeare’s Cymebeline, where Innogen “is probably derived from Gaelic inghean meaning ‘maiden.'” Not too much different from Colleen, which is “from the Irish word cailín meaning ‘girl.'”
  • Miranda — “Derived from Latin mirandus meaning “admirable, wonderful”. The name was created by Shakespeare for the heroine in his play ‘The Tempest’ (1611). It did not become a common English given name until the 20th century”
  • Vanessa — “Invented by author Jonathan Swift for his poem ‘Cadenus and Vanessa’ (1726). He arrived at it by rearranging the initial syllables of the first name and surname of Esther Vanhomrigh, his close friend”

But in all of this, it’s just a matter of unfamiliarity — if a person from Ireland, who’s only familiar with the noun ceilidh, meets someone named Ceilidh, I can see why their first reaction is, “That’s not a name!” Similar to the Rave/Potluck comment above.

But that’s not the case with Moira — it’s got a good history of use among those who are Irish and Scottish, even if some might disagree about whether it’s an appropriate anglicization of Máire or not, and disagree on pronunciation as well; not only that, but I would say its use is almost exclusively as “an Irish form of Mary,” the connection to the Greek word for the Fates notwithstanding. Truly, I think Moira is absolutely legitimate as an Irish Marian name. (There’s also a place named Moira — a town in Co. Down (Northern Ireland) — so from that perspective it could be considered similar to Bethany, Belén, Roma, and even Clare (Co. Clare), if you preferred.)

Would you be intimidated against using Moira if someone from Ireland told you it was “made up” or “not a real Irish name”? Has this post helped clarify that it absolutely can be considered an Irish Marian name, or do you disagree with my conclusion? (Feel free to be honest! And if you know any more about Moira, please share!)



40 thoughts on “Spotlight on: Moira

  1. It’s only from the 1900’s, but Wendy’s full name in “Peter Pan” is Wendy Moira Angela Darling.

    In reference to Imogen, very early on, before we discovered Immaculee, Imogen was in its place. We read somewhere that it meant pure and liked that connection to Mary. Our minds we changed, however, once finding the Shakespearean typo background. Thankfully we stumbled across Immaculee and loved it. Down here in Texas I’m afraid most folks will probably pronounce the ending of Immaculee as the “lee” it looks like instead of the French “lay”…

    Liked by 2 people

    • I love the Peter Pan reference! I can hear it in my head from the various versions I’ve seen. So funny about Imogen! I think “pure” is likely part of it, since the source I read said it meant “maiden,” which I think refers to her purity (i.e., an unmarried girl).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t heard that about Moira – I always assumed it was an alternative spelling for Maura (which is maybe a little made up itself?) My husband takes this position, that many “American” Irish names are not real Irish names. Don’t get him started on Erin or Shannon – he also hates when people use surnames as first names. We had to be sure to name our son Conor with one “n” so as not to be confused with Connor with two “ns” which is a surname and therefore not “real.” Picky, picky. He seems kind of ok with Saoirse, though, which means “Freedom” and has heavy political connotations.

    THE coolest girl in my high school was named Moira, which is probably why I’ve always associated it with pretty, popular girls. 🙂 Same with Kateri, funnily enough.

    I love all the backstory on these names – so interesting!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I know nothing more about Moira than what little Moira’s grandparents reportedly said, though honestly I don’t like the name very much so it doesn’t bother me one way or the other (like the other Grace said yesterday, the “OY” sound isn’t my favorite).

    But, I can also say, in terms of made-up names (regardless of Moira’s provenance), I was REALLY disappointed to learn Fiona was a coined name after I had already named my child that, and although I have come to like it again and I’m glad we named her Fiona (which I think is a name she’ll enjoy having, especially when she moves to London as she says she plans to do), it did totally cast a shadow over it for a few years for me.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Aww I’m so sorry about that! I looked it up — it was meant to be a feminine form of Fionn, no? I mean, I don’t consider that really “made up” … no more so than Stephanie, Victoria, etc. …


      • Ohh this is so concerning to me! I hate to hear of mamas disappointed by names after the fact! I mean, I know Fiona wasn’t used before the 18th century, and that it was coined by an author, but I would still consider it to be a feminine form of Fionn — that was MacPherson’s intent wasn’t it? Perhaps done so in a way that made the femininization more obvious to his readers than the perhaps-sometimes-feminine Fionn? You know me and intention — whether the construction meets all the linguistic rules is secondary, in my mind, to the intention. I would totally go with it! I’d be so excited to know Fiona has a connection with Fionn mac Cumhail (whose mum was Muirne — anglicized as Morna, my middle name!), and his son Oisin and grandson Oscar — a well named family! And check it out (which you probably already know) — there’s Sts. Fin(n)ian and Finan, all of which derive from the original word fionn, which I’m arguing is totally the origin of Fiona! It’s a gorgeous name, I don’t want you to have any regrets!!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Also even if there were precedence to feminized a name by adding an -a, it still wouldn’t explain the changed pronunciation (fee-oh-hah, instead of, like, finn-ah).

