Our Lady: Queen of Ireland

"Our Lady: Queen of Ireland" by Kate Towne (CatholicMom.com)

Public Domain, Link

St. Patrick’s Day is still two days away, but as soon as March hits, the land of my ancestors calls with its beautiful brogue, and the clean spring air and reemerging green remind me of the semester I spent there abroad and later trips back.

One of the things I love the most about Ireland is its deep history of faith, and its devotion to Our Lady is a big part of that. The “practice of Marian devotions were widespread in Ireland by the 8th Century,” only three hundred years after St. Patrick, and the illuminated manuscript of the Gospels known as the Book of Kells, written around the year 800 AD by monks who moved to a monastery in Kells, Co. Meath around the time of its writing, contains the “earliest extant illustration of Madonna and Child illustration in a Latin codex” (source, sourcesource). Movingly, Marian devotion in Ireland has seemed to increase during times of crisis and persecution. The Confederation of Kilkenny declared Our Lady “Protectress of Ireland” during the Cromwellian wars of 1642, and single-decade rosaries were hidden in sleeves in defiance of the ban on devotional religious objects in the eighteenth century. During the famine of 1879, less than thirty years after the end of the devastating potato famine, Our Lady appeared to fifteen peasants at Knock, Co. Mayo with St. Joseph, St. John the Evangelist, angels, and Jesus as the Lamb of God. In the twentieth century, during the Irish War of Independence, Irishman Frank Duff founded The Legion of Mary, which worked with the poor of Dublin and was praised by Pope Pius XI in 1931. Today it has around ten million members, “making it the largest lay apostolic organization in the Church” (source).

"Our Lady: Queen of Ireland" by Kate Towne (CatholicMom.com)

By EamonnPKeane at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Two other ways the Irish have showed their Marian devotion have been by incorporating her name into everyday conversation and by naming their girls Mary. In regard to language, for example, the greeting “Dia dhuit” (“God to you”) is answered by “Dia is Muire dhuit” (“God and the Blessed Mother to you”), and Eugene O’Growney wrote in 1898:

“In Scotland, where the Christian faith was carried by Irish missionaries, we find that even in the districts now for three centuries non-Catholic, the cry of suffering in the old tongue is still a Mhoire, Mhoire! O Mary, Mary! … [which is in]Irish-Gaelic a Mhuire, Mhuire [a wirra wirra]. So also, a Mhuire is truagh (a wirra iss throoa), O Mary, pity.” “

Regarding its use as a given name, Rev. Patrick Woulfe noted in Irish Names and Surnames (1923):

“It is only about the middle of the 12th century that we find the first instances of [the use of the name of Mary]in Europe, whither apparently it had been brought by the devotion of the crusaders. Even in Ireland, there were few Marys until comparatively recent times. I find only a few instances of the use of the name before the 17th century. At present one-fourth of the women of Ireland are named Mary. The ordinary form of the name, however, is Máire, Muire being used exclusively for the Blessed Virgin Mary, and, therefore, the most honoured of all names of women.”

The pronunciation of the form used as a given name, Máire, is variously given as MY-ra, MOY-ra, MAW-zhe, MAW-re, MEH-ree, and meh-REE depending on your source and dialect. It’s anglicized as Mary, Marie, Maria, Moira, Maura, and Maurya, and diminutives and pet forms in Irish include Maille, Mailse, Mailti, Mallaidh, and Mairin, while the diminutives and pet forms in English are May, Molly, Moll, Polly, Mamie, and Maureen. Having so many variations and nicknames make sense in light of the fact that Mary has been so popular in Ireland for so long—in 1864, for example, Mary was the number one name given to baby girls, nearly double that of the second-place name (Margaret) and making up a full 34% of the top ten girls’ names. By 2013, though, Mary had fallen to #81 in Ireland, mirroring the name’s decline in popularity in the U.S. as well. (source)

It’s also been popular in Ireland (and with Irish American families) to add Mary to another name to make a double name for girls—such girls might go by Mary or a nickname of it, or by the two names together (Mary Clare and Mary Kate are two combos that have a particularly Irish feel), or by their middle name exclusively (as is the case with my dad’s mom — Mary Loretta, but she went by Loretta — and four of my dad’s first cousins in his big Irish family, three of whom are sisters, all of whom have Mary as a first name but go by their middle names). Even boys were often given Mary as a second or third name—one famous bearer is Irish TV personality Gay Byrne, whose given name is Gabriel Mary Byrne. And non-Mary Marian names have a good history of use in Ireland too, like Carmel, Assumpta, and Immaculata—the latter two being listed as “Irish” on name site Behind the Name and the only Carmel I’ve ever known was the owner of a B&B I stayed at in Dublin.

