Wednesday, December 4, 2013

On the name Maolsheachlann

After writing more than six hundred posts on this blog, I think it may finally be time to address the topic of my name.

Readers outside Ireland might assume that Maolsheachlann is a common Irish name, or at least, not an especially uncommon one. This is not the case. Most Irish people (I would even say, the vast majority of Irish people) have never heard my name before. Some even assume it is a foreign name (and my rather swarthy complexion and-- to an Irish ear-- light accent encourage them in this mistake).

"What's the English for that?", I'm often asked. But there is no English. The name "Malachy" is sometimes used as an equivalent, and I reluctantly tell them this, but that's as far as I'm willing to go. I don't mean to insult anyone, but "Malachy" is the last name I want to accept as my own, in any language. It's always sounded rather comical in my ears, perhaps on account of its closeness to "malarky."

Maolsheachlann is a Gaelic name that means "Servant of St. Seachnaill". St. Seachnaill was also known as St. Secundinus (believe it or not, I only learned that today) and was one of the first bishops of Armagh.

The most illustrious bearers of the name Maolsheachlann were two High Kings of Ireland, one of whom fought alongside Brian Boru at possibly the most famous battle in Irish history, the Battle of Clontarf (the millennium anniversary of which we are due to celebrate next year, though it has gone rather unnoticed amongst a welter of more controversial anniversaries, both recently passed and soon to be upon us).

I daren't give a description of the Battle of Clontarf, in case any modern Irish historians (whose motto tends to be "forget anything you thought you knew") are reading. When I was a schoolchild, we were told it was a battle in which the High King, Brian Boru, drove the Vikings out of Dublin, and was then murdered in his tent while praying, by an opportunistic and resentful Dane.

But since then it's been discovered (supposedly) that there never were any High Kings of Ireland, and that the Battle of Clontarf wasn't between the Irish and the Vikings, after all, but rather between two sides that were a mixture of both elements. And as for Brian Boru being murdered while praying in his tent-- that seems such a picturesque detail that the sourpusses of the academy would surely disqualify it purely on principle. (Even if it's true, they would reckon, it shouldn't be.)

But one historical fact that is undeniable is the existence of Gormflaith, a gorgeous but wicked lady who was married, at different times, to both my namesake and to Brian Boru-- and who then ended up on the Viking side in the battle. Who doesn't love a femme fatale? (She was said to be the most beautiful woman in Ireland.)

King Maolsheachlann seems to have been a canny sort of fellow, since he only really committed his men to the fighting after Brian's forces had already won the day.

But there was another, earlier King Maolsheachlann-- yet another High King (except there were no High Kings) who is best known for having a Viking warlord chucked in a lake (an entertaining account of it is to be found here). There is actually a statue of this Maolsheachlann in County Meath, which can be seen here. I keep meaning to visit it and have my photo taken with it, but I haven't done so yet. It was this Maolsheachlann that Thomas Moore immortalized in his song, "Let Erin Remember the Days of Old", with its lines:

Let Erin remember the days of old
Ere her faithless sons betrayed her
When Malachy wore the collar of gold
Which he won from the proud invader.

Both of these Maolsheachlanns usually have their names spelled "Mael Seachnaill". But it's the same name, like Boadicea/Boudica, or Tamerlaine/Timur.

"How do you pronounce that?" is a common response when people read my name. Well, this is how I pronounce it: Mwale-hock-lynn. I pronounce it that way because I was taught to pronounce it that way. I suspect it might be a mispronunciation, insofar as you can mispronounce your own name.

I had two secondary school teachers from the Gaeltacht (a Gaeltacht is an area in Ireland in which the Irish language is still, sort of, a living language). They both pronounced my name Mwale-SHOCK-lynn rather than Mwale-HOCK-lynn. As they would have a better intuitive understanding of Gaelic pronunciation than my parents, I tend to think they were right.

But I really don't care how anyone pronounces my name. People get a bit skittish about it, and I try to reassure them it doesn't bother me one little bit how they wrap their tongue around it. To be honest, I even enjoy the different ways people say it.

All of my family have Irish names, but most of my brothers and sisters have fairly common ones. My sisters, Gráinne and Niamh, have fairly popular names. My older brother, Fergal and Oisín, have names that are slightly more unusual, but still names that most Irish people would recognize. My younger brother's name, Turlough, is relatively rare, but far from unknown.
But my parents really decided to push the boat out with me. (Incidentally, the tradition of unusual Irish names continued with my ten nieces and nephews, none of whom are called Bob or Jane, or even Patrick or Bridget.)

Naturally, I've had a slew of nicknames. Over the years I've been called: Locky, Shocko, Hock, Shockalock, McLoughlin, Madlock, and plenty others that I can't remember. I've also been called Max (by a woman who decided she couldn't  wrap her tongue around my actual name), Wale-ocklin (by my own aunt, who seems to be saying my name as she hears it), and Malcolm (by a UCD academic who mistakenly thinks this is my name and who always greets me by it when she sees me.)

