Irish name of the week: Niamh

From pronunciation and meaning to fun facts and mythology, here’s a look at our Irish name of the week: Niamh.

Irish name of the week: Niamh

If your name is Niamh, you probably have had a life filled with pronunciation frustrations. Maybe you call yourself Eve on holiday, no one ever spells your name right on Christmas cards, and you’re a constant source of amazement to American tourists.

Honestly forget about getting a keyring with your name on it. The Nicoles and Naomis of this world will never know the pain.

Don’t worry, we’re here to give you some background on one of the oldest and most popular Irish names around. Despite all the confusion, it’s still a pretty cool name to have. Learn more about our Irish name of the week below.

Meaning, pronunciation, and anglicisation

Niamh traditionally means “brightness and radiance”. Not to be confused with Naomh, a different name meaning “saint”.

Niamh is pronounced “neeve”, with the letters “mh” producing a “v” sound in Irish. Over the water in England the name has become popular as “Neve”, with spelling variants “Nieve” or “Neave”.

Niamh in mythology

Niamh of Tír na nÓg depicted at the Wild Lights at Dublin Zoo in January 2020
Niamh of Tír na nÓg depicted at the Wild Lights at Dublin Zoo in January 2020 (Credit: @stinacoll / Twitter)

Niamh is basically the Elsa of Irish mythology. She is known as Niamh Cinn-Óir, meaning Niamh of Golden Hair in Irish. She’s beautiful, strong, and mysterious and has links with magic and faeries. She is also the daughter of Manannán mac Lir, the god of the sea, and rides a white magical horse called Enbarr.

She rules over the land of Tír na nÓg (the land of youth), and the story in which she features most is “Oisín in Tír na nÓg” from the Ossianic/Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology.

Niamh spotted Oisín from across the sea, a young warrior who was a part of the Fianna. They swiftly fell in love, and Niamh whisked him off to the land of Tír na nÓg so they could be young and in love together forever. They lived happily for 300 years in the faerie land.

After some time, however, a small part of Oisín longed to see Ireland and his family again. Niamh loaned Oisín her horse with the warning that should his feet touch Irish soil he would never be able to return to Tír na nÓg.

Oisín and Niamh on their way to Tír na nÓg, illustrated by Albert Herter, 1899
Oisín and Niamh on their way to Tír na nÓg, illustrated by Albert Herter, 1899

Upon his return, Oisín found his childhood home covered in moss and his family long buried. Some men in his village informed him that the Fianna were only childhood stories told to them by their grandfathers. Oisín offered to help them as they were struggling to move a stone and fell from his horse in the process.

The minute he touched the ground, he aged the 300 years he had spent with Niamh in Tír na nÓg, and their love story had a tragic end.

In the medieval version of the story, Niamh is the daughter of the King of Munster, Aengus Tírech. She elopes with Oisín to Ulster where they spent six weeks together. Tragically the story ends with her death as her father arrived with an army in tow.

The first official account of Niamh in Tír na nÓg was in a poem by Mícheál Coimín around 1750. The poem is thought to be based on traditional material that has been lost or destroyed over the years. The first recorded use of the name was in 1910!

Famous Niamhs

Niamh Kavanagh is a famous singer
Niamh_Kavanagh (Credit: Daniel Kruczynski)

There are some famous Niamhs across many different industries both in Ireland and overseas. Here are some Niamh’s you might have heard of.

Niamh Kavanagh is a famous Irish singer from Dublin and was the Irish winner of the Eurovision Song Contest in 1993 when it was held in Millstreet, County Cork. She sang the song “In Your Eyes” and also represented Ireland in 2010.

Niamh Walsh is an Irish actress from County Wicklow, best known for her role as Cara Martinez in Holby City (2015-2016).

Niamh Walsh is a famous actres
Niamh Walsh

Niamh Briggs from County Waterford was the captain of the female Irish rugby team when they won the Six Nations title in 2015.

Some fictional Niamhs include Niamh Quigley in the BBC Television programme Ballykissangel and Niamh Connolly in Channel 4 TV series Father Ted. There is also a ship named LÉ Niamh (P52) in the Irish Naval Service. Pretty cool, right?

Niamh Memes

Niamh has been the subject of jokes on Twitter
Source: Twitter

Now that all the educational stuff is out of the way, time for some memes. In the last few years, the name Niamh has featured in a few memes on Facebook and Twitter. Due to its growing popularity in England and America, many are baffled by its Irish pronunciation.

Niamh has been the subject of jokes on Twitter
Source: Twitter

All jokes aside, names such as our Irish name of the week are slowly bringing traditionally spelt Irish names onto the scene alongside anglicised Irish names with a global impact such as Patrick. Keeping its original Irish spelling, rather than using the anglicised Neve, is a good way to educate the world on our language and mythology, so that the world can know how rich and unique our culture here in Ireland is.

By Niamh Wallace from booksarebrainfood.org