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, I got over my regrets. I actually haven’t read the Macpherson poems, but I didn’t gather it was meant as a feminine form of Fionn. I mean, I think it came from the word fion(n) for white, but I’m not 100% sure a female form of Fionn was the goal. Either way, I look at it as a modern English name now and don’t try to tie it into some obscure Garlic heritage, and that makes me ok with it.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I was going to leave this on the previous post but am leaving it here. I have a book purchased while I studied abroad in Galway in 1998. The book is ” Irish Names” written by Donnchadh O Corrain and Fidelma Maguire, who, according to the intro, are married and both teach history, one at college level and have five children with wonderful Irish names.

    The book was originally published in 1981 and this was a 1990 edition. They note in the intro that this book was specifically meant to help with the research and pronunciation of real Irish names, dating back to even beyond the medieval period to help the reader combat the trend of the middle class’s use of continental, ‘trendy’ names like Karen, Mark, etc. They note that at this time (republication in the early 1990s) that there was a rise in the use of original or less Anglicized versions of true Irish names across all social classes: names like Niall, Conor, Brendan, Kieran, etc. They note more girls names are versions of the true ‘Irish’ names Deirdre, Sinead, Orlaith, etc., again across all social classes-boys names typically remained more conservative.

    Anyhow, so this book was very well researched and focused on the etymology of Irish names and indeed has all types of Irish names I have never encountered. So I looked up “Moira”. It says the most popular of late medieval and early modern female names was “Mor” -with an accent over the ‘o’-which means ‘tall or great’.

    The authors write, “Mor is by far the most popular female name is use in later medieval Ireland. According to popular tradition, Mor of the Cenel Conaill was mother of St. Colman Ela”. They go on to discuss some other queens who held the name then state, “Mor was also the name of the sister of St. Laurence (Lorcan) O’Toole.” They mention a few other well known women named Mor and then write, “This early name was latinised as ‘Morina’ and anglicized ‘Martha’ and ‘Agnes’ but in the nineteenth century it was almost invariably anglicized ‘Mary’ and thus accounts for the present popularity of Mary among Irish women.”

    Then, hopping back two pages, under the entry Maire, the authors then claim that “The following Irish pet-forms of Maire were/are still use: Maille, Mailse, Mailti (these latter being rendered Marjory and Margery as well as Molly), Mallaaidh, Mairin and Mears (in use in Kerry until recently). Among the forms in use in English are Moira, Moyra, Maura, Maureen, May, Molly, Moll, Mamie and, laterally, the continental forms Maria and Marie.”

    I am not sure if this helps at all! I am going to go and see if the authors ever published any more books because I found this very thoroughly researched (as a trained historian.) They consulted all kinds of sources for their information, as you can read in their introduction.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. The only idea that now after reading this that I can come up with that the person I know would think Moira (moy-ruh) isn’t a real name, could maybe be because it isn’t being pronounced the way she would expect or the way she thinks is right. Like how the commenter on Baby Name Wizard says that the correct pronunciation is like Maura. So maybe it is less that Moira isn’t a real name, but moy-ruh is just an Americanized pronunciation?

    Still don’t like Moira, so like grace said, doesn’t really matter to me 😛

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I was one of those people who voiced concern about Ceilidh on BabyNameWizard… After reading your thoughtful, reasonable response on the whole issue I feel a bit embarrassed! I was too blunt, but then having actually gone to more than one ceilidh, it was just too much out of left field for me.

    Anyway, I wouldn’t say Moira is made up exactly, a transliteration variant that might’ve been affected by Scottish pronunciation, since it’s quite common here among women of an older age group. It would be a nice surprise to see it on a little girl. If you take it as an intended variant of Mary, it of course has a lot of lovely spiritual meaning.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ohh ScottishReader! You’re so lovely! Of course your perspective makes perfect sense!

      I quite like your take on Moira: “a transliteration variant that might’ve been affected by Scottish pronunciation.” I think it’s similar to what I was thinking today: that the pronunciation MY-ra, which is sometimes given for Máire, is really not that far off from MOY-ra to my ear — I was exactly thinking that I thought I’d heard an EYE/OY mashup of sorts pronunciation-wise in some shows/movies with English/Scottish/Irish actors. That was a very clear sentence, wasn’t it? Ha! Do you know what I mean? Maybe I’m crazy … anyway, thanks so much for commenting!! Sounds like you’re closer to the reality than I am, who know no Moiras and only have my American perspective anyway.


      • I completely know what you mean! Different accents change a lot, and there was so much emigration between Scotland and Ireland in the 18th/19th Centuries that naming conventions probably got all mixed in together! It’s not like parents had the internet in those days for reference, lol, and it’s likely that priests/ministers/registrars were guessing how to spell names a lot of the time. Can you tell I’ve thought about this since yesterday? 🙂

        Anyway, I love your blog, I’ve been lurking for weeks without commenting. Thank you for writing.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes! “priests/ministers/registrars were guessing how to spell names a lot of the time”! Totally reminds me of Ven. Edel Quinn, with her parents intending Adele but the priest thought they meant a short form of Edelweiss … ??!!

        I’m so pleased that you’ve been lurking! 😀 I’m delighted to have you!!


  7. I don’t know much about Moira besides the Peter Pan reference (although that makes me love it) but I have experience with a “not real” Irish name. My parents considered more authentic Irish names with me (Siobhan) but my dad was concerned with the pronunciation. This was the early 80s and the names weren’t familiar to most.

    Every once in awhile someone here will say to me, “you know, Colleen is not a real name, right? It just means girl. What will happen when you go to Ireland?”

    In those cases, I just politely nod my head and say that I have been to Ireland and everyone I met there told me that they loved my name.

    Of course, nobody is called “girl” in Ireland and of course, when names are translated to English, the pronunciations and spellings are going to be a challenge in the case of Moira. There are more people of Irish heritage outside of Ireland then living there. The names have evolved and changed as people have immigrated and integrated with other cultures. The intentions behind the name matter too. Parents may be using these “not real” Irish names as a nod to their heritage and family and that’s what counts. That’s why everyone I met in Ireland loved my name because they knew it was a connection between an American and her Irish heritage that has continued despite years and miles.

    So if someone loves the name Moira, they should use it. It’s as real as they come.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I am sure you have all seen this on Baby Names of Ireland for the entry Máire (but in case you haven’t):

    MEANING: The name that was used in Ireland for Our Lady was Muire and interestingly, her name was so honored that it was rarely used as a first name until the end of the fifteenth century. Then Maire became acceptable as a given name but the spelling Muire was reserved for the Blessed Mother.
    GENDER: Girl | Female
    IRISH NAME: Maire
    PRONUNCIATION: my + ra”
    ENGLISH: Mary
    Listen to Frank McCourt pronounce Máire vs. Muire on the site.

    Just love hearing now the usage of sacred names evolved- from forbidden to modified for given names- for the Irish there always seems at least a mode of restraint such as slightly altered spelling or instances like Máeleachlainn (Malachy) meaning “devotee of St. Sechnall” (lots of saint names combined with “follower of” or “devotee of.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes! I love that too. Like the Miles I’m forever pushing on everyone — anglicized form of Maolmuire, “devotee of Mary” — a totally Marian name for a boy! And so Irish! And Miles is so usable!


  9. Should anyone complain to me that Moira is a made-up name, I’d reply that if so, it’s one with a very long standing: Moire (pronounced the same) can be found in English records from Ireland in 1601.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I just wanted to echo what ScottishReader said – I definitely think of Scotland when I hear Moira but I don’t think anyone would be bothered by someone saying that it is Irish. Máire and Maura are more common here in Ireland though. In regards to Colleen – I think that it began to be used as a name by Irish in the US but it has been exported back to Ireland. I know a few Colleens and it wouldn’t be considered a made-up name.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Loved reading this and hearing people’s varying opinions and experiences with this name! We thought about naming my second daughter “Maire” but went with an Anglicized spelling “Maira” (My-ruh), partially for the sake of American pronunciation (although it’s still a little tricky for Americans), and partially because Maira is also a Spanish name, and my husband is Hispanic. Not purely, traditionally Irish, but the Irish (from Ireland) people I know always recognize it as an Irish name (at least thus far). I think Maira and Moira are beautiful names, especially where the intent is to honor Our Lady.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I know! It sort of happened by mistake… we chose it because we liked the Irish name, and then when we told my husband’s family, they said, “Oh wonderful! Maira, like your third cousin Maira in Venezuela!” and we said, “Yeah… exactly!” LOL

        Had we tried to find an Irish AND Spanish name I’m sure we never would have been able to, but the name found us, I think. And it’s Marian to boot 🙂


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