Every Tom, Dick And Harry

There are rites of passage in life. One of the great days is walking into the local registry office, all pumped up and proud to register your child’s birth. I have done that twice and my two sons have done that…my second “baby” did it today.

You might have done this yourself.

Twice a week, a registrar visits the maternity hospital. I am a traditionalist. It seems like a job for a daddy. The first real service we can do for our child. The last real service we can do for a parent is registering their death. I have done that twice. You might also have done that.

Naming a child is a big deal. Kunta Kinte in “Roots” knew this and even those godless Scandanavians have ceremonies to mark an important part of Life.

Names…are strange. Even at times …controversial….fashionable and unfashionable.

Back in the early 1960s there were fifty five (yes…count them! ) in my primary school class. And the teacher made a graph on the blackboard. There were nine pupils called “John”, seven called “Gerard”….and the rest “Joseph”, “Patrick”, “James”, “Anthony” etc….down to the single “Terence” and “Damian”. I doubt if there were more than twelve different names.

To clarify the single “Gerald” was listed as a “Gerard” and the single “Seán” was listed as “John”.

This of course was a Catholic primary school  in West Belfast. Typically these boys came from big families and in some of the larger households, these names pre-dominated. If you were not actually called “John”, there was a reasonable chance that you had a brother called “John”.

For those who are not familiar with West Belfast, there are a lot of people called “Gerard” and “Geraldine”. The Redemptorist Church at Clonard has a shrine to St Gerard Majella, associated with the safe delivery of a child.

For the record, the girls had a limited range of names. “Mary”, “Anne”, “Catherine”….occassionally “Marian” (effectively dating a child to the Marian Year in 1953 or 1954)….”Geraldine”, “Theresa” and the odd “Patricia”.

Names do tend to date people. “Martha”, “Maggie”, “Minnie” were all elderly neighbours in the 1960s.

While family names are often used as a guide to identify a person as a Catholic or Protestant, the same could be said for “Christian” names. I knew no “David”, “Andrew” who was Catholic. But there are of course exceptions….the occasional “George”, Elizabeth” and of course in a mixed street, there was obviously a fondness among Protestant families for “royal” names. And a strange Protestant thing where surnames were also forenames….eg “Carson”, “Sinclair” and “Johnston”.

Effectively Catholic children were registered twice. Once by the State and once by the Church. Thus “John” and “James” was the neutral version submitted to the State and often “Seán” and “Séamus” was the name on the Baptism certificate. Occasionally  brave parents called a child “Kevin” which was both Catholic and  (hinting) at nationalist sentiment. No point in making it easy for  future employers to throw a job application in the waste paper bin.

I was at grammar school before I ever met someone called “Eamonn”. Middle class parents from the suburbs had a greater sense of empowerment.

To some extent, the Catholic Church restricted the choice of names available. It was not simply about choosing the name of a recognised Saint. This made calling a child “Elvis” or “Ringo” difficult although I dont think anyone actually tried. But the Church was not entirely comfortable with pre-Christian Irish names like “Conor” and “Deirdre”.

Of course things DO change and in the 1960s things DID change. Few Catholics were  called “Paul” prior to the election pf Pope Paul VI. Likewise there are few if any people called “John Paul” who pre-date the Pope of the same name. The popularity of the forename “Ryan” owes everything to Ryan O’Neal and Peyton Place.

Yet beyond the State and Church, the most important Gatekeeper was the Family. Certainly, in my day, children were named for parents, grandparents and aunties and uncles. Lets be honest….in West Belfast, we all know a “Big Paddy” and a “Wee Paddy”, “Big Mary” and “Wee Mary” and the rest….and inevitably “Wee Tommy” is bigger than “Big Tommy”.

The Troubles DID empower Catholics/Nationalists to choose established Irish names. In the 1970s, names like “Conor”, “Fearghal”, “Aoife” and “Clodágh” entered the mainstream. But as they became more accepted, parents looked for more uncommon names in the 21st century. That is really the big difference in the last fifty years. There was a certain comfort in handing down names theu the generations. But now people want  their child’s name to be unique.

Well of course, a name can never be completely unique but in the limited context of family, neighbourhood and school, it can be almost unique.

The welcome development is that “John”, “Gerard”, “James” from 1966 can now openly refer to themselves as “Seán”, “Gearóid”, and “James”. We all probably know a “Rose” who is now defiantly “Roisín”
I know a “Prionsais” who is still “our Frank” to his mammy.

…and whether its empowerment or Sinn Féin-influenced spoofery….who knows?
Whether the person, you used to know as “Martin” is empowering himself as “Máirtín” or is just spoofing….only you can answer.

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3 Responses to Every Tom, Dick And Harry

  1. benmadigan says:

    “There was a certain comfort in handing down names through the generations” –
    Anthropological studies have shown that repeating neames in the family over generations was a clan thing all over Europe (and maybe elsewhere?) originating far back in time. The individual e.g.John Kelly didn’t matter. What mattered was the continuation of John Kelly’s family line with sons, grandsons, great-grandsons carrying the same name, who were easily identifiable as belonging to that family and who were reputed, whether true or not, to carry family traits – good and bad.

    “But now people want their child’s name to be unique”
    Society has shifted its emphasis from the family clan to the individual and individualisation, as can be seen in many areas of life.

  2. Wolfe tone says:

    Time has moved on; I recently learned of a kid called Elvis. I kid you not. I blame the X factor!

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