Every so often some wit writes to advise me of the exquisite consonance between my postings and my last name. So indulge me for a bit while I take a quick run through a complex etymology. Leave out the Gaels; pass over the Normans who anglicized Gaelic names within the Pale. I do not need too much. Just enough to illustrate how beautiful this ancient clan name appears in Gaelic: Ó Maelearchaidh. Phonetically, the Old Irish spelling is identical to the modern variant, Mullarkey. But you must pronounce it with a lilt. Do your best. Listen as you say it. The music of it fills me with regret that my husband had no interest in reclaiming the historic form of his patronymic surname.
To paraphrase Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront: “I could have been a Maelearchaidh.”
The anglicized version, Mullarkey, appears on British records in Ulster in the 1600’s. Family tradition has it that the Mullarkeys were among the Irish Catholics cleansed from Ulster by Cromwell’s 1652 Act of Settlement.
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The Act confiscated Catholic-owned properties and sent native Irish east of the Shannon into exile. Dispossessed, the clan was driven onto the poorer soil of Connacht and Clare. Some dispersed to the hard landscape of Mayo, where my husband’s people farmed as best they could amid rock and peat.
Early on in my professional life, I was encouraged to shed my married name. My maiden name was pretty; it had a sturdy British ring to it. No popular banality attached to it. Besides, women were increasingly accustomed to keeping the name they were born with. But I had not chosen my birth name nor the male line that gave it to me.
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I did choose my husband. I took his name as I took him, a gift. I understood it not an erasure of identity—as feminist thinking had it—but as a sign of the perfection of it.
We were very young—too young to know that the answer to the question What’s in a name? is: More than you think.