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The Irish For: Are Irish names really that difficult to pronounce?

We should look at names we don’t understand as something exciting to be figured out, writes Darach Ó Séaghdha.

Darach Ó Séaghdha Writer

WELL, THE CHRISTMAS lights are up on Grafton Street (or, An Cheathrú Grafton- the Grafton Quarter) and it won’t be long before we start hearing the old Christmas songs on the radio.

Not to mention the return of those December number ones from yesteryear which have an extremely tenuous link to the season. One of the biggest of these songs has an obvious Irish connection – Do They Know It’s Christmas by Band Aid, co-written by Irishman Bob Geldof.

The geographical and meteorological inaccuracies in the lyrics of this song have been well-documented, and I needn’t dwell on them here. However, a lesser-known phenomenon is how many of its singers used a stage name.

Bono (Paul Hewson), Boy George (George O’Dowd), Sting (Gordon Sumner) and George Michael (Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou) all chose to perform under a stage name for various reasons.

This in itself isn’t a terrible thing – sometimes artists are compelled to do so. David Bowie, born David Jones, needed to clarify that he was not the singer from The Monkees.  In some cases, the stage name evolved from an actual nickname.

However, it is bit of a problem when artists from a particular background feel obliged to use a stage name to conceal part of their heritage.

Irish Top 40 singers

The Irish for a stage name is aim stáitse. In the ’70s and ’80s, it was quite common for Irish singers in the Top 40 (and British singers of Irish heritage) to conceal their birth name.

For example, Johnny Rotten (John Lydon), Elvis Costello (Declan McManus) and Johnny Logan (Séan Patrick Michael Sherrard) all chose different names. 

While there were exceptions in the punk scene like Feargal Sharkey and Shane McGowan (whose songs were released under their band names rather than their own names), it wasn’t until Sinéad O’Connor that we got a solo artist on Top of the Pops with an ‘O’ surname and a fada.

Now I’m not suggesting that those stage named Irish-heritage singers were sellouts or cowards, and I don’t want to just single them out. 

There are plenty of good reasons to use one. Comedian Dave Allen, born David O’Malley, wanted to be the first name on his agent’s alphabetically-arranged booking list and plenty of English-named singers used them too.

But a tradition of self-censorship co-existed symbiotically with the widespread perception that Irish names are hard. But are they really that difficult?

The period when Sinéad O’Connor was at the height of her chart success also saw the rise of Mariah Carey, Demi Moore and Kim Basinger, all of whom took great, repeated efforts to clarify how their names were actually pronounced.

Subsequently, they all acquired reputations for being difficult to work with. It was also a busy time for Arnold Schwarzenegger, who briefly used a fake name before changing back. Irish names aren’t unpronounceable, just unpracticed.

I’ve been thinking about a brilliant article on this topic by author N’Jameh Camara on this subject all week.

She makes the point that names from languages you don’t speak and cultures you aren’t acquainted with aren’t empirically difficult.

Making the small change from referring to a name as unpractised rather than hard not only changes the value you place on the culture the name comes from, but also completely improves the outlook for your relationship with that person – and that culture – in the future.  

Instead of looking at a name you don’t understand as an inconvenience that isn’t worth attempting unless it’s pronounced perfectly, allow it to become something exciting and new that you might not get right straight away, but you intend to work on over time.  

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About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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