Spotlight on: Niamh and Naomh

One of you wonderful readers requested a spotlight on Niamh — what a fun name to research! You all know how I feel about Irish names after all. 😉😍🍀 Specifically, this mom wants to know:

What I’m curious about is whether you can think of any Catholic roots or meanings to the name Niamh. As we are pretty conservative Catholics, we like our children to have saints’ names and I was somewhat surprised to find that there didn’t seem to be a Saint Niamh — with Ireland’s Catholic history, I’d just assumed there would be.”

Right? “[W]ith Ireland’s Catholic history, I’d just assumed there would be” — it’s so true, and I love love love that Ireland has that history and reputation.

So first, let’s discuss pronunciation: The “mh” in Gaelic is often (always?) a V sound, so Niamh can be said NEE-iv or NEEV (among native Irish this pronunciation will vary based on what part of Ireland they’re from; for us, we can choose which pronunciation we prefer).

Second, though I also couldn’t find any Saints or otherwise holy Niamhs, I think a faith connection can be made to its meaning, which Baby Names of Ireland says means, “radiance, lustre, brightness.” I don’t know about you, but that immediately gives me a mental image of the description of the Transfigured Jesus:

After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.” (Mt 17:1-2)

It makes sense that the Transfiguration is one of the Luminous Mysteries, because the Luminous Mysteries as a whole also go along with the “radiance, lustre, brightness” meaning of Niamh (other Luminous Mystery names here), and really, the meaning of Niamh makes me think of holiness in general, both as a concept and as an artistic presentation.

Third, speaking of holiness, I wonder if this mom might be interested in a tweak in spelling? The Irish name Naomh is rarer than Niamh, I believe, but said the same (either NEE-iv or NEEV), and there also seems to be the additional possibility of NAYV or NAY-uv (you can hear several examples here). Naomh actually means “holy” or “saint,” so St. Patrick in Irish is Naomh Padraig, the Holy Spirit is Spiorad Naomh, etc. As I’ve written about before, naming a little girl Naomh would then be similar to other not-unheard of names like Toussaint (“all saints”), Sinclair (St. Clair), and Santino (“little saint”; a famous fictional Santino went by Sonny 😉), and can nod to any Saint or holy person the parents so wish, including Our Lady — in fact, in Don Quixote, Sancho Panza (whose first name also means “holy” or “saint”) has a daughter whose name is variously given as María Sancha, Marisancha, Marica, María, Sancha and Sanchica — all clearly referring to Our Lady, as Maria Sancha means “holy Mary.”

Do any of you know any other holy connections to the name Niamh? If you like Niamh, what do you think of Naomh? Do you know anyone with these names? What do they think of them, and do they have any other insights that would be helpful?


24 thoughts on “Spotlight on: Niamh and Naomh

  1. I’ve heard of sound-alike Neve/Nieve being used as a nickname for Genevieve, so if it’s the sound the mother likes, that could be an option to use for a saint connection. (And if she loves the spelling Niamh, I suppose there’s nothing stopping her from using it either, although Genevieve nicknamed Niamh looks a little funny!)

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  2. So Naomh as a first can be paired with any saint name and become a nod to that saint? Like Naomh Lucy would literally refer to Saint Lucy, right? I love that this name allows to choose any patron!

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  3. “Niamh” was originally a goddess name, and shows up in the Irish myths and legends as the name of a number of not-quite-human women. It shouldn’t be surprising that there are native Irish names that don’t have saintly connections — in fact, most of the native names which are saints names are the result of Christianity co-opting the local deities and turning them into saints retrospectively.

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    • I don’t think (at least, this is my perspective) the surprise is that there isn’t an early St. Niamh/Maeve/etc., but rather than that, after all this time, that there hasn’t yet been a more recent Niamh/Maeve/etc. who’s been canonized. Maybe because those native names weren’t in use as much until more recently?

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      • I agree with Kate, the surprise isn’t the lack of an early saint with these names, but even a later one. I’ve thought this about my daughter’s name (Fiona), as well. (In that case, I know it was coined only about 300 years ago, but it’s just interesting/peculiar to me that there aren’t any.) Of course, with women in particular, many of the canonized saints have been members of religious orders, where changing one’s name upon entry is common. As for the co-opting of mythological deities into Christian saints, I think that this is a common postmodern interpretation, especially of early saints about whom little is known. That said, this belies a fairly fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose and role of saints in Christianity. They are not considered deities or supernatural, despite the modern view of medieval storytelling of saints’ lives. The saints are, and have always been, known to be real flesh and blood people who exemplified the virtues for which every Christian Pilgrim strives.

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    • Your theory about co-opting pre-Christian deities does not make sense given the canonical process… or for that matter, the point of declaring people Saints. I’m not sure where you got your information on saints [in Ireland]?

      Further, Niamh, if used as a title, or considering the definition of the name as “little saint” in a baby naming source, does not mean mythological figures were poached.

      To be sure, there are saints for which their stories cannot be confirmed. However, most saints have tangible evidence of existence, and they have known names. With Ireland’s Catholic history, I suspect many of their saints were encouraged to adopt new (Latin-based) names upon Baptism and so their Irish names were not recorded. Or, their names were Latinized and then eventually Anglicized and now are not really recognizable as an Irish derivative.

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  4. We knew a Niamh when my girls were growing up. Her family was from Ireland, so used very traditional Irish names for their children (the son was Ruairí, the Irish spelling of Rory). It’s a lovely name, although I found Niamh hard to pronounce/remember the spelling of, and as a parent I would personally probably get tired of spelling it or tolerate misspellings/mispronunciations. Can you tell I had a very difficult surname for a maiden name, lol? – nancyo

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  5. I’ve known two Niamhs (neither well). One was another student of my cello teacher as a teenager, and one was the younger sister of a cello student I had about 16 or 17 years ago. This one was about 7 or 8 and by her choice was using the spelling “Neeve” at school because no one would pronounce it properly. I also have a close friend with a son named Rhys and he also started using the spelling “Reese” at school due to pronunciation issues. He’s now 14 and I think has gone back to the Rhys spelling, and I’ve long since lost touch with the other family. I do wonder if having a name that’s hard to pronounce might be a headache for the child. That said, my 15-year-old daughter has a less common spelling of a traditional name (it doesn’t change the pronunciation in her case, however), and that has been no problem for us over the years. We just have to quickly specify the spelling. Obviously any parent choosing a name like Niamh will think about this before bestowing it—I doubt anyone could be surprised to learn that most Americans wouldn’t know how to pronounce this!

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  6. The name Nieves (NEE-IV-ES) also exists, it means snow in spanish and portuguese and it is a very original catholic name here.

    It refers to the advocation of the Virgin Mary in Rome on the 5th of August and actually, the first basilica made in honour of the Virgin Mary is dedicated to her “Maria la Maggiore”.

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