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”)
- “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.”
- “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!)