What's in a name

published 06 May 2013

The name on my birth certificate is "Kevin Chekov Kolbe Feeney".

Kevin was the name of my paternal grandfather, which was probably the inspiration for my first name. My mother may disagree, but I don't always trust the fidelity of her motivational recollections, so my explanation is good enough for me.

Chekov was in honour of the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. The spelling of my name - with a 'K' rather than a 'KH' is down to changing trends in romanisation of Cyrillic characters. The Russian character 'Kha' written as 'х' used to be commonly transposed to 'K' or "CK" in the Roman alphabet, rather than the more linguistically accurate 'KH'. I share the old-fashioned spelling with Star Trek's Pavel Chekov who was created a little over 6 years before I was born. My name has, in any case, resolutely retained the same, old-fashioned romanisation of Чeхов - Chekov. Birth certificates are stubbornly immune to the tides in fashion among linguists.

Kolbe was a tribute to Maximilian Kolbe a Polish Catholic priest who was killed by the Nazis in Auschwitz and subsequently canonized.

In Ireland, for some weird reason, children who go through the Catholic confirmation ritual supplement the crop of names that they received at birth with a "confirmation name" - a totally pointless thing to do as the name is immediately and ubiquitously ignored for all ensuing eternity. A confirmation name has to be the name of a saint, which effectively ruled out interesting and funny names - although I recall that one of my classmates took "Mary" as his confirmation name which was funny, albeit unintentionally so.

Anyway, I chose Paul as my confirmation name. I vaguely recall thinking that a classmate named Paul was cool on the day that we had to pick names and that being the driving force behind my choice. So, my name grew to become "Kevin Chekov Kolbe Paul Feeney": quite a mouthful. On the few occasions that somebody has called my name out loud from an official document, I have winced with embarrassment.

Since then I have supplemented my names with a few acquired titles - I believe that the most full and proper version of my name is now "Dr. Kevin Chekov Kolbe Paul Feeney schol." (having gained a PhD and a foundation scholarship from Trinity College Dublin which entitle me to use the honorifics) although academic honorifics have dubious standing in Ireland. Thankfully I have never actually had any reason to use them.

Where my name came from

My parents were left-wing bohemians with strong non-conformist and post-Vatican II catholic renewal influences. They met at a meeting of a Catholic-Marxist protest group in 1968.

Yes, I did say Catholic-Marxist.

Between the partition of the island in 1920 and the 1980s Ireland was a very culturally homogeneous place. There was virtually no immigration or minority cultural influences, with most of the protestant minority busy setting up their own miserable theocratic state North of the border. It was an extremely poor and predominantly rural place with a culture of mass emigration which served as a social pressure valve: the most vibrant and adventurous elements of each generation left for the UK or USA, rarely to return. The centuries-long ethnic-religious-cultural conflict between the protestant Anglo-Irish and the catholic Gaels also left a strong residue of catholic nationalism in its wake, which persists to this day, albeit in a somewhat diluted form. Ireland's abortion laws, for example, are easily the most repressive in the Western world and are arguably harsher than those of the Muslim theocracy of Saudi Arabia.

My father, John Feeney, helping the guards with their enquiries. This followed an arrest at Leinster House, Merrion Square, following a demonstration by the Dublin Housing Action Committee. A large version of this photo hung on our living room wