Thursday, May 31, 2012

Name Post: Names that Travel

Connemara Cows

                Ireland’s history is full of travelers.  It is said that the Irish diaspora is made up of more than 80 million people (thirteen times the population of the island itself).  Immigration and emigration have given the country a rather romantic history of transience.  There are countless songs written about places here that reference Dublin’s cobblestone streets, Galway’s seaside, or a general longing for home.  Throughout my first few weeks in Ireland, whenever I would hear these songs on the street or in pubs, I’d think they were written just for me (as we tend to do with songs). Then I realized they were written for a nation of travelers.
                The Travelers I spoke with today in Galway were of a particular kind. Although most people in Ireland are travelers, the Travelers with a capital “T” are a traditionally nomadic group of ethnic Irish origin.  In Ireland, Travelers are often referred to as “tinkers” or “knackers,” while in other countries, people more frequently use the terms “gypsies” to describe them.  In their own language, they call themselves Pavee, and in the Irish language they’re called Lucht Siúil, which means “the walking people.” 
                They are also called a lot of other things, many of which are not by choice. When I went in to talk to a group of female Travelers at the Galway Travelers' Movement this morning about names, it ended up mainly being a conversation about discrimination. For many of these women, throughout their daily lives in Galway, there’s been a fine line between names and name-calling.  The 2006 census determined that Travelers make up about 0.5% of the Irish population today (there are close to 40,000 Travelers in Northern Ireland and the Republic combined). Perhaps because they are such a small minority, the discrimination they face seems to receive little attention.
Ellen Angela, who goes by “Nell” at home, is due with her first baby in October. She plans to name the baby Martin Joseph, after her boyfriend’s father. She told me when she went to the hospital for one of her appointments, the nurse at the front desk asked her if she was part of the Traveling Community. “I told her ‘yes,’” she said, “and she made a mark of it in the computer. I don’t know why she did that. I don’t know what it has to do with having a baby.”
                Names play a crucial role in their stories of discrimination.  They told me most people in Ireland could recognize Travelers by their surnames (common Traveler surnames in Galway include McDonaugh, Stokes, Sweeney, and Ward).  Every woman in the room had stories of being turned away from clubs and bars in Galway. It is not a coincidence that those are places where you have to show your ID.  They told me they believed it was harder for Travelers to get jobs based on their surnames as well. When I asked them if they knew anyone who ever thought about changing a surname (or using a different one on a resume), they told me they didn’t know anyone who would go that far. “That would be terrible,” one woman told me. “That’s not who you are.”
It quickly became clear to me that names are a fundamental part of their cultural identities, despite the fact that their naming traditions seem quite similar to the rest of the Irish population (or “the settled people”, as the women referred to non-Travelers). In the Traveling community, first sons are named after their paternal grandfather, second sons after the maternal grandmother, and so on. Four of the five women I spoke with had been named after their aunts.  Passing on names through families isn’t an unusual trend to find in Ireland, but in Traveling communities, it's particularly significant. 
There is even a name for the naming. This custom is called “getting titled.”  I noticed it when one woman talked about how if she ever had a child she had to be sure to name him after her father, “So he’d be titled." They spoke of people “getting titled,” people who had already “been titled,” and someone who is “being entitled.” I love this phrase. It’s one that’s been unnamed but central to my research all year, central to so many people I’ve come across, like the Zambian man who told me he couldn't afford a camera, so he named his children after relatives who had died to remember them. The phrase seems to signify that in passing on a name, you are turning it into a title--ennobling it by sharing it with others. 
I wonder if one reason why the tradition of passing on names is particularly important is because the life expectancy for Travelers is so much lower than the general population.  A 2007 study showed that over half of Travelers do not live past the age of 39 years. This is due to a variety of factors, including first and foremost that there is often less accessibility in their communities to education and healthcare, but also because of congenital disorders that may have stemmed from consanguinity (intermarriage). There is also a tragically high rate of suicide among young Travelers.  I’ve noticed in my travels that the tradition of passing on names seems to be more common in communities where death has a prominent presence.  Just as absence makes the heart grow fonder, the power of a name is increased, perhaps, when the spirit behind it is fading.

