What’s in a name? It depends on what you think of the question

LAST week, after I had bought a copy of the Irish Examiner for every member of my family to marvel at the wonder of mommy in a newspaper, I took five minutes out from children’s bath time to see for myself what it looked like.

As I looked at the picture and then at the name, my heart sunk a little as I heard the same question being silently asked by dozens of readers: “Adshead, that’s a funny name, I wonder where that’s from?” It is a question I am routinely asked — when I book a taxi, when I pay for anything by cheque, when I meet someone new at work, if I’m introduced to someone in the pub.

When I’m feeling crabby, I answer that “my dad gave it to me” and I am immediately aware of a subtle change in the conversation. I have dodged a central question. At this point the conversation either stops completely or turns to the weather. Sometimes, the question is not asked because people assume that they already know the answer. Many people read the name as “Adze-sheed” and surmise that I am from Pakistan or India (except, obviously, anyone from Pakistan or India). Others read the name as “Adz-Shed” and assume that I am English. If this is case, they tell me that they once lived in London or have a brother over in Birmingham. This turn in conversation is intended to be kind, but always irritates me because it indicates that the person I am talking to is clearly talking to me with the understanding that I am “from somewhere else”.

When I’m feeling more playful, I give the more long-winded answer that I learned from Lillis O’Laoire in NUIG and Tom Garvin in UCD. Ads-head is the literal translation from the Irish, Ni Tháilgeann, and is the ancient Irish sobriquet for Saint Patrick. It’s not known if the Adze Head refers to the shape of Patrick’s headpiece, which is roughly the same shape as an adze, or possibly is an allegorical or figurative reference to Saint Patrick’s slaying of the snakes and removal of pagans from Ireland. I deployed this latter explanation to someone last week and back came the reply; “oh so you really are one of us”, which is probably not something you ever really say to someone who is “one of us”.

So where did “one of us” get a name like Adshead. It’s simple. My mother, the first girl and second eldest of 12, like many from her generation, left Ireland in the 1950s to train as a nurse in England. There, she met and married my father (that’s Mr Adshead to you) and was, over time, joined by several of my aunties and uncles. I was born in Ireland and whilst growing up, there was never a doubt in my mind that I was Irish. My childhood was punctuated by communions, confirmations and ceilís. In England, I went to different schools to my neighbours, and ended up in an all girls Carmelite convent. Where I lived, Catholicism was quixotic: it was not the normal British childhood, and most children I grew up with were regularly keen to point this out to me.

Britain in the 1970s — before the peace process and before Father Ted, River Dance, Dara O’Briain and other important cultural exports — was not like it is now. At 18 I left and returned to Ireland. My parents followed and we all lived happily ever after ... you’d think? But nearly 30 years later, whenever I book a taxi, when I pay for anything by cheque, when I meet someone new at work, or if I’m introduced to someone in the pub, I’m still obliged to go through the whole “that’s a funny name, where is that from routine?” It’s a regular little marker that identifies me as not quite fitting in.

Now, imagine what that feels like if your name is Munyoru. Imagine what it’s like if you can’t somehow fix yourself in the familial and social constellation. If you can’t come up with a quick story to explain your genealogy.

These “what if” questions are currently being examined at the behest of the New Communities Partnership (an umbrella group for new ethnic groups in Ireland) in a collaborative research project between the Departments of Politics & Public Administration and Psychology at the University of Limerick. The study looks at the experiences of 152 immigrant women from 25 different countries, across six regions of the world (Caribbean, African, Asian, Eastern Europe, South America and North America). The results so far throw out some interesting and thought-provoking concerns regarding the immigrant experience in Ireland.

In order to explain what these concerns are, as one of my favourite students is fond of saying, “let’s bring this discussion back to me”. The “tell me where your name comes from” routine that I’ve described is not racist. It is not intentionally offensive. Indeed, it is often intended to be friendly. Still, you might agree that not spending 20 years of your life explaining where you are from every time you take a taxi is an unacknowledged perk that many MacNamaras and Mangans never even notice. It is, in psychological parlance, an “ordinary privilege” — something that is available to the dominant group and supports their social integration, without their even knowing it.

The absence of such “ordinary privileges” tends to correlate with social marginalisation and exclusion. But social supports (such as family, friends, supportive social networks) all tend to ameliorate this connection and act as a buffer to the negative effects of exclusion or the absence of ordinary privileges. In the research, women who report more exclusion and fewer ordinary privileges also report more psychiatric symptoms and lower life satisfaction. But, women with more social supports reported fewer psychological symptoms and greater life satisfaction.

So, what does this outrageously brief synopsis of 18 months of research suggest? First, most of us, even those who do not think of ourselves as discriminatory, are in fact clearly discriminating between different sets of people on a regular basis. We often do so in ways that we have never acknowledged, noticed or thought about. This behaviour is common and is normal, but the impact of this behaviour is often felt much more keenly by some groups of people than others.

Second, the absence of ordinary privileges or the absence of appropriate social supports may in itself be a cause of exclusion. In other words, the social exclusion of minorities may be caused by the absence of inclusion, as much as by intentional exclusion.

Third, whilst the research in UL was concerned with ethnic minorities, it’s very clear that minorities don’t have to come from far away places. We can just as easily find examples of groups of people within Ireland who are socially marginalised and constitute excluded minorities. Obviously, I’m making a case for the Fine Ni Tháilgeann, but I’m guessing there are other more pressing claims.

More in this section

Lunchtime News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up