“A feature of the degradation of the Gael,” wrote Edward MacLysaght in Irish Families (1957), “and the inferiority complex it produced was the wholesale discarding [from the eighteenth century onwards] of the distinctive prefixes O and Mac. Nor was this confined to the downtrodden peasantry. The few Catholic gentry who managed to maintain to some extent their social position, while keeping their Os and Macs within the ambit of their own entourage (usually in the remoter parts of the country), were so deeply conscious of belonging to a conquered nation that they frequently omitted the prefixes when dealing with Protestants, not only in legal matters but also in ordinary social intercourse. Thus we find Daniel O’Connell’s uncle, that picturesque figure universally known as ‘Hunting Cap’, signing himself Maurice Connell as late as 1803 when approaching the Knight of Kerry to enlist his influence in a court case …
“At the beginning of the present century [however] under the growing influence of the Gaelic League a general reversal of the process began to be perceptible. Yet even today there are scores of Gaelic names with which the prefix is seldom, if ever, seen, e.g. Boland, Brophy, Connolly, Corrigan, Crowe, Garvey, Hennessy, Kirby, Larkin, to mention a few of the commonest. The extent of this resumption can best be illustrated by the mere fact that while in 1890, according to Matheson’s calculations, there were twice as many Connells as O’Connells, today, (judging by such texts as directories) we have nine O’Connells for every Connell. I do not know the present proportion of O’Kellys to Kellys, but I am sure it is very much higher than it was in 1890 when the official estimate for all Ireland was 55,900 Kellys and only a mere 400 O’Kellys.”
Dropping of the “O” or the “Mac” was sometimes not enough to effectively disguise one’s origins or remake oneself. Mac Domhnaill might become McDaniel, but in a more thorough makeover it could be Donaldson, as Mac Liam might become Williamson or Wilson and Mac Néill Neilson. And of course, though it must have seemed unlikely at the time, there might eventually be traffic in the opposite direction, Wilmores, for example, becoming Mac Liammóirs or Stephensons Mac Stíofáins.
The very successful eighteenth century actor and dramatist Charles Macklin wrote a play, The True Born Irishman, which was first performed at Crowe Street theatre in Dublin in 1761 and six years later in London as The Irish Fine Lady. The plot concerns a wealthy Dublin family, the O’Doghertys, Murrough (played in the first performance by Macklin himself) and his wife, Nancy. At the time of the action of the play, Nancy has just returned from attending the coronation of George III in London, where she has suddenly become very struck with everything English – “everything there is high, tip top, the grand monde, the bun tun” ‑ and quite ashamed of everything Irish, speaking in a not too accurate imitation of the best English accent – “ … every eye was upon me: Lord, it was veestly pleasant …” ‑ and denigrating the manners and habits of her compatriots. Worst of all she is ashamed of her name:
O’DOGH: Dogherty! … upon my honour she startles when she hears the name of Dogherty, and blushes, and is as much ashamed as if a man had spoke bawdy to her.—No, no, my dear, she is no longer the plain, modest, good-natured, domestic, obedient Irish Mrs. O’Dogherty, but the travelled, rampant, high-lis’d, prancing English Mrs. Diggerty.
O’Dogherty, on the other hand, is proud of his name, perhaps unreasonably so:
O’DOGH: … O’Dogherty for ever – O’Dogherty! – there’s a sound for you – why they have not such a name in England as O’Dogherty – nor as any of our fine sounding Milesian names – what are your Jones and your Stones, your Rice and your Price, your Heads and your Foots, and Hands and your Wills, and Hills and Mills, and Sands, and a parcel of little pimping names that a man would not pick out of the street, compared to the O’Donovans, O’Callaghans, O’Sullivans, O’Brallaghans, O’Shagnesses, O’Flahertys, O’Gallaghers, and O’Doghertys, – Ogh, they have courage in the very sound of them, for they come out of the mouth like a storm; and are as old and as stout as the oak at the bottom of the bog of Allen, which was there before the flood …
Macklin had reason enough to have thought – and perhaps later to have had second thoughts – about the notion of changing one’s name to “better oneself”, having been born, probably in 1699, Cathal MacLochlainn in the townland of Gortanarin, near Culdaff in the Inishowen peninsula in the far north of Ireland. He was, of course, an Irish speaker, but like many others he soon left that behind, mastered English and eventually embarked on a successful career as an actor in London and Dublin, being particularly famed for his portrayal of Shylock (“This is the Jew / That Shakespeare drew” was Alexander Pope’s verdict). The reason given for the change from MacLochlainn to Macklin was the former’s “seeming somewhat uncouth to the pronunciation of an English tongue”. Fair enough; a foreign name does not have to be very difficult to be too difficult for an English tongue.
In 1990 Brian Friel reworked Macklin’s The True Born Irishman as a one-act play, The London Vertigo, adding a preface to the printed version, in which he wrote:
By a series of complicated and cruel manoeuvres Macklin has Mrs Diggerty cured of her vertigo, properly humiliated before her friends and reconciled to decent Dublin domesticity. Simultaneously and almost certainly unwittingly [my emphasis] Macklin has written his own biography as comedy farce.
adding, a little further on:
My reason for renaming the play The London Vertigo is that the title both signposts the play’s theme and hints at the fate the author himself so eagerly embraced.
This may be a little harsh, even a little off target. It is rather difficult to believe that Macklin could have written unwittingly a satire whose central figure is a person foolishly besotted by fashionable London who wishes to obliterate her nationality. Macklin was in fact quite the Irish patriot and had championed the Irish and Irish causes in other plays. The True Born Irishman was ecstatically received in Dublin, while The Irish Fine Lady was a flop in London. Perhaps Macklin hoped for more sophistication from his metropolitan audience but it seems likely that they did not much appreciate his play’s rumbustuous pro-Irishness, its scathing remarks on landlordism and corruption or the presentation of its chief English character, Count Mushroom, as a nincompoop.
Over the last few hundred years, O’Dohertys (or Ó Dochartaighs) have become Dohertys and Dochertys, Doughertys (like Marilyn Monroe’s first husband, Jim), Doghertys and Daughertys, and much else no doubt besides. In Derry city, which today probably holds the biggest concentration of the clan, there are still infinitely more Dohertys than O’Dohertys and the name is generally pronounced “Dawrdy”, with two syllables rather than three; in Inishowen it is nearer to “Dorty”.
My own Doherty ancestors left Inishowen in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, settling in eastern Oregon in the United States, where they became sheep farmers on extensive cheap land which had fairly recently been the territory of the native American Umatilla tribe. My great-grandfather, “Big Shan”, and eight of his fourteen children, my granduncles and grandaunts Mary Jane, Kate, Bernard (Long Barney), Philip, Big Pat, Ellen, Susan and Ben, are buried in Oregon, several of them in the same rural cemetery in Vinson, near Pilot Rock. My grandfather, Joseph, and his brother John married two sisters from Carndonagh, Rose and Kate McLaughlin, brought them out to Oregon but returned after just a few years, selling their share in the family ranch to their brother Big Pat for $33,000. Joe and John each built a substantial house, at opposite ends of Carndonagh. There are so many Dohertys of various families today in Carndonagh and surrounds that the name on its own is not fit for purpose. Pat Doherty sure, but which Pat Doherty? And so there are the nicknames: the Sadlers, the Pauls, the Glackins etc; and our lot are the Oregons, though before they went off to Oregon they were the Newmans, being “new people” who had migrated, in the eighteenth century, from Ballyliffen on the Atlantic coast in to Ballyloskey, just south of Carndonagh. Gary Doherty, of Spurs, Norwich City and the Republic of Ireland, is probably the Doherty or O’Doherty who has scored the most and is one of the Pauls.
In the early 1930s my father, Liam (aka Bill, aka Willie James), and his first cousin Martin, son of John, went to Dublin to attend University College Dublin. My father stayed in the city until the late 1940s, and Martin for life. In the capital, perhaps at university, the two young men fell under the influence of Gaelic revivalist and national-cultural thinking and before too long William Doherty and Martin Doherty had become Liam O’Doherty and Martin O’Doherty, a version of the surname which was passed down to the next generation in each case.
None of my numerous first cousins, however, are anything other than Dohertys and it was put to me a few years ago by one of these – at a party in fact to celebrate the centenary of the house that my grandfather, Joe, built – that the whole name-changing business was a bit foolish or snobbish and that if I, or my brothers for that matter, had any common sense, we would quickly revert to the unpretentious Doherty. I am not all that inclined to comply with this late night advice since adding back the “O” into a name that had lost it for a couple of hundred years is not something I think of as necessarily pretentious. Just as importantly, if my father, as a young man, drank in the heady atmosphere of cultural nationalist idealism – became infected, if you like, with the Dublin Vertigo – it is scarcely an extravagant act of filial piety on my part to just leave his decision be. Though mind you FitzDoherty has a ring to it.
Photograph: The house that Joe Oregon Doherty built in Carndonagh in 1911
The London Vertigo, by Brian Friel, is published by The Gallery Press.