It is also quite common for Travelers to have two given names, and rather than use one as a first name and one as a middle, in their families they are often called by both.  Four out of the five women I spoke with had “double-barreled names” (Sarah Rebecca, Julia Cathleen, Ellen Angela and Theresa Marie). They said they weren’t sure how this tradition of using two names started, but they guessed it remains popular because it's a way to honor several people at the same time in where the idea of being titled is so central. 
These women believe names are changing in the Traveler community as people start “integrating more with the settled.” They told me fewer people are using family names and more people are using names from celebrities (like “Brittney, Paris, Tiffany, and Chelsea,” one said). This is among many changes happening in the Traveling community as families have given up their nomadic lifestyles but are trying to keep their traditions and culture alive. Many of them spoke about Travelers’ experiences in schools as a sign of slow progress; originally Travelers weren’t allowed in school with settled children. Even when some of the women I spoke with were young, they were made to sit in the back of the classroom with the other Travelers. Today there is a more integrated school system, but it seems that socially, there are still large divisions between the settled and the Travelers.
For years the debate has been going on about whether Irish Travelers should be classified as an ethnic group (they are by British law but not by Irish).  Many recent studies have confirmed that they are among the most discriminated-against groups in Ireland, a discrimination which many of the women I spoke with believe is due to how the media portrays them. Modern legislation entails that very few people are still traveling today (of the five women I spoke with, only two had grown up in families who had lived nomadically). But as one woman put it, “being a Traveler is not just about traveling. It’s about culture and marriages and traditions and your whole identity.”

                Julia Cathleen Sweeney, who is the Community Employment Supervisor for the Galway Travelers’ Movement, told me she was wondering about my own name when I called her and asked if I could come in. “Nell is a name that’s very popular among the Traveler community,” she told me. “It’s a strange name for a settled person to have.”  I wondered what it was that made the name Nell more popular among this community in particular. I wondered if it’s partially because there is such a strong tradition of passing down family names, which might mean, quite simply, that you hear more old fashioned names today than you might otherwise.  I loved hearing this. I had no idea before today that Nell was a popular name among Travelers. It feels entirely appropriate that in another whimsical Watson  year moment, I've learned that I'm sharing a name with many other nomads, past and present.
                I can understand why names are so important in this community. It is ironic to me that so many immigrants and travelers change their names when they are in new places--whatever the reason. People may be looking for a way to blend in, or may be deliberately trying not to identify themselves as foreigners right away. Maybe they just can't stand hearing their name butchered by foreign tongues one more time.  But it’s ironic to me that this happens, because it is here, so many miles from home, when your own name probably begins to mean the most.  Over the last ten months I have introduced myself to so many people in so many places, and they have called me (or tried to call me) by this name. It’s an honest confirmation of what you want to hear; that despite everything changing around you, you are, somewhere, still you. That you can travel, and your name can too.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Ten Month Watsoversary


Things have been a bit quiet on my end. During the last month I have settled into the comforts of Ireland as I've made my little triangle across the country. North to Belfast, east to Galway, and soon I'll be heading back west again to Dublin. In many ways, this place is the most similar to the United States of all of the countries I've been in this year. It's allowed me some time to reflect and regroup; to take advantage of familiar comforts, to fill gaps in my traveling wardrobe, to think about what lies ahead in the remainder of my time abroad and maybe even the time after. It's been a month of landmarks too. I've now been a college graduate for one year, and one week from tomorrow I will fly to Iceland, my last Watson project country. I am already beginning to mourn the loss that will inevitably come with this year's close. It is impossible not to.

Last July, it seemed like this journey would be so long. In some ways, it has been. So much has happened over the last ten months that Bali sometimes feels like it happened years and years ago. Vermont feels like years and years ago and so does last summer when I was making anxiety-ridden trips to shoe stores and pacing in the woods behind our house, trying to figure out how I would say my goodbyes.

This year has felt long at times because it's been full. Full of miles and landmarks and meals and people and conversations and discoveries.

I still can't believe it's been ten months. I can't believe how quickly time goes.  It is a sign of my age that I would even make such an obvious statement.

My parents arrived yesterday, just in time to catch Galway's fleeting summer weather. The last time I saw them when we said goodbye in Rabat, Morocco after our Christmas celebration together. I am so so happy to see them. They smile when I say I can't believe how quickly this year has gone. They know it's how things go. We can only hope the years to come will be as full.

