Dr. Cleveland Evans writes about names for the Omaha World-Herald. In his June 20th column, he looks at the history of the name Brian.
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Brian is the Irish form of ancient Celtic Brigonos, probably meaning “high, noble.” Irish king Brian Boru’s forces defeated the Vikings of Dublin at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. Though Brian died in battle, he became the hero of Ireland’s struggle against foreign domination.
In the 10th century, Norse kings of Dublin also ruled York in northern England. They adopted Brian from the Irish and took it to York. Celtic-speaking knights from Brittany came to southern England with Norman invaders in 1066, introducing the name there. Though Brian died out as a first name in England outside of Yorkshire, it lasted long enough to establish Bryan as a common English surname.
The English rulers of Ireland suppressed the name, and the Irish turned to Barney and Bernard as substitutes. A few Irish immigrants went back to Brian after arriving in America. The 1850 census found 855 Bryans and 264 Brians, with 30% of the Bryans and 57% of the Brians born in Ireland.
Many Bryans had no direct Irish connection, being part of the general fashion for turning surnames into given names. Bryan boomed as a first name when Nebraska’s William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) became the Democratic nominee for president in 1896, shooting up 330% in one year to rank 157th. The name peaked again in 1900 and 1908 during Bryan’s other presidential runs.