Feb 27, 2023Liked by Peter McLaughlin

How about the Chinese tendency to have a totally new name in English (I know a Chao-Yang who is also a Betty)? Is there a type of cultural exclusivity going on with Irish names as a way of identifying ‘tribe’ members?

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Yes, I think a certain kind of cultural exclusivity is what's going on here, but (a) it's a historical exclusivity - it's a practice inherited from earlier generations which has lost some of the meaning that used to be attached to it - and (b) it was less about identification of other Irish people as it was about signalling your own commitment to Irish culture.

I think the relevant difference is that the Chinese tradition of dual naming emerges out of dual linguistic contexts: historically, people would have been (e.g.) Chao-Yang while speaking Mandarin / Hokkien / Cantonese / etc., but Betty while speaking English. Even if your acquaintance is monolingually English, as a lot of nth-generation Chinese people are, that is (I believe) where the tradition comes from. By contrast, the modern practice of giving your kids Irish names is largely a product of a monolingual English-speaking context.

Many of these names are, while old, in another sense very new: they had vanished into complete non-existence by the nineteenth century, largely replaced among the Catholic population by a tradition of giving your children saints' names. And while the Irish-speaking population gave their kids the Irish names of the saints (Peadar, Pádraig, Máire, etc.), if you only spoke English - as increasing numbers of Irish people did - you knew the saints by their English names. Hence why my grandparents are Michael, Mary, Michael again, and Catherine Patricia.

Only in the twentieth century did older non-saintly Irish names reappear, as part of a quite explicit attempt to recapture some of the 'lost' Irish culture that had been destroyed by the English. A great example is Éamon de Valera, who was born Edward but changed his name to signal national pride. (Éamon is not, in fact, the Irish version of the name Edward; de Valera spoke such poor Irish that it's probably impossible to know if this was deliberate.) This was pioneered by Irish nationalists in the early years of the century, and then spread across the whole population in the postwar years, hence why my parents have the names Cathal and Maureen (which is a relatively recent Anglicisation of Máirín).

But then, by that point, these names had become so common that people were just aware of them as names, and began to give them to their children because they sounded pretty, rather than out of any nationalistic sentiment. This applies especially to girls' names like Aoife and Niamh, which now have essentially zero political or cultural connotations, they're just popular because parents like them.

(None of this applies to actual Irish speakers, who have always given their children Irish names, because that's just the language they speak!)

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Fascinating! I don't have anything to add, except to wonder if other cultures have nominative determinism.

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