In the past month I have:
-Set foot in a new country: Northern Ireland.
-Taken one of Belfast's famous Black Taxi tour.
-Supported a runner in the Belfast City Marathon.
-Gone bouldering. (Google it).
-Piloted a new peace & conflict-based board game (Contested Spaces, designed by Rory of Rory's Story Cubes) with students at the WAVE Trauma Center.
-Got swept up in the Titanic centenary at the site where the ship was built.
-Met (and interviewed) one of my favorite poets.
-Learned a great deal about The Troubles. Questioned its name. 
-Gone hiking. Gotten muddy. Seen mountains. Felt like I was home in Vermont.
-Watched performances in Belfast's Festival of Fools. 
-Experienced drastic changes in temperature (continually switched through all four pairs of shoes I packed in a 24 hour period).
-Walked the same streets as my grandmother's grandmother, Nellie Mitchell.
-Became an "adopted sister" to my favorite Guatemalan/Irish seven year-old. 
-Been designated a "medium-dark" by a salesperson at the Clinique counter (only in Ireland...)
-Participated in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. Met Sam Amidon & Saint Etienne, took Gaby to a showing of The Red Balloon.
-Freaked out about the future. Felt better about the future. 
-Done a bit of research on my Irish heritage.
-Experienced a (minor) burglary (possibly) by one of Belfast's apparently notorious criminals, "Billy One Ear" (I kid you not).
-Learned to say "Cheers' in Irish (Slàinte).
-Took long walks on the Salthill promenade. 
-Picnicked in Eyre Square. 
-Seen my parents for the first time in five months. 
-Tried to slow down time.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Galway Arrival


 During the last five weeks in Ireland, whenever I talked to people about where my research & travels were taking me, the mention of Galway would always be met with a little gasp. "You will love Galway," people told me, "Americans love Galway."

I was not quite sure what that meant (or whether to be insulted by it), but after 48 hours in Galway, I can confirm that this is most decidedly true.

Galway is often said to be the most "Irish" of Ireland's cities, in large part because the Irish language is more common here than many other places today. Its Irish name Gaillimh, comes from the Irish word "gaill" which means "outsiders" and was given to the city because it was originally made up of 14 merchant English and Norman families who Richard II granted a charter to in 1396. These families apparently clashed with leading Irish families in Connemara, and their presence here led to Galway being referred to as the "city of tribes."

Galway has a population of about 75,000 people today and about a quarter of its inhabitants are students. This leads to a plethora of coffee shops, pubs, and bookstores and it has completely won me over. I have loved long walks along the water and soaking up the quaint Ireland of postcards, no matter how much of a typical American tourist it makes me.


I'm staying with Katie, a member of the Swarthmore class of '07, who is a current Mitchell scholar pursuing a masters degree in Theater. She is generously giving me free reign of her amazing apartment for the next week and we happily discovered that between us we have eight straight years of overlapping Swarthmore Theater Department gossip and lots of mutual friends.

 Right outside Katie's apartment!

Best of all, Ireland seems to have discovered spring. Today was the first day since I arrived in Ireland it's been in the low-seventies (it might be my first day here that's risen above 55 degrees).

In other words, it's perfect beach walk weather.


I am happy with where my research in Dublin and Belfast has taken me, so I'm going about finding contacts in Galway in a rather lackadaisical way. In the meantime, I am eagerly anticipating my parents' visit at the end of the week (and am so happy that Galway is the Irish city they chose to visit me in), doing a lot of reading in the sun, and in complete denial about how quickly time is passing. I'll write more later, but if there's anything I have learned in Ireland, it's to close the computer screen and enjoy good weather while it lasts. (It won't last long).


Friday, May 18, 2012

Name Post: Names in Space

Right now I’m reading A Matter of Taste by Stanley Lieberson, a Harvard sociology professor who studied how names, fashion, and culture change. It’s all pretty interesting stuff, but one of the things I'm struck by most is how little turnover there was in names until relatively recently. He makes the point that it wasn’t until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that the leading names given to children began to change. As one dramatic example, he uses data from England and Wales and shows how if you look at the 50 most common names for boys and girls in 1700, these same names are all on the list in 1800. Today, living as we are in a time where tastes in names are changing frequently (as evidenced by the 2011 name lists released by the social security administration earlier this week), it’s hard to imagine names will be identical anywhere in the world in the next 100 years.
Laura Wattenberg of Baby Name Wizard fame makes the same case on her blog this week. She shows how for boys in particular, there was historically very little turnover. She looks at the top 5 boys names in the U.S. for 1947: James, Robert, John, William and Richard and compares it to the top 5 boys names in London in 1260. They are (guess what?): John, William, Robert, Richard and Thomas.  In other words, 4 of the top 5 boy names were consistent for seven centuries. That is madness.  (
                In many countries I’ve gone to this year, it’s been surprising how little flexibility there is in terms of the restrictions for naming your child, and how it seems like many governments and societies are figuring out how to deal with foreign-sounding names in their country for the first time. I’m reminded more and more to be patient because this IS a relatively recent phenomenon.  Thanks to less familial pressure to pass on names, and more sources than ever for new ones, names are crossing (cyber) space now more than ever.  This brings up a lot of questions, many of which I’ve previously mentioned here—like how I’ve noticed there’s a hierarchy in terms of what names are deemed acceptable (legally or socially) to be used worldwide.
                I might still roll my eyes at an American couple with no ties to India naming their daughter Shanti (meaning “peace”), or, likewise, an Indian couple with no ties to America who names their daughter “Brittney."  I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I feel this way though, because it’s impossible to say what names should and should be able to cross spaces and what names shouldn’t be. In Bali I met a man who named his son “Yoga” because he wanted an “import name” and he knew Americans liked it. I met a woman in Berlin who expressed discomfort with the idea that German babies might be given “African bush names.” Things get personal and political quite quickly. 

Waterworks Park
                What I’ve found interesting about my conversations in Belfast over the last few weeks is that many of them have made me think about how names move across different spaces on a micro level. In the past week, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting with a diverse group of people, including a group of teenagers at the WAVE Trauma Center (a cross-community care organization that offers support to people who have been bereaved, injured or traumatized as a result of the Troubles), researchers at the Ulster Historical Foundation, and academics at Queen’s University. In all of my conversations, the question of names and the physical spaces they are worn in have been at the center.
                The students at WAVE were the most candid about these across town divisions. “Protestants are all Sammy Joe or Bobby Lee, they love the two-name stuff,” one Catholic student told me.  “You’d never meet a Catholic named William or Billy because of King Billy,” another told me, referencing King Billy, who won the crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland by deposing King James II & VII, but, more relevant in Belfast, who participated in several wars against the Catholic King of France, Louis KIV. His victory over James at the Battle of Boyne in 1690 is still celebrated in Belfast with marches (organized by Protestant groups) on July 15thevery year. As you can imagine, because of Belfast’s recent history, many of these marches have become violent in recent years and there are many questions about the “right to march.”
                Students at WAVE told me stories of their own names; many were from their family or chosen for religious reasons; one teenager named Jason told me his mother gave it to him because the initials spelled out the months, “J-July, A-August, S-September, O-October, N-November.”  Most interesting to me was that several students spoke to the experience of having multiple names in different places.  A Catholic student named Terrance told me that when he was a kid, on the walk to school when he and his mother would go through Protestant neighborhoods his mother would tell him, “If anyone asks, here you’re Billy.” Another student told me a similar story; in Protestant neighborhoods, her mother would tell Niamh and her brother Kieran to go by Barbie and Ken. “It was kind of a joke, but kind of not.” She added. 
                It’s not a rare occurrence for people to go by different names in different places. In Zambia, I wrote about how many children were called by traditional, tribal names at home, and English, biblical names at their (often mission-funded) schools. Worldwide, it’s a common tendency for people to go by formal names in public and nicknames at home.  What’s interesting to me is that for these teenagers growing up, these name shifts all happened in public, outdoor spaces, in streets that literally blend into each other.  They are streets that may look identical to outsiders, but to Belfast natives at this time, indicated a complete shift. A shift so dramatic, it required an alternative title. 

Belfast's Angel of Peace statue.
                There are exceptions, of course.  Most people didn’t create aliases for themselves depending on what neighborhoods they were in, and some people might have names that sound more neutral in the first place. Most people I talk to say that you could guess a person’s religion (and what part of town they live in) around 90% of the time. (Some estimate more, others less). One person told me about a Protestant Bishop with kids who bear the Irish names Niall and Kieran.  And this may all be changing with the ever growing pool of names to choose from. “Today people are naming their kids weird names like Princess and Zara, like the store, and Africa Louise and Sapphire,” one student at WAVE told me.
    Despite the exceptions, as Tim Symth at the Ulster Historical Foundation put it, “There is a very very very good chance that Seamus McCarney will be Irish/Gaelic/Catholic and William Scott will be Protestant. Today, there may be fewer judgements about what that means, but the names will carry the same associations."
I’ve asked some people why they think there are still such strong divides in the names chosen by Catholics and the names chosen by Protestants. Part of this is because religion has dictated names; Catholics traditionally named their children after saints, but more than this, family customs have dictated how names are passed on.  Gillian Hunt at the Ulster Historical Foundation talked to me about how traditionally in Ireland the first son was named after the paternal grandfather, the second son after the maternal grandmother, and a similar pattern followed for girls. She told me that there is even evidence from Wales in the wills of deceased grandparents that more money was left to the grandchildren who bore their names.
                Most often things seem to fall too neatly on a binary; on one side is a person with an Irish name who, resultingly, is assumed to be Catholic and Republican. On the other side is a person with an English name who is assumed to be a Protestant and Loyalist.  Today people in Belfast seem determined to find the exceptions, as if to prove that things haven’t always been this way. Last night I went to the book release of a reprinting of Presbyterians and the Irish Language by Roger Blarney, a book that gives evidence for Protestants’ own role in preserving and promoting the Irish language. As one of the speakers said, “this book shows how people were promoting the language without the baggage it has in the twenty-first century.”
 It is certainly interesting to see examples of people from all communities embracing an Irish and Gaelic heritage, but you can’t simply return to a time when there wasn’t baggage to make it not exist now. Ironically, I spent my evening at that book release and my morning at Stormont, the house of the Northern Irish parliament, accompanying Tricia at a protest for injured victims of the Troubles. (For a news article and short video of the protest, click here: can very briefly see me walking behind the big banner).  

Names often become labels. Studies (like the one done by Freakonomics a few years ago), have shown how names are often color-coded in the U.S. and there is a significant statistical difference in the names used by African-American families and Caucasian families. My friend, Clara, recently sent me an NPR article ( about the differences among names in red states and blue states. 
           The social change, equalizer, liberal arts school progressive in me wants to tell everyone to mix up the names, “let Catholics use Protestant names, and Protestants use Catholic names! Or keep using names like Africa Louise and Princess and keep everyone guessing! Hold hands! World peace!" But the other part of me recognizes that this kind of supposed equalizing would also be ignoring the fact that these names are inherited from families and distinct cultures. Encouraging people to mix up the names in Belfast would be encouraging people to abandon their cultural traditions, akin to the tribal names being lost in Zambia as more and more English (and biblical) names are being used instead. The problems aren’t the names themselves, they are the stigmas attached to them.
                I mentioned what the WAVE students had said to Gillian and Tom at the Ulster Historical Foundation. I asked them why these children might have gone by different names in different neighborhoods, what was it exactly, that their parents were scared would happen if they used their real names?  “It’s not that a Catholic in a Protestant community or a Protestant in a Catholic community wouldn't be acceptable, but it seems safer to use other names, just in case.”
Just in case. I’m reminded of Medbh’s words about opening the outer door, but leaving the inner door mostly closed with a tentative gap--a gap of fear that's wide enough for these children to be renamed by their parents when they visit other parts of town, but small enough  for them to be in the same room telling me about it.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Made Connections

               Sometimes this year feels like the opposite of a column of missed connections.  Counter-intuitively, knowing you will probably never see people again is often a great reason to start conversations with them. I talk to strangers all the time. Because the woman in the bookstore has an American accent, I ask her where she’s from. Because I don’t know where to get a cheap lunch, I ask the taxi driver. Because friends are miles away, I cook dinner and invite people over.   I have turned into every thirteen year-old's worst nightmare, getting too caught up in strangers’ lives.
                These “made connections” sometimes feel remarkably serendipitous. A few weeks ago in Dublin, I randomly met a student studying at Trinity who I hit it off with and who kindly said he’d meet me the next day and get me into the Book of Kells for free with his student pass. Then there’s the German woman I met on a plane who had just written recommendations for the Watson for two Bryn Mawr students. There’s the fact that, of all people, Sam Amidon, one of my favorite musicians (and Vermonters) came to Belfast Friday night as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. I went to his concert, hung out with him briefly afterwards and learned that his albums were produced in, of all places, Iceland.  He gave me recommendations for Reykjavik, we discovered mutual Vermont friends, and talked about his ten month-old son. I had met him once before when he played at Swarthmore on my twenty-second birthday. (“So you’re the girl who had the Vermont party…” he had said then).

                Another one of these connections, connections that feel exceptional but I'm learning might actually be the norm, was with Tricia and Gaby, my hosts for my first eleven days in Belfast. Last weekend I moved again, because my new friend Anise (another serendipitous connection) has an empty (and free) apartment in Queen’s University for a few weeks while he’s in the U.S.
                I'm here for another week and am figuring out what I'd like to accomplish before heading back down south again. I've spent my time in Belfast doing a few interviews and trying to understand names, but also the enormous divides that make up this city. Most of all, however, my time here has been defined by these new relationships. From across town, I want to thank Tricia and Gaby, who gave me not only  the most adorable bedroom to sleep in, but also handed Belfast to me on a platter. We painted the town red, in the way that puddle-jumping-seven-year-olds seem to do best.

Festival of Fools

The new MAC Arts Center

St. George's Market 
Bouldering (hopefully more photos to come)

Titanic Quarter 
The new Titanic Museum, photo taken from the spot where the ship was built. 
The Drawing Room where the plans for the ship were made. 
 The Waterfront

Cavehill Hike & Belfast Castle

They have been my generous hosts, bouldering/hiking/eating/festival of foolsing companions, distractions from my name research, and made connections. I have come to believe in these serendipitous connections enough to know it’s not really goodbye.

I didn’t know much about Belfast before I arrived, but I recently remembered that I’ve actually been hearing about it for a long long time. Growing up, we didn't listen to a ton of music in the house. When my parents turn something on, it's NPR about 90% of the time (this fact agonized me as a child, but I'm now beginning to do the same as I slowly turn into my parents). This also means that my parents have pretty much no familiarity with contemporary music.  (Side note: My family's recent obsession with the TV show Friday Night Lights has given them a bit of a boost in this department). This is all to say that the music of my childhood tended to be exclusively Raffi, Free To Be You and Me, The Beatles, Abba, Enya and a few Irish/Celtic selections of my mother's, including Teresa Doyle. Teresa Doyle is a singer who lives on Prince Edward Island, and because she does a lot of children's songs, she became our summer music when we were up there.

Around the age of five, I fell in love with her song Tell My Ma. I think I played it in that PEI house on repeat for years, doing my own culturally insensitive version of Irish dancing in the kitchen. I loved the music, loved the story, and loved pretending I was the belle of Belfast City (the one Albert Mooney says he loves).

I was kind of a dramatic obnoxious child. When I was five I quit piano lessons because I told my mom I had thought I would be wearing a fancy red outfit and people would be watching me while I played. (Side note: by age eight I had gotten over it and continued to take lessons through the start of high school when I quit for slightly different reasons). 

I had kind of forgotten about Tell My Ma until the other day I was walking around Royal Avenue and realized I was in the Belfast of Belfast City and it all came back to me.

 (I couldn't find the Teresa Doyle version online, but this one is by the Rankin Family who were also occasionally listened to in our house). 

How strange it is that, years later, I'm here in Belfast City (albeit without rings on my fingers and bells on my toes), spending my time with a seven year-old girl who dances to Lady Gaga in the kitchen and pretends she's American.

Lemon cake with Anise and Gaby (photo by Tricia).

It's a pretty amazing world.

p.s. Happy late Mother's Day, Mom. Although I can't be with you, know that I'm thinking of you and passing on the love.

Just like you taught me to. 

Photos taken last Monday when I took Gaby to support her mom in the Belfast City Marathon.