Names


 Bringing people together. Names. Politics. Religion.
Whom you were related to: For the Irish, it still seemed all about relationships.

The dialect was always heard from those far away. Family and friends never heard it. Unless you moved to a place far away. But others heard the dialect. Every day.

Faith, belief, religion was some kind of inner voice, unnoticed in daily life, silent to me, like some kind dialect. But apparent to others.

Religion.

Ireland was one of the first European countries in which a system of fixed hereditary surnames developed. Up to the tenth century, surnames in Ireland were not hereditary. Or so I read over the weekend. The church was the origin of a lot of those names. If you ever studied Gaelic, the influence of the church can still be seen in many common modern Irish family names, dating from the eleventh century. In the Irish language, the morning greeting, “Dia duit ar maidin,” is literally “God be with you.”

Brian Boru, possessing no surname at the start of the eleventh century, was simply “Brian, High-King of the Irish.” His grandson Teigue called himself Ua Briain in memory of his illustrious grandfather. And so the name became hereditary thereafter. The church is the origin of all of those names starting with “Mul–” a version of the Irish Maol, meaning bald (applied to the monks because of their distinctive tonsure). Thus Mulrennan (Ó Maoilbhreanainn) means “descendant of a follower of St. Brendan.” Names beginning with “Gil–” or “Kil–” (the anglicized version of the Irish Giolla) mean follower or devotee, and thus Kilkenny means “son of a follower of Cainneach (Saint Kenny).” Though common in English, place names among Irish names, in the toponymic category of a name derived from a locality name, are extremely rare. For the Gaels, whom you were related to has always been much more important than the place from where you came. Such was life on an island. The island.

Cainneach. Kilkenny, the capital of the Irish Confederacy. The Irish Confederate Wars. The conflict in Ireland which essentially pitted the native Irish Roman Catholics – the indigenous people, like in the Garden – against the Protestant British settlers and their supporters in England and Scotland, over who would govern Ireland.

Pilgrimage. Looking for roots. Connected to the past. The descendants. In silent cemeteries. At Ellis Island. In Irish churchyards. Connected to a family. Connected to a city. Connected to an institution.

In 1994, I visited Rathdowney. In southwest County Laois. It is near Kilkenny. It is quite small. To get out of town I needed to catch a morning bus. I found myself on a Saturday killing an hour at a pub. Mrs. O’Malley’s. With Irish coffee. But no booze. There were 3 area farmers in the pub. And in came a 40-year-old man from Philadelphia. He had been in here before, he said. He asked the barkeep if Mrs. O’Malley was around. She came out. She had no recollection of the Yank who had been here once before. His family once lived around these parts. Those American dialects all sounded a like. The Yank brought in his mother from the car. And then they were gone. The Irish farmers then reacted. “Ah, Mrs. O’Malley! It is great to see you again!” It was about feigned friendship. “Ah! Looking for roots.” Doing the mock-erania. Then they realized I was there.

It was the end of the season. Ireland becomes like Disneyland all summer long. It was October. And these guys were happy the never-ending tourists were gone, and the season was at an end. O’Malley’s Pub was once again theirs. So many long-lost cousins. Too many.

Names. Roots. The opening chat about a place where your family once had been rooted. Forever. Who was still here that you might be rooted to? The reason why you left was at the bequest of the oldest generation who were willing to sacrifice a young life at this age – would an eighty-nine year old lady survive a voyage? In famine. So the belief, like in the story of
The Akedah, to give everything up about this place called Ireland, that your descendants might survive. In a new place.

Tonight there was a show on the Public Broadcasting Station about archaeology. Archaeologists were always looking, in excavation. Looking always for the past. In a place, in this case in Jerusalem, a city defined by the power of religion. A place where whom you were related always was more important than the place from where you came. And so the digging by archaeologists, looking in excavation, for the historic Jesus. Archaeologists looking in places for the historic Jesus. So many places which sounded like going through just another museum, looking for a remnant from a dinosaur – those dinosaurs, for me anyway, that seemed so hard to believe in.

Oh, the sweat involved in the digging… for the past. By people unconnected to the reality of the people. In the search for the answers, searching site after site, day after day, never was there mention of the mundane. Like just another museum, and after a while, if you have seen one, you have seen them all. Not much different than the advice which I got from the farmers at O’Malley’s Pub, about where to head next, about seeing some church that St. Patrick had founded. “Have you never seen a church?” Hearing the mock-erania, about missing the real meaning from the past, I took their advice and headed to Kilkenny.

Missing in the excavations of archaeologists, with oh so sterile gloves, was what was left in the holes, now covered up. Perhaps like the realness of the people of a time …the arrangements at the time, with their unknown stress, their conflicts. Worries, along with an excitement about the comebacks. The fear about the survival of those who left. Archaeologists, looking in a place to find the miracle, in the spirituality always connected to the missing, as men vied for power based upon names, after the Age of Discovery.

There is something painful in the search — as painful to see as in the search I witnessed in the guy from Philadelphia, looking for something in O’Malley’s. As much as I enjoy history, places like a church in Cashel leave me cold, unless I had read something, knew something, about the people in the place. Was it the missing inheritance that was I sensed in the search for the Historic Jesus? How was the study by secular historians of the remnants of historic Jesus relevant, if you carried no human feeling? About the real Jesus. In Bethlehem? Human . . . divine, sharing and overcoming human suffering, and sharing human relationships with other humans. How were historic remnants, European cathedrals, museum artifacts, relevant to my life? There mostly is emptiness these day in so many European cathedrals where it is more usual than not that this generation is godless.

To find a place? Archaeology was looking for a place that people might be moved by THEIR discovery? Archaeologists looking for some kind of missing piece of a puzzle, looking in layers below, if not within, to validate themselves in their place of work? Archaeologists looking for the historic Jesus, to help find a modern miracle, for those who had missed the story, or missed the meaning of the power in a true relationship?

The constant digging. To find a miracle in the historic? Or now … this year?

The annual revolutions of the sun always found me in new places, listening for an inner voice. The comebacks. Searching for God, in search to whom you are related, in the longing to be Irish, in the tradition, from the beginning. That perspective, in a humble old world sense. From out of recognizing my own longings, and naming these desires – in the longing – there is a Messiah … The Desire of the Nations to be saved … from human cruelty, everywhere. Like in that heritage there at O’Malley’s Pub, with that question, “Have you never seen a church?” A heritage never quite felt unless you moved to a place far away, while hoping and wondering if Mrs. O’Malley had any recollection of the Yank here once before.

It was the season about connections. Looking for roots. Connections to family and friends. To come back each year. Like the seasons revolve. Changed in the annual revolutions of the sun, by the mundane. What was always here. The food grown with the power of the sun, sold in the food markets. By the power of the annual revolutions, celebrated at year’s end.

It was the season about connections. Tagged with the power of and in relationship, to whom you were related always has been much more important than the place of origin. On December 24th, the reading which comes from Matthew, Chapter 1, is about the genealogy of Jesus, son of David, the son of Abraham. And so it goes…..Abraham became the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers. Judah became the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar. Perez became the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab. Amminadab became the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab. Boaz became the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth. Obed became the father of Jesse, Jesse the father of David the king.

Relationship. The season was about connection. The genealogy of. And the meaning from the stories. The mystery behind Christmas, and the lights of Christmas. The power in the real stories…. where an Irishman gets power. The power in relations, and whom you are related to. As your newly-wed wife in her 40th month of gestation carried your shared past on the back of a donkey, based upon the directive of the dominant power. Bringing people together, through/with/in fertility. The connection of the past to the present, as you acquire an elevated power above others, by lowering yourself. Taking a name, as a sign of power, with the humbleness of being born meant there would be a humbleness of dying.

Taking a name, keeping a name. In this focus on the House of David, bringing all of creation together. Yet it was the humanity not of the male, but of Mary where God suddenly focused. Suddenly. With all the innocence again connected to Creation, God was like a guy falling in love. And changing all of His plans? In the mystery of the House of David. As the power of not of one culture but a civilization of many cultures was in the things shared.

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1 comment so far

  1. paperlessworld on

    In Finland, in the west, the inhabitants took last names that traced back to their plots of land on their farms, at a time where few people ever left. And there was this Spirit associated with the Land. Now if ever they moved, sometimes the inhabitants would carry a new name reflecting a location. And as in the case when a plot of land never changed hands, but is just passed on like a religion, more times then not, a place would be named after the owner. So there is a certain irony, after living under the dominant power of Russia, after the revolution where religion was so forcibly wiped out by Lenin and his successors – with a fear about the Spirit of the Land connected to the God of their ancestors – that 94 percent of the population of Finland is now atheistic.

    Finland had their own great famine which over just two years wiped out 25 percent of the population, starting somewhere around 1696. And as in any good history which begins in strangeness, when the Finns communicate there is seldom the need for as many words as in a pluralistic culture. So these strange characters with the landscape that makes part of the everyday miraculous, as people and things from the past resurface there. To walk through the landscapes, you must know the stories. Because stories are embedded in and define the landscape, the death of the story is a small death for the land itself. And now what of the God of Finland?

    The law, which was passed in 1921 after a certain power vacuum with the the Russian Revolution and the Finnish Civil War (27 January – 15 May 1918) that concerned leadership and control, made it obligatory to have a “family name.” So those socialist could keep track of who was on the Land and who should belong. The Civil War was a power struggle, with the militarization in the War to End All Wars, and an ‘escalating’ crisis between the left-leaning Finnish labor movement and the Finnish conservative land-owners. So these names “taken” reflected a name-bearer’s social status. When all that you had left was a name, Orthodox Karelians, one percent of the population, began to assert their national identity with the collapse of the Soviet Union.


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