I knew an undertaker in Northern Ireland who knew his market well. To his Protestant clients, he was Rourke, to Catholics he was O’Rourke. If one looked in the telephone directory, he appeared under both names. A friend passing through a Catholic village one morning, stopped her car to allow a funeral cortege to pass. The undertaker walked ahead of the hearse, dressed immaculately in top hat, claw hammer coat and sponge bag trousers. Spying the friend, he tipped his hat and said, “O’Rourke today”.
A flexibility of names is common in Ireland. Sean may be John according to his context and O’s may be dropped or retained for convenience. Pat O’Connor, a onetime neighbour, said there were simply too many O’Connors in the parish and enough Pat O’Connors to cause confusion, so he he styled himself Pat Connor.
Sometimes the Gaelicisation of names appeared calculated to confuse outsiders. An accountant I knew who was a fluent Irish speaker, would become infuriated at public servants who lived every day under one name, but used complex Gaelic forms when acting in an official capacity.
There has sometimes been a temptation to adopt the Irish custom and to adapt my surname according to my inclination.
“Poulton” is a toponymic, a placename, probably derived from a town in Lancashire, although there are other possibilities, including a village in Gloucestershire.
Attending a gathering in Dublin on one occasion, a man asked my name. “Poulton,” I said, “north of Blackpool; Lancastrian.”
“We’re neighbours.” he said, “I’m Fleetwood.”
Counting up, I thought, “I know a Preston and I met an Oldham, and there are a few Boltons and Blackburns around. It would not take long to cover much of the county.”
A toponymic was not part of your name; it was simply a statement of where you were from, so as to distinguish you from others with similar Christian names.
In a report on legal proceedings on 17th December 1326 at Lichfield Cathedral, concerning a dispute on the tithes of a parish, “of” appears frequently. It being Norman times, “of” was still ‘de’.
Lichfield Cathedral, continued from 16 Dec.
1. Prior and Convent of St. Thomas the Martyr of Order of St. Augustine, by their Proctor, Brother Henry de Wasteneys, canon.
2. (a) Robert de Marchumleye, Master of Hospital of Wych Malbanc, by his Proctor Nicholas Pollard, clerk; and
(b) William de Prayers, priest, Richard de Dodingcton […] , Richard de Prayers and Ralph le Taylour, laymen of diocese of Coventry and Lichfield by their Proctor John de Poulton.
Process heard before Philip de Turvill in dispute concerning tithes of place called Oxebruggehay in parish of ALDELYME [Audlem, co. Chester] claimed by Prior and Convent, following receipt (recited) of Pope John XXII dated 29 June 1325. Referring also to the churches of STOWE BY CHARTLEY, CAVERSWALL and MAER which the Prior and Convent also hold to their own uses.
Witnesses to the proceedings William de Norton, John Blaby chaplains, Robert de Egynton, William called Fust, clerk of Lichfield and others.
Notary’s Mark of Adam called Le Wodeward, clerk, of Coventry and Lichfield diocese, Apostolic Notary.
John de Poulton, my namesake; eight hundred years later, would he simply be “Poulton”? Would the point of geographical reference be lost? Probably.
The “de” prefix seems now confined to those who claim descent from prominent Norman families. But if I adopted the habit found in Ireland, what is there to prevent its restoration? There seems a certain cachet in a prefixed names. Like the undertaker passing his friend, I could nod and say, “de Poulton today!”