There’s a musician in Glencolmcille who goes by the name of Sean Conn Johnny.
Yes, that’s his real – and for all practical purposes – his only name.
He’s unhappy if ever he finds himself beyond Donegal town. If perchance he’s forced to travel beyond the bounds of the country – a very occasional and most unwelcome matter … a distant cousin in Amerikay who passed on and had to be buried, for example – he’d be required to admit on the official forms – a passport, maybe – that he also has another sobriquet: Byrne.
Sean Conn Johnny has the good fortune to hail from Teelin – a paradise I told you of here a few times before. There has not been a day of his adult life when he didn’t walk the mountain through Bunglass to the solitude of the sea cliffs at Slieve League.
A single man who lived with his mother (a lady who recently passed away) in a cottage at the edge of the strand facing Kilcar, he would not know the meaning of the modern complaint of ‘stress’.
He plays the guitar and sings. When he sings, you’d hardly hear him. He’s singing in tune with some inner voice in his head.
He has another, less happy distinction.
He’s the very spit of your editor, who’s been known to take advantage!
‘Ah Sean,’ I’d hear at my elbow, while downing a pint in The Rusty Mackerel,
‘You sang well the night! Good on ye!
Will ye have another pint of Guinness?’
But it wasn’t of this at all, that I wanted to tell you.
It was the name.
Sean, the son of
It is, of course, necessary in that part of Donegal where everyone you meet is either Byrne or Cunningham! You have to adopt such a tradition just to distinguish one person from another.
There are alternatives. People are sometimes known by their occupation: sometimes by a physical characteristic: even a deformity!
One-eyed Barney: Mick the Limp: Johnny Go-Slap (he had one leg longer than th’ other!): Joe the Painter: Brian the Bus: Terry the Tailor. The seed, breed and generation would come to be known by the nickname. Like in Newry, you might be asked: ‘Are you one of the Mungo Pattersons?’ Well, the very same thing!
Anyway, there was a widow woman one time from those parts determined to rid her family of the dreaded nickname. This particular branch of the Sweeneys had not, for several generations been known to cultivate the flax plant (from which linen cloth is eventually made) but still, each and every member had their first name pre-fixed by the legend ‘Flax-Hole’ in tribute to some ancient relative whose particular talents lay in that direction.
The widow sent out the message in no uncertain terms that anyone addressing any member of her family in future by this term would be considered, not just NOT a friend, but indeed an enemy.
The widow woman was acquiring airs and graces and aspiring to be what she was not. She determined to demonstrate her superiority by having her cottage painted pink, to make it stand out from all the other white-washed cottages around.
It’s unclear whether she was pleased with the outcome.
From the day and hour she did this, each and every one of her children, formerly Flax-Hole Felie’s .. whatever, became known as
‘Pink-House Mary’s Jack’
or ‘Pink-House Mary’s Biddie!’
Certainly in later life they didn’t thank their mother who made this cross for them to bear!