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Genealogy Tips & Quips




The Importance of Being Earnest

Finding Clues in Your Ancestors' Names

Like dates, names can also lead you down the right or wrong paths in genealogical research. I was two years into my Irish ancestry research when I stumbled upon an important discovery that helped me break through a brick wall and locate my Coffey family in Ireland.


The Irish traditionally adhered to a family naming pattern until the early 1900s. The first son was named after the father’s father. The second son after the mother’s father. The third son after the father. The fourth son after the father’s oldest brother. The fifth son after the father’s second oldest brother, and so on down the line through fifteen kids. The daughters were named in the same pattern after the maternal side of the family. It’s critical to know where in order each child was born, both living and dead. When a child died, his or her name was often used again for the next-born son or daughter. This demonstrates just how important it was to pass down family names and how confusing it can get for genealogists.


Knowing my Patrick Coffey’s children’s names and ages provided me with his parents’ and brothers’ names, enabling me to search Ireland’s records and cemeteries to eventually locate his family. Even though Patrick, James, and John were common Irish names, I could rule out other Coffey clans with names such as Hugh, William, and Matthew.


The naming pattern isn’t an exact science. If the pattern resulted in a duplication of names, such as both grandfathers having had the same name, then the parents skipped to the next name on the list. Personal reasons also came into play. A mother might not have wanted to name a child after her abusive father.

It can become a game of mental gymnastics, putting together the pieces of the naming puzzle. However, it can be critical in tracing your family tree. Luckily, my Coffeys strictly adhered to the naming pattern, or I’d never have found my family in Ireland. Even if the pattern was loosely followed, names had personal meanings and weren’t randomly selected as they often are today. You just have to determine what role the names played in the family.


While transcribing five weathered Coffey tombstones in an Irish cemetery, I saw the family naming pattern put into practice going back five generations. Each stone memorialized numerous family members, including several maiden names and a few unknown names.


The Scottish and British followed the same or a similar naming pattern as the Irish. Many nationalities adhered to family naming patterns. Did yours?


Read Genealogy Tip 3


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