Séamas O'Reilly: Being called Séamus, Shameless or even Semen isn’t the same thing

The truth is no one gets my name wrong more consistently than my own compatriots
Séamas O'Reilly: Being called Séamus, Shameless or even Semen isn’t the same thing

Séamas O'Reilly. Picture: Orfhlaith Whelan

This one time my friend, Jay, lost his phone after football. We played five-a-side once a week for five years and so, like any dutiful teammate, I rang his number and quickly found the buzzing device beneath a crumpled, smelly sports bag at the side of the Tottenham astro cage where we’d been playing.

I felt a thrum of amusement when I picked up the handset and saw my name on the screen which he’d saved as “Shameless”, and realised this was what he’d been calling me, to my face, every Wednesday for half a decade.

We laughed about it, and then he asked for my actual name and it was my turn to be confused.

“Um, Séamas,” I said. He smiled without saying anything, as if I was pulling his leg.

“Séamas,” I repeated, as his grin grew more uneasy.

“That’s… what I’ve been saying?” he said finally, but with a meekness that suggested he was still gauging whether I was pranking him in some way.

“No, Séamas,” I said, my name losing meaning so quickly I was beginning to wonder whether it was I who’d been mistaken all this time.

“With no ‘L’,” I continued, “it’s — it’s Irish for James.” Jay titled his head and squinted, buffering on the spot like someone who’d just been asked to calculate the square root of a horse.

“I didn’t know you had your own words like that,” he finally replied, quietly.

He uttered this with evident sincerity, and something like awe; perhaps even a sense of puzzled admiration for the ingenuity of the Irish as a people.

“That’s deep, man.”

For a lesser mind, this may have all been too much at once. Not only had I managed to introduce myself to Jay six years into our acquaintance, I’d revealed that Irish people have their own names and indeed an entire language of our own charmingly different words.

He was fascinated by this new information, and I spent the rest of our trip to the car park blowing his mind with whatever meagre Irish I could offer him.

This is probably my favourite example of my name causing confusion since I’ve lived in London, but there’s been a few.

I get Sea Mass daily, and Simmons, Semis and Shamu often. In six months of driving lessons, despite writing my name down countless times, and saying it out loud many more, my instructor referred to me exclusively as Semen.

When I tell Irish people these stories, they’re delighted to be offended on my behalf, since it flatters their sense of indignation about silly or ignorant Brits. But, the truth is no one gets my name wrong more consistently than my own compatriots.

I’ve written the correct spelling of my name three times in this article and I’d imagine roughly half of you will have subconsciously corrected it to the more usual spelling in your own heads. Séamas has the annoying quality of being an unusual spelling that’s so minutely different to its more common variant, most people don’t even clock said difference at all.

I’ve never met another Séamas, and people named Séamus only rarely. There’s no natural animosity between us, unlike say Jons and Johns who loathe each other. (I believe knife fights have been known to break out any time an Ian and an Iain find themselves in close quarters.)

But I feel no brotherhood with Séamuses (Séami?) and, worse, indulge some strange, pathetic urge to demarcate the difference between us on.

“It’s Séamas — with an A,” I’ll say. “Well,” I’ll continue, “there’s two A’s if you count the first one,” but by then people are starting to back away. That is, I used to say this, until my book started getting covered in Irish papers, and every mention was the same; a dust jacket blaring the correct spelling of my name in size 65 typeface, above a review in which I am referred to as Séamus 18 times, at which point I realised there was little point in trying.

I don’t want it to seem like I’m whingeing.

I have, after all, just courted sympathy for my plight by referring to all of the reviews my book got (most of which were very good, you should really buy it).

I am aware of how low my plight ranks on the league table of genuinely oppressive experiences.

Ask anybody with a Yoruba, Chinese or Polish name how often they have had their names mangled or, worse, had a boss smile as he cheerfully assigned them a nickname “that’ll be easier for everyone here to get along with”.

Being called Séamus, or Shameless or even Semen isn’t the same thing — I just wish I didn’t have to search both spellings every time I write an article, or rebook flights or return bank cards each time some helpful soul in customer service decides I’ve misspelled my own name.

Or politely message an American man named Seamus O’Reilly (no fada) who sometimes gets my emails on account of our addresses being identical save for that one small vowel. (I don’t yet know if he is the same Seamus O’Reilly who is, rather incongruously, a porn star from Nashville, and with whom I have also interacted on Twitter for the same purpose).

Either way, that Seamus is unfailingly polite about all the messages he gets about serving drinks to Mary McAleese while on ketamine, and has even told me he’s read my book.

He enjoyed it, he said. We could be friends, he and I.

Perhaps there’s hope for a great, grand brotherhood of Séami yet.

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