Thinking of names

Mar 2nd, 2011 | By | Category: Personal Columns

We sat discussing Irish names over a mug of tea this afternoon.  Memories came of an undertaker who knew his market well.  To his Protestant clients, he was Rourke, to Catholics he was O’Rourke.  Look in the telephone directory, and he appeared under both names.

A friend passing through a Catholic village one morning, stopped her car to allow a funeral cortege to pass.  The undertaker walked ahead of the hearse, dressed immaculately in top hat, claw hammer coat and sponge bag trousers. Spying the friend, he tipped his hat and said, “O’Rourke today”.

A flexibility of names seems common.  Sean may be John according to his context and O’s may be dropped or retained for convenience.  Pat O’Connor, a onetime neighbour, said there were simply too many O’Connors in the parish and enough Pat O’Connors to cause confusion, so he he styled himself Pat Connor.

Sometimes the Gaelicisation of names appears calculated to confuse outsiders.  Our accountant in Dublin, a fluent Irish speaker, becomes infuriated at public servants who live every day under one name but use complex Gaelic forms when acting in an official capacity.

There is a temptation at times to adopt what appears to be a long established local custom and to adapt my surname according to my inclination.

‘Poulton’ is a toponymic, a placename, probably derived from a town in Lancashire, although there are other possibilities.

Once when attending a liturgy for a local community group, I was asked my name by the chairman of the group. ‘Poulton’, I said, ‘north of Blackpool; Lancastrian’.

‘We’re neighbours’, he said, ‘I’m Fleetwood’.

I know a Preston and I met an Oldham, and there are a few Boltons and Blackburns around.  It would not take long to cover much of the county.

A toponymic was not part of your name; it was simply a statement of where you were from, so as to distinguish you from others with similar Christian names.

In a report on legal proceedings on 17th December 1326 at Lichfield Cathedral, concerning a dispute on the tithes of a parish, ‘of’ appears frequently.  It being Norman times, ‘of’ was still ‘de’.

Lichfield Cathedral, continued from 16 Dec.
1. Prior and Convent of St. Thomas the Martyr of Order of St. Augustine, by their Proctor, Brother Henry de Wasteneys, canon.
2. (a) Robert de Marchumleye, Master of Hospital of Wych Malbanc, by his Proctor Nicholas Pollard, clerk; and
(b) William de Prayers, priest, Richard de Dodingcton […] , Richard de Prayers and Ralph le Taylour, laymen of diocese of Coventry and Lichfield by their Proctor John de Poulton.
Process heard before Philip de Turvill in dispute concerning tithes of place called Oxebruggehay in parish of ALDELYME [Audlem, co. Chester] claimed by Prior and Convent, following receipt (recited) of Pope John XXII dated 29 June 1325. Referring also to the churches of STOWE BY CHARTLEY, CAVERSWALL and MAER which the Prior and Convent also hold to their own uses.
Witnesses to the proceedings William de Norton, John Blaby chaplains, Robert de Egynton, William called Fust, clerk of Lichfield and others.
Notary’s Mark of Adam called Le Wodeward, clerk, of Coventry and Lichfield diocese, Apostolic Notary.

John de Poulton, my namesake; eight hundred years later, would he simply be ‘Poulton’? Would the point of geographical reference be lost?  Probably.

The ‘de’ prefix seems now confined to those who claim descent from prominent Norman families. But in an Ireland that allows a much greater fluidity of names than the more official England, what is there to prevent its restoration?

There seems a certain cachet in a prefixed names. Like the undertaker passing his friend, I could nod and say, “de Poulton today!”


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  1. “O’Rourke today” – I love it. I knew of a family in Co Tipp who were referred to as the Ryan Smalls, the small was to denote stature since Ryans were ten a penny in the area. My maternal grandmother’s ancestors came from Athboy in Co Meath and bore the name D’Arcy. Granny loved to accentuate the ‘Arcy’ with a giggle. You seldom here of that name now, perhaps they all use Darcy.

  2. When I was a student at the LSE in the early 80s, I received a maintenance grant from Somerset County Council. The grant came from a man whose surname was de Ath!

  3. On a slightly different track, I am teaching some travellers from the same family all named Tony; Tony Boy, Tony Black and Tony White (on account of their hair colour) Their father/uncle and grandfather are Tony’s too.

  4. And how about Hardy with Tess d’ Urberville – what a tale that is.

  5. d’ and de in Ireland are abbreviations of ‘the’; as in D’Unbelievables and the barber’s shop in Mountrath which has a sign above the door saying ‘De Barber’s’!

  6. I like the adaptable name idea. Would it work for O’Bama I wonder?

  7. The Gaelicisation of Obama prompted an indignant reaction in the columns of the Irish Times!

  8. Tess d’ Urberville – it wouldn’t make sense, the novel is called Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Tess of the the Urbervilles would just be nonsense!

  9. Nonsense is OK, viz. Flann O’Brien, ‘At Swim Two Birds’.

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