About Names: Dr. Evans on the name “Sean”

“The actor Sean Astin giving a talk at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign” (Photo by Daniel Schwen, CC-BY-3.0)

Dr. Cleveland Evans writes about names for the Omaha World-Herald. In his January 28th column, he discusses the name “Sean”.

Happy birthday to Samwise Gamgee!

Actor Sean Astin, famed as Frodo’s heroic helper Sam in “The Lord of the Rings” films (2001-03) turns 53 today. His second most famous role is probably the title character in “Rudy” (1993), who achieves his dream to play Notre Dame football in the last game his senior year.

Seán’s an Irish form of John, from Hebrew “Yahweh is gracious.” When Christianity came to Ireland, John was translated “Eoin”, the form used in Gaelic language Bibles. Seán developed from French “Jean” after Normans settled in Ireland in the 12th century.

When Ireland’s English rulers suppressed Gaelic names, Seáns officially became “John.” Irish immigrants automatically translated Seán to John when speaking English, so it doesn’t reliably occur in United States censuses before 1900. One early example, Shawn MacMenamin, Irish born in 1904, lived with immigrant parents Brian and Alice in New York in 1910. He’s Shaun in 1920, but “John” when naturalized an American citizen in 1927.

Seán returned to official use in Ireland after 1900 among Irish nationalists. Two of Ireland’s greatest authors, playwright Sean O’Casey (1880-1964) and short story writer Seán Ó Faolaín (1900-1991), born John Casey and John Whelan, changed their names to support Ireland’s independence.

Highly educated artistic parents are first to revive names. The earliest census Sean with American parents was Sean Murphy (1924-2017), born in London to artists John J. A. and Cecil Murphy. Many museums feature John’s woodcuts. Sean became a Montreal ophthalmologist.

The first American-born Sean, Sean Burke (1926-2017), was born to physician J. Robert and wife Helen in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Sean, whose grandparents were all Irish-born, became a St. Petersburg, Florida, M.D.

Other Irish-Americans proud of their heritage followed the Murphys and Burkes. Sean entered the top thousand in 1943. Phonetic spellings Shawn and Shaun arrived in 1947 and 1950.