Tuesday 25 June 2019

Kevin Myers: Other than life, death, rags and riches, what's in a name?

Kevin Myers

A US scholar has just confirmed what most intelligent people suspected: the enduring nature of the impact of the Norman Conquest on England.

Gregory Clark, of the University of California, tracked Norman (Percy, Darcy, Mandeville) names and Anglo-Saxon names (Smith, Shepherd) through probate records, from 1858 to 2011. He found that people with Norman names were on average at least 10pc richer than those with aboriginal 'English' names.

A comparable survey at Trinity College Dublin showed that Fine Gael TDs are disproportionately more likely to have Anglo-Norman surnames -- again, this comes as no major surprise. Our ancient origins can leave a far greater imprint on us than we usually care to admit, and the social residues might remain in our conduct, just as herds of sheep continue to leap over the part of the field where there once stood a now-levelled hedge.

Take the ubiquitous little English laugh, which litters the conversations of the lower middle-classes:

"Oh I do like a scone with my tea in the morning," (polite little laugh).

(Polite laugh) "Oh so do I."

"Oh I know," (more polite tinkles of laughter).

You'll hardly ever get this in a dramatic representation of English speech, because most English playwrights probably don't notice it. It is simply unrecorded linguistic furniture.

However, it is so class-based that I suspect that it is in fact a subconscious supplication, from an insecure middle class making reassuring semi-simian noises of conciliation to those above them in the hierarchy. That is to say, it is rising Anglo-Saxon serfs making deliberately reassuring vocal gestures to their Norman masters. Working-class English people don't do it, and upper-middle-class people absolutely do not it. Only those sandwiched in the uncertain realms of the English middle classes have that little laugh.

The social hierarchy that exists in England is vaguely similar to that in Ireland; both bear the imprint of a Norman Conquest. Of course, other conquests followed here, in which the Anglo-Norman classes lost most of their old privileges, especially if they remained true to the Old Church. But even then, they remained self-consciously aloof within the mass of Catholic Ireland. Edmund Burke was a Norman; so too was Nano Nagle, the founder of the Presentation Sisters. Garret FitzGerald is clearly Anglo-Norman, no matter the absurd Gaelic confection that he occasionally translates his name into.

Indeed, the name Fitzgerald gives us a useful barium meal into social immobility over the centuries. Some 52 men of this largely Anglo-Norman Irish name were killed with the British army during the Second World War. Ten (20pc) were officers.

Of soldiers with the Anglo-Norman Irish name of Burke, 7pc were officers. Compare this with the English name Smith, of whom 2,400 died, and just 126 (5.25pc) were officers. But the proportion is strikingly less for men with Irish Gaelic surnames.

Of the 62 men named O'Reilly or Reilly, only one (1.6pc) was an officer. Of the more than 200 soldiers called Murphy, less than 4pc were officers. The 44 Nolans had one officer -- as did the 41 Maguires -- roughly 2.2pc.

No doubt the now extinct and largely unfeline Celtic Tiger raised the social status of many people of aboriginal Gaelic stock -- but alas, it is not within my power to follow a particular hunch of mine: that bearers of the names Moynihan or Moriarty are exceptionally clever, and have probably risen higher than others.

Perhaps one of our now-unemployed statisticians could do the analysis. It's unlikely that Arthur Conan Doyle picked the name of Holmes's main adversary at random: and the detective's first name is common as a surname in the Midlands. Did his Irish father once know a brilliant Sherlock?

For all the relatively low status of most purely Irish surnames in British life, some Irish Christian names have become mysteriously acceptable in upper-Anglo circles. Of the 156 British soldiers called Brian killed in the Second World War, 50 -- some 32pc -- were officers.

Of the 142 soldiers called Desmond, 41 (29pc) were officers. With a hesitancy that is -- I confess -- quite bewitching in its unwonted modesty, I turn to the name Kevin -- as high-born and illustrious a handle as was ever given a child -- and note that of the 15 British army Kevins who died, four (27pc) were officers (including the uncle), eight were Irish-born (including the uncle again) and six others had Irish surnames. Compare with the name John: 14,818 killed, of whom just 1,427 -- only 9.6pc -- were officers.

Names can tell you a lot -- or not. For example, what have Charles, George, Albert and Patrick in common? Are they amongst the given names of a soon-to-be-married heir-presumptive to the throne of England? Not quite. They were all leaders and deputy leaders of Fianna Fail: Haughey, Colley, Reynolds and Ahern (usually called Bartholomew).

We conclude this nominative column with a moment's silence, please, while we mourn the fate of the once-glorious name of Kevin, now possessed by every foul, feckless, incontinent teenager and father-of-many in England, via Sharon (16), Tracey (16), Britney (15), Charlene (16) and Sharon-Tracey (14) with twin sons -- Wayne and Dwayne -- by Sharon-Tracey's mother, Tracey-Sharon (28).

(Band now mournfully strikes up Handel's 'Dead March' from 'Saul').

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss