Irish Names for Grandmother (Formal and Informal)

irish grandmother and granddaughter
Michelle McCarron / Getty Images

My readers seem to be uncommonly interested in the Irish name for a grandmother. I know that around a tenth of Americans claim Irish ancestry, but the Irish language is seldom heard on this side of the Atlantic, and it is being used less and less in Ireland.

Irish Names for Grandmother

I guess that's why few people know that the Irish or Gaelic word for grandmother is seanmháthair ((shan a WAW her), literally meaning "old mother." Alternate spellings include seanmhair, seanmathair and sean mathair.

 This term would not be used to directly address a grandparent. Children would use instead Maimeó (MAM o) or Móraí (MO ree).

Other Irish terms for grandmother include máthair mhór (maw her aWOR), meaning "great mother," and máthair chríona (MAW her KHREE un na). Máthair chríona is often alleged to mean "mother of the heart," but it is more accurately translated as "wise mother." (The confusion arises because "croi" means "heart," but "crionna" means "wise, prudent.")

Máthair mhór and máthair chríona fall into the formal category like seanmháthair, but they are more affectionate terms and are sometimes shortened to create a grandparent nickname. One of my readers said that her family shortened máthair chríona to Cree to make it more child-friendly.

Irish names for grandparents have not been widely adopted by the non-Irish, as the German Oma or the Italian Nonna have been, probably due to the difficulties of spelling and pronunciation.

In fact, most Irish children call their grandmothers Granny, Grandma, or Nana, sometimes spelled Nanna. Nana seems to be the most popular choice. 

The formal term for a great-grandmother is sin-seanmháthair. The Irish word for granddaughter is gariníon (gar in EE in). Grandson is garmhac (gar aWOK).

Irish Family Culture

Extended families are important in Irish life, but in a way that is somewhat different from many other cultures. Children are often named after a grandparent, and the family matriarch — usually a grandmother — has a great deal of authority and influence. This matriarch often takes on the role of "kin-keeper," coordinating communication between family members and arranging family gatherings. In fact, much of the communication in Irish families is indirect, with a third party passing on information rather than the parties involved talking directly to each other.

In general, Irish families are not especially close or confiding. Many Irish families do not turn to their relatives in times of trouble. Instead, they may experience shame if the extended family finds out about their difficulties.They are more likely to turn to close friends or neighbors, with whom sharing goods and services is a time-honored way of coping with economic needs. 

Irish grandparents value staying independent and active. Many of them live alone rather than with family members. When elderly individuals do require care, their caregivers are usually family members.

Children are much loved in Ireland, and most residents have a tolerant attitude toward little ones' shenanigans.

Discipline is usually reserved for older children. 

Marriage in Ireland is somewhat of a different animal, too. The average age of marriage is 33 for women and 35 for men, much later than in most of the world. That means that young grandparents are relatively rare in Ireland.

Divorce, which was not legal until 1995, is still relatively rare, probably in part to the fact that the process is drawn-out and expensive. These two factors combine to make blended families somewhat unusual. Less than 3% of Irish children live with a stepparent. That means that stepgrandparents are quite rare, too. Cohabitation without the benefit of marriage is quite common, and civil partnerships have been recognized since 2010.

Grandparents Day in Ireland

Although there is no official National Grandparents Day in Ireland, a celebration has evolved in conjunction with the predominant Catholic faith.

 Grandparents are honored on one day of Catholic Schools Week, which begins on the last Sunday of each January.

In addition, every year many Irish grandparents make a pilgrimage to pray for their grandchildren. The pilgrimage was originally held in England but was moved to Ireland when its founder, Catherine Wiley, moved to that country. The first few pilgrimages were to the National Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham in the County of Norfolk in England. In 2007 it was moved to Knock Shrine, County Mayo, Ireland. Over 10,000 grandparents make the pilgrimage, according to the Catholic Grandparents Association. An additional feature of the pilgrimage is that Irish children are encouraged to write prayers for their grandparents, which the grandparents can carry to the shrine.

In 2008 Pope Benedict XVI wrote a special grandparents prayer that Irish grandparents may use in their religious celebrations. 

Learn More

Learn the Irish name for grandfather.

Go to the list of ethnic names for grandmothers or to a comprehensive list of grandmother names, or go to a page where you can hear the pronunciation of seanmháthair.