One of the most fun discoveries I’ve made, as readers of my blog will know (I talk about it often over there!), is that there’s an old Irish given name, Maolmhuire, which means “servant of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” that was still in “common use as a baptismal name” at the turn of the twentieth century (Maelmarius is the Latin form). How great is that! Even more fun, it’s often anglicized as Miles, Myles, or Milo—how wonderful to have explicitly Marian, twenty-first-century-friendly names for boys! (source, source)

Marian names are some of my very favorites, and I love seeing such widespread use among Irish families. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: No matter your ethnicity or name taste, there’s a Mary variant that’s sure to work for you, and there’s no better patron for your little one to have.

I’d love to hear any stories you have of the use of the name Mary (girl or boy) in your families if you’re of Irish descent—and even if you’re not!

Copyright 2017 Kate Towne


About Author

Kate is a writer, wife to a really good man, and mama to their seven boys ages 1 to 15. She shares her thoughts on Catholic baby naming at Sancta Nomina, and her first book, Catholic Baby Names for Girls and Boys: Over 250 Ways to Honor Our Lady (Marian Press, 2018) can be found at ShopMercy.org and Amazon.


  1. I’m an adult convert. My family has been main-line protestant for centuries now. Even still, my grandmother was Mary Elizabeth and my husband’s grandmother (born in Ireland, Catholic) was Mary Margaret. Our daughter is Mary Catherine after the Blessed Virgin and also our grandmothers. Catherine is for St. Catherine of Sienna and also my sister. I love that we can work all of that meaning into one name! Her middle name is Solanus, after Bd. Solanus Casey (He was Irish!) .

  2. Michael Carrillo on

    In my genealogy research I have found the Mexican people are/were extremely devoted to the Blessed Virgin in naming their children, both girls and boys, after her, much like the Irish tradition. It is not unusual to see entry after entry in baptismal records of girls’ first names starting with Maria.

    I’m not so sure you could find two countries more devoted to Mary than Ireland and Mexico.

    Good article.

  3. I never got to meet my Grandma Mary, who died when my father was 19 (he was the youngest boy of nine children), but I have been learning what a faithful woman she was and feel certain my strong faith now is the result of her intercession. Also, my father wanted me to have the middle name Marie, which of course is the French form of Mary, and I am more appreciative of this each passing year. Our youngest son’s middle name is Patrick. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

  4. Thanks for this interesting article. In the recent past there were at least six prominent Marys in public life in Ireland at the same time: President Mary McAleese, who had succeeded President Mary Robinson, and a number of active politicians, Mary Harney, Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister), Mary Coughlan, who also served as Tánaiste, Mary O’Rourke and Mary Hanafin. These latter four were all members of the Dáil (Parliamen) and all held positions in the Cabinet.

    An Irish priest whom I met in England some years ago pointed out to me that Patrick was rarely if ever given as a name in Ireland until after Patrick Sarsfield, c.1660 to 1693. His father was also Patrick. And it is a fact that there are no prominent Patricks in Irish history before that. Wikipedia has an interesting article about the Irish surname ‘Fitzpatrick, which I have just discovered is not of Norman origin, as are most of the ‘Fitz’ family names).

    Sadly, the old practice in Ireland of passing on genuinely Christian names seems to be declining rapidly. I once met a priest from Newfoundland who traced the graves of ancestors and their relatives in an old cemetery, not by their surname, which was a common one, but by their Christian names, which had been passed on from generation to generation in Newfoundland.

    And many are now giving nicknames such as ‘Jack’ as given names instead of the proper name ‘John’. I must confess that this irritates me no end!

    Here in the Philippines, where I’ve been based for decades, names such as ‘Lourdes’ (LUREdays), Fatima, Guadalupe, Montserrat, are not unknown, particularly the first, very often given to a girl bron on or neard February 11. And there are many Carmens/Carmelitas/Carmelas, etc, not to mention ‘Carmelos/Carmelitos’ for boys, given especially to those born on or near July 16. And a common part of a given name for girls is ‘Ma.’, eg, ‘Ma.Lourdes’, the ‘Ma’ being shorthand for ‘Maria’.However, ‘Ma.’ is usually what appears on official documents.

    My late mother was named ‘Mary’ and she often pointed out to me that that was her only Christian name. almost everyone in Ireland is given two names, occasionally three.

    May our Blessed Mother and St Patrick obtain a renewal of faith for the Catholics of Ireland. We desperately need that grace.

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