My personal favourite is Matt Hoffmann. This is what a brother of a friend took as being my name. She told me that, some time after we'd been introduced, he asked her: "How is Matt Hoffmann?". I thought it was hilarious that he'd assumed everybody used my full name every time they spoke about me or to me. I also think Matt Hoffmann sounds like a cross between Magnum PI and David Hasselhoff.

But a few years ago, my friend Beth (an ardent fan of the TV series Firefly, whose main protagonist is called "Mal" Reynolds) started calling me Mal, and this one has really stuck. In fact, outside my family, I'm probably addressed as Mal more often than Maolsheachlann now. I'm fine with this, too. (In fact, I often introduce myself as "Mal", if I'm meeting someone I don't expect to know for long, to avoid all the rigmarole.)

Actually, I've always loved the fact that I've had many different names in my time, and that different people call me different names. It makes me feel like Aragorn (AKA Strider, the Dúnadan, Wingfoot, and Longshanks) from Lord of the Rings, or (even more excitingly) Gandalf (AKA Mithrandir, Stormcrow, Greyhame, and lots of others), from the same book It gives me a sense of being many-sided, and mysterious, and a man for all seasons, all things to all men. (Stop laughing, you there, at the back.)

It seems fairly plausible that one's name affects one's character, and one's view of the world, and perhaps even one's destiny. It's hard to imagine the Third Reich, for instance, under the leadership of Adolf Schicklegruber (which was Hitler's father's name, before he changed it by deed poll.)

In my case, I've always had a strong contrarian streak in me, which was surely only heightened by having such an unusual name. (And which, as you can guess from all the rare Irish names given to their children, is partly derived from my family.) All my life I've been drawn to things-- ideas, causes, works of art, places, people-- that are unpopular, unfashionable, forgotten, despised or overlooked.

 It's easily seen that this is a temperament that very much fits with being a conservative Catholic in twenty-first century Ireland-- though I hope, and I believe, that I hold the opinions and the faith that I do out of conviction, rather than because it accords with my temperament.

I like to think that I mortify my own contrarianism when it is called for-- though I also think that contrarianism can be a good in itself and can be innocently indulged, in certain circumstances. I think contrarians make the world a better place, as long as they know when to draw the line. (I also think this subject deserves an article of its own, which I've been mulling over for a long time now. You have been warned.)

One thing that always bothered me about my name is that I thought it was rather girly. All the world over, across every culture, girls' names tend to contain more syllables than those of boys' (and, incidentally, are more likely to end on a vowel). I've had quite a few letters addressed to "Ms. O'Ceallaigh", which only reinforced this perception.

But I got over this when my wife told me she thinks Maolsheachlann is a manly name, and that her female friends think the same. I'm going with them.

Rare as the name Maolsheachlann is, it is not without at least one distinguished bearer. There is a Maolsheachlann Ó Caollaí who is an outspoken and eloquent figure in the Irish language movement. He still writes the odd letter to The Irish Times, though I get the impression he was more active in the seventies and eighties. He was sufficiently well-known in the eighties to have fun poked at his name in Dublin Opinion, a revival of a famous Irish satirical magazine. I read the article in question only a few months ago.

In fact, this whole blog post was prompted by something the said Mr. Ó Caollaí wrote, that I happened to come across today, in the online archives of The Irish Times. Like me, he seems to be a man of many and strongly-held views. I'd like to meet him and shake his hand-- possibly while having our photo taken, in front of the statue of Mael Sechnaill that I mentioned earlier.

When I was on Facebook, I looked for my own name and saw that there was another Facebook user who shared it. I sent him a friend request, feeling that this was enough of an "in", but he never replied. So much for solidarity.

But who knows? Maybe Maolsheachlann Ó Caollaí, or another Maolsheachlann, will come across this article and get in touch. It's lonely being a Maolsheachlann sometimes. Here's hoping.


  1. Fascinating post. I've only been following a short time, but I'm thrilled to have been here in time to catch this. (Maybe consider making it a "featured" or "sticky" post for newcomers to find.)

    I loved not only the story of your name [I feel smarter from having read this!] but also how it relates to contrarian streaks--yours and your family's. And yay for the history that isn't/"shouldn't"/mightn't be true...may such history and the sense of the past long outlive the pompous fools of our day! If you don't mind my asking, what kinds of names would you choose for your children?

    Though it was just an aside, what really made this self-identified curmudgeon's day was your one sentence on people skills people. I've been utterly swamped by them this year (as academic colleagues, supervisors, instructors)--"tactless, unreflective, and loud" indeed. Brash, uncultured, the list goes on . . . and, yes, always the inane comments at introductions, even if one doesn't have an unusual name: misattribute the ethnicity of the name, make inappropriate remarks about attire or demeanor. Someone once said I have "Catholic handwriting" [i.e., cursive script!]. Another that I had an "Old World face." Curmudgeons unite: do not dignify people-skills-people's small talk with a response. Except after due deliberation in brilliant posts on one's own blog, of course.

  2. Thanks for your kind words, KR!

    When it comes to my own prospective children, I would want to honour my family's tradition of Irish names, and even of relatively rare Irish names, but I wouldn't necessarily want something obscure. I like Lucas, the Irish version of Luke. I like Moibhí, the name of a saint associated with the area where I grew up. I think Iona would be a nice name for a girl. But I don't have any definite ideas.

    Ha! I'm glad you feel the same way about "people people", it's nice to know somebody does! Yes, I remember being intrigued, even when I was a teenager, by the fact that extroverted people-- the sort of people who you'd think would have more experience of interacting with others, and therefore more deftness-- were usually more obtuse and gauche than shy people. The secret being, the extroverts don't care (or often even notice) how they are making other people cringe, and so they just keep going on their merry way, and get enough positive reactions to reinforce their self-image. Of course, I'm not talking about all extroverts here; just the kind of extroverts who see themselves as "people skills people". Rrrrrrr. Sorry to hear you have to deal with them so much!

  3. That part about people trying to guess your name was hilarious, especially the person who calls you Malcolm. That's actually the reason I avoided pronouncing your name the first time we met. I couldn't think what the pronunciation might be, though I assumed it was along the lines of Male-Sha-Clawn; therefore I also thought your name was manly.

    You talk about names and fate/destiny, and also talk about Irish Kings. Maybe the government will collapse and you'll be the new High King of Ireland, leading the people into a new age of story telling and poetry.

    As for Brian Boru and Irish history, I'm not sure if these so called professionals are actually decent historians or just people who think their assumptions are enough to be proper history. I do like the story about Brian Boru's death though. Especially the part when Wolf the Quarrelsome avenges him, though that part may be romanticised due to its graphic nature and the fact that not much is known about Wolf. I do find the whole thing of clans and kingdoms rather exciting.

  4. "Maybe the government will collapse and you'll be the new High King of Ireland, leading the people into a new age of story telling and poetry." Oh, my God-- I think I would abdicate straight away!

    I never even heard about Wolf the Quarrelsome. Unfortunately I don't know that much about Irish history, or any history. I try studying it (I've often tried) but the various kings, queens and revolutionaries start wandering into the wrong centuries and sequence once I take my eyes off them.

    So, next time you meet, you'll know not to worry at all about what you call me!

  5. Yeah, thanks for the pronunciation. By the way, I think Wolf the Quarrelsome appeared on bad ass of the week.

  6. I only came across Badass of the Week through researching that article!

  7. I wouldn't have gotten the Mwale section right, but I probably would have gone with Shock-lynn. In spelling your name looks much more like Old Irish rather than Modern Irish, albeit to my barely trained eyes. The fact that it seems to be an old name that didn't really get modernized lends some credence to that theory, though. (Ah, Irish, the only language in I learned how to say "I don't remember last night" within the first couple of months.)

  8. That's certainly enigmatic! I think you're doing pretty well to guess Shock-lynn. I'm also impressed by your theories on it looking like Old Irish, though I'm not sure whether it's correct or not.

  9. Maolsheachlann, as Gaeilge, should be pronounced 'Mawl-eck-lawn' as the 's' phonetic is palatised due to the presence of the following 'h'. Same principle applies when you say 'A Sheamuis, a chara' and where 'Sheamuis' transmutes from Seamus (Shaymus) to Sheamius ('Haymaish)....
    Anyway, Maolsheachlann is a damn fine name and I am very pleased that it's still in use. May it long continue!
    ta se iontach aimn!!
    beir bua,
    Lucas Mac an Airchinnigh

    1. I don't know how I missed this comment for almost a year, Lucas. Míle buíochas.

    2. Hello. I have only now got to read your original post and wanted to comment on correct pronunciation of your name. What Anonymous says is absolutely correct. It agrees with everything I learned in Gaeilge lessons in my Dublin based school in the 1940s and 1950s

    3. Thanks so much for that Leo. Good to hear from you. I'm going to stick with my lifelong pronunciation but that is a very interesting insight!


    1. Hi Mal! I've never heard the name Mael before, is it Irish?

  11. Actually, is the Maolsheachlann in Thomas Moore's verse Maolsheachlann II or Maolsheachlann Mór, who won the famous [arm? neck?] 'Ring of Tomair' (Thor?) and the also famous 'Sword of Carlus' from the vikings of Dublin in the 990s, when he freed Irish hostages and slaves, a few years before Brian Boru succeeded him as high king?

    One especially sour academic book or Irish kings is Maire Ní Mhaonaigh's "Brian Boru: Ireland's Greatest King?". How dour, dry, condescending and joyless! The urge to "debunk" is evident in every sentence. Debunking and rebalacing assessments is fine with a more balanced tone, but hers projects a different sort of bias.

    1. I didn't know there was a debate about which Malachy it was! That's interesting. I'll have to look into it. Gaelic history is such a closed book to most of us.

      I'll give Maire Ní Mhaonaigh's book a miss, though. I agree, "revisionism" isn't a bad thing in itself, but the passion to "debunk" is pretty contemptile. Possibly the most extreme exercise in this spirit is The Druids by Stuart Pigott, although that's so gloriously curmudgeonly that I find myself admiring it. It must be thirty years since I read it, though.