Analysis: The single strongest indicator that a couple had a large family was if they picked traditional and common names for their children

By Dylan Connor, Arizona State University

As you walk down a crowded Dublin street, picture yourself squeezing past a young boy and a baby girl perched in a buggy. Today, those children might have names like Emily and Noah, two of the most popular names among parents last year. Had you walked that same street in 2008, it could have been Chloe and Ryan. Perhaps it was Brian and Laura in 1980, James and Margaret in the 1960s, or John and Mary in the 1920s. While every name has its own unique story, each generation has a set of names that seem distinctive from the last.

Social science is revealing that these names provide windows into our psychology. Recent studies of naming provide insights on topics as wide-ranging as the economics of immigration, African American health, admission to elite universities and even Irish family sizes. While parents have long been occupied with how their children's names will be perceived by others, social scientists are concerned with what children's names tell us about their parents.

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From RTÉ's Nine News, Jack and Grace were the top baby names for 2020

In a recent study, we turned name analytics toward one of Ireland's big historical questions: why were the Irish so reluctant to follow couples elsewhere in reducing the size of their families? While the average number of live births per married woman in Britain fell from six in 1860 to only two by 1940, Ireland took many more decades to catch up. The Church’s ban on contraception provides one explanation, but is ultimately unsatisfying when we recall that generations of couples delayed childbearing without contraceptives.

Searching for a more complete answer, we took statistics and data science to millions of historical records on families in Ireland and the United States. Our modelling procedure focused on identifying exactly which couples were raising smaller families. Our rationale was that by knowing who was limiting the size of their family, we might gain clues as to why. With our targets set on isolating the strongest influences, we examined everything from occupation and education to religion and location.

We found something surprising. Many of our prior expectations were confirmed: professionals had fewer children than laborers, families were smaller in cities, and Catholics had more children than Protestants. The single strongest indicator that a couple had a large family, however, was whether or not they picked traditional and common names for their children. When parents chose names like Patrick, Mary and John, they typically had more children. Parents with fewer children relied more on uncommon names like Eric, Sam, Hazel and Irene. Irrespective of religion, naming was linked to family size and the pattern even held for the Irish in America.

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From RTÉ Archives, Flor McCarthy reports for RTÉ News on how Conor and Chloe were the most popular baby names of 1998.

Irish couples were particularly likely to buck trends as they were exposed to cities. Urban couples were not only the first to sharply curtail childbearing, but were also more likely to experiment with new and unusual names. This was a sharp departure from large rural Irish families, where successive generations were named after parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Whether they knew it or not, these urban-dwellers were innovators in reimagining the Irish family.

Names tell us about ourselves because they provide windows into how we think about our children. As we pick names, we inadvertently express who we want ourselves and our children to be, and how we expect names to wear into the future. Those early Irish innovators led a shifting mindset, a departure from a world structured around continuity in land, children, and family names. The new world was one of more individualized aspirations for children, and the names to accompany them. Names reflect our goals and aspirations because, in a sense, we imagine the future through how we name our children.

So, what do our children’s names tell us about today? Consider the simple statistic of the share of Irish children that received one of the 20 most popular names in a given year. In 1900, 7 out of 10 Irish children were given one of the top 20 names. That number dropped to 6 in 10 by the 1960s, 4 in 10 by 2000, and was on course for 2 in 10 in 2020, signaling steady growth in the diversity of names. Our shrinking families and their individuating names – processes set in motion by those early innovators – alludes to our deepening view of our children as being unique, dare we even say precious.

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From RTÉ's Doc On One, One Hundred Years of Names goes behind the top 100 Irish baby name lists and see a fascinating portrait of a changing country

At the same time, we have been casting off the names of an older Ireland. Mary, the most popular Irish girls' name of the 20th century, has not ranked among the 10 most popular names since 1989 and hit an all-time low at 93rd in 2019. Away from traditional names like Mary, we have embraced globally popular ones like Emily and Amelia, and locally rooted but refreshing names like Finn, Liam and Fiadh.

Ireland’s new favorite names capture our imagination of ourselves as outward-facing members of a cooler and more modern Ireland. While every name has its own unique story, our collective choices still have much to say about where we began and where we see ourselves going.

Dr Dylan Connor is an assistant professor at the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