Origin: Hebrew; Finnish; Russian; Sanskrit
Hebrew Meaning: fear of God; watchful; making bare; pointing out
Sanskrit Meaning: various
Finnish meaning: a diminutive offshoot of Irene.
Russian meaning: a diminutive offshoot of Irenej/Irina
Pronunciation: I-rah; EE-rah
Gender: Hebrew: Male; Russian: unisex; Sanskrit: Unisex; Finnish: Female
The name is cross-cultural and can either be male or female depending on the language it stems from.
It is found in the Old Testament/Torah as the name of 2 minor characters. It was the name of King David’s High Priest or chief minister, and also the name of one of King David’s mighty warriors. In its Hebrew context, Ira’s meaning is debated. I mostly found sources stating the name means “watchful,” but there have been no Hebrew sources I could find establishing this. A modern Hebrew dictionary lists the word ירא (ira) as meaning “fearful” and also “a person who fears the lord,” as well as “respectful;” and “venerating.” Hitchcock Bible Names listed several other possible meanings as listed above. Wikipedia has listed the name as also possibly meaning “wild ass,” but again, I could find no other sources supporting the latter claim.
Its use as male given name in the English-speaking world started to sporadically occur both in England and in the United States in the 17th-century. The name has always been mainly used by Russian-Jewish families, and not until the late 1800s when the U.S. and England experienced mass immigration of Russian-Jews. The few records that do occur in the 17th-century were mostly likely of Protestant Christians.
As for other Jewish communities, it doesn’t seem to have ever been popular. There is some record for Ira’s use among Medieval Middle Eastern Jews, but among Medieval Western and Southern European Jews, there is no record of it ever being used, or at least none that I can find. It seems to have become common in the late 19th-century, specifically among Russian and Polish-Jews, possibly due to its similarity to the Polish diminutive male name Irek (dim. of Ireneusz) and the Russian male diminutive Ira (dim. of Irenej). Early Russian-American Jews often anglicized the name as Irving, though these two names have no etymological relation.
The name can also be a Finnish female name (pronounced EE-rah), which is a diminutive form of Iriina, and has long been in use as an independent name.
In Sanskrit, depending on the script used, the name can be associated with the Sanskrit word ईर (wind) (masculine), and is associated with the Hindu god, Vayu.
According to Hindu legend, Ira is the name of one of the 62 daughters of Daksha and was married to the sage Kashyaba. It is uncertain which Sanskrit source this particular name relates to.
It is also used as another name for the Goddess Sarasvati and is perhaps related to the Sanskrit feminine word इरा (earth).
A notable bearer of the name was American lyricist, Ira Gershwin, whose birth name was actually Israel.
In the United States, the name has been in and of the U.S. Top 1000 Most Popular Male Names since the 1900s. It peaked at 101 in 1900 and fell off the charts in 1992. It recently re-emerged and is currently the 950th most popular male name in the United States.