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Mary Kenny: 'I wish I had been called Persephone'

When the outgoing set of Government ministers had its souvenir snapshot with the President, there were four Marys in the picture: Marys Hanafin, Coughlan, Harney and An Uachtarán herself, McAleese.

For the umpteenth time, I thought, if I had my life over again, that is the first thing that I would do: change my Christian name. With the greatest respect to all, Mary is just about the most unoriginal name a girl can have.

Technically, you can't really change your Christian name because that is your own given, particular name. But you can certainly use a different name from your baptismal name (or forename, for those not baptised).

The German playwright Bertolt Brecht was christened Eugen, but he thought that sounded too posh and called himself Bert. Edna O'Brien's first baptismal name was Josephine, but her middle name has a much better ring to it. And as everyone knows, John Wayne's first name was Marion, although again, with all due respects, John is hardly the most unusual of forenames either.

Although I knew that Marys Hanafin, Coughlan, Harney and McAleese distinguished themselves on the Irish political scene -- Mary Banotti wrote a beguiling book about the Mary political phenomenon, 'There's Something About Mary' -- it was still something of a jolt to see this flutter of Marys gathered together for the final Cabinet shot.

It was almost a semiotic flag that Ireland is still a Catholic country, and certainly may still be called a Marian one. And I was surprised, as I was with the dazzling rise of Mary Byrne, the Ballyfermot chanteuse, that Mary remains such a prominent name in Irish public life.

When I was at school, the landscape was dominated by Marys. You felt that half the class were called Mary, so that children had to be addressed with the added patronymic, as in a Russian play. "Mary Brophy, Mary Cassidy, Mary Donnelly, Mary Fogerty, Mary Inglis, Mary Kenny..." The playwright Mary O'Malley even wrote a comic play in which, quite plausibly, every girl in a convent school was called Mary. In Mary Banotti's boarding school, in a specialised class of 11 girls, six were Marys.

Did it not occur to parents that it can be rather unkind to give a daughter the same name that every other girl-child will possess? It is reckoned that part of Vincent Van Gogh's madness came from the fact that he'd had an older brother who died, who was also called Vincent, and the extreme tactlessness of Mr and Mrs Van Gogh in calling one child by the name of another sadly lost had a devastating impact on the artist.

But I think it does occur to younger parents today that they should bestow on their little one a name that will give them a sense of individuality, and the names currently given to babies are indeed more varied. Since Christian doctrine insists that every human being is completely unique -- a claim well supported by DNA research -- it is surely as much an affirmation of faith to name a child Chelsea or Cruz as it is to tag them with Mary or John.

The Pope has weighed into this debate and has suggested -- perhaps with an eye to Mr and Mrs Beckham's manifest fertility -- that couples stop giving their children silly celebrity names and go back to the Christian classics. I'd still rather have been called Chianti or Sienna.

I find it refreshing to read, in birth announcements, that infants born today are being accorded greater individuality, with names such as Ciara and Zoe, Isabelle and Ruairi, Cillian and Katya, and, as it happens, most of these do appear in the Book of Saints. Even the trendy Zak is just a reinvention of the Old Testament Zachariah.

Previously, parents felt they had to name a child after someone in the family -- a dynastic urge, rather than a spiritual one -- whereas today, parents feel children should have a name which signals that the child itself is special. I was named Mary for no better reason than that it was my grandmother's name, but if I had my time again, I'd have called myself Persephone.

When the London buses carried an advertising banner proclaiming "There is only one Maeve", I thought how enlightened Binchy's parents were not to christen her Mary, Bridget or Eileen. Dr Greer's Catholic parents, similarly, had the imagination to honour an obscure French shepherdess who died from scrofula, calling their daughter Germaine.

I was pleased to receive a message from a Dublin schoolteacher a little while ago saying that there was now only one child named Mary in the school. If Mary becomes unusual enough then it will indeed revert to implying the specialness that once invoked the Mother of God, but when nearly everyone is called Mary, it's like being a Moonie, where everyone is married in impersonal mass ceremonies.

How different life might have been had I been called Persephone! And yet, there is this consoling thought. Mary Banotti's collection of political Marys were a spirited lot: Robinson, Henry, Coughlan, Harney, Wallace, White, McAleese, Geoghegan-Quinn and (Mary Lou) McDonald. Having such a common name hadn't held them back.

Could it be that Marys, being denied a unique moniker, have to try harder? We shall see how many Marys the next Oireachtas will return.

Weekend Magazine