Cultural diversity in Dublin and Dun Laoghaire a century ago

Dylan Connor, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University

Dun Laoghaire has long been a distinctive blip on the Irish cultural landscape. Not only is the area notable for its mixture of Catholics and Protestants but it remains a place of astounding wealth inequality. This is, perhaps, best illustrated by the numerous working class and publicly built housing estates situated just over the hill from the lavish Killiney residences of Bono, The Edge, Enya, and others. Speaking last year on the Ballybrack-based podcast What’s the Story?, PJ Gallagher summarized the peculiarity of the area by remarking that “every walk of life is down there in Dun Laoghaire, every kind of fucker that ever walked the planet.” Writing in The Irish Times, David McWilliams recently argued that this diversity has contributed to Dun Laoghaire being a trailblazer for social liberalism in modern Ireland. Thus, Dun Laoghaire is cast as an island of diversity and liberalism at the edge of the Irish Sea. In this post, I examine the deep roots of this distinctiveness.

Over last eight years, I have used the historical censuses of Ireland (available online from the National Archives of Ireland) to use the Irish past as a laboratory from which to examine how places affect human behavior and life chances. Understanding the deep roots of a place like Dun Laoghaire is challenging, however, as scientific data on how people think and behave (particularly for the past) are rare. I have been exploring one potentially productive avenue in this direction – how people name their children – which could shed light on the historical distinctiveness of Dun Laoghaire.

How you name your child is one of the longest lasting and most personal decisions you make in life. Unlike surnames, which are inherited, people can exercise a wide range of choice in the first names they give their children. Sons and daughters are named after well-liked friends and family members, people reveal religious inclinations by choosing biblical names, they express individualism by choosing unusual names, and often, parents just pick what sounds good in the moment. As the historical censuses of Ireland list the names and addresses of people across the country, they provide an unparalleled opportunity to investigate who was naming their children what at the turn of the last century.

Although there are over 28,000 distinct first names reported in the online 1901 Census of Ireland, 80% of the population had one of the top 60 names. The wordcloud (above) lists the most common names of children under the age of 12 in Ireland at the time. The size of the name represents popularity, and the colors indicate whether a name was mainly Catholic (green) or Protestant/Jewish (purple). With roughly one in five girls holding the name, Mary was the most common first name in the country in 1901. People, therefore, generally seemed to pick their children’s names from a short list. I investigate whether people in Dun Laoghaire a century ago were distinct in giving their children unusual names (names held by less than 100 people across the country as a whole).

In 1901, Dun Laoghaire was not the place it is today. To examine what we might now think of as the greater Dun Laoghaire area, I focused on the Dublin sections of the Rathdown Poor Law Union, which encompassed present-day Blackrock, Dun Laoghaire, Dalkey, Killiney, Ballybrack and Shankhill. Descriptive statistics reveal that even in 1901, Rathdown was different from the rest of the county. Only 69% of people in the area were Catholic (78% for the rest of Dublin). The barchart shows that Rathdown also had relatively large shares of both laborers and professional workers, highlighting that greater Dun Laoghaire has a history of being class diverse.

The information on how parents were naming their children is particularly intriguing. Specifically, professional households in Dun Laoghaire were over 30% more likely to choose unusual names for their children than professional household elsewhere. To add to the intrigue, the sons and daughters of laborers, irrespective of whether they grew up in Dun Laoghaire, had quite common names. Thus, professionals in Dun Laoghaire appear to have been particularly distinct from their counterparts elsewhere.

How do we explain this tendency? Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of this pattern is explained by the fact that Dun Laoghaire had more Protestants (Protestants had more distinct names on average). What is more surprising, however, is that the data show that professional Catholic families living in Dun Laoghaire also appear to give their children distinct names. Thus, the story is not simply one of religious or class differences in naming.

This naming tendency among professionals in Rathdown is evident in the household of James and Annie Hoey, who were living on Upper Georges Street in Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) in 1901. James, a Catholic police constable, had a son named Herbert and daughters named Vera and Olive. As each of these names (Vera, Olive and Herbert) were quite uncommon in the city at the time, unusual naming appears to have been concentrated among numerous children within the same family.

Is this story of unusual naming broader than Dun Laoghaire? In the scatterplot, I graph the share of Catholic children under the age of 12 who have an unusual first name and a professional father. For every area in Dublin, I plot this share against the percentage of Catholics living in these same areas. This allows an assessment of whether Catholics who lived near Protestants tended to give their children more unusual names.  The strong downward relationship indicates that Catholics with Protestant neighbors were, indeed, giving their children more unusual names. Conversely, Catholics with more Catholic neighbors tended to give their children more common names. This graph illustrates this by showing places like Killiney, Blackrock, Clontarf and Rathmines to have both smaller Catholic population shares and Catholic children with more unusual names. Less than 60% of the people in Clontarf West, for example, were Catholic, and 15% of the children of Catholic professionals had unusual names. Places like Donabate, Rathcoole and Mountjoy, in contrast, were largely Catholic and Catholic children also tended to have more common names. We should be cognizant that this comparison is focused solely on professionals living in different areas of the city. Thus, it is unlikely that class difference is the main explanation here.

In short, Catholics living near Protestants named their children more distinctly than Catholics elsewhere. Having neighbors from different backgrounds likely provided opportunities for parents to pick up names they may not have considered otherwise. It may also be the case that the distinct social environments of places liked Dun Laoghaire permitted forms of liberal expression (such as choosing non-traditional names) that were curtailed in more traditionally Catholic places. Historical distinctiveness in something as (seemingly) idiosyncratic as child naming, and the area’s persistence as one of the most progressive constituencies in the country, implies that Dun Laoghaire’s tendency to break with tradition may have deep historical roots.

 

Note on author: Dylan Connor holds a PhD from the University of California, Los Angles (UCLA) and is an Assistant Professor at the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University. His work focuses on inequality in the United States and the economic and demographic history of Ireland (articles listed below).

  • Connor, D. S. (2019). The cream of the crop? Geography, networks, and Irish migrant selection in the age of mass migration. The Journal of Economic History, 79(1), 139-175.
  • Connor, D. S. (2018). Class Background, Reception Context, and Intergenerational Mobility: A Record Linkage and Surname Analysis of the Children of Irish Immigrants. International Migration Review, 0197918318806891.
  • Connor, D. S. (2017). Poverty, religious differences, and child mortality in the early twentieth century: The case of Dublin. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 107(3), 625-646.
  • Connor, D., Mills, G., & Moore-Cherry, N. (2011). The 1911 Census and Dublin city: A spatial analysis. Irish Geography, 44(2-3), 245-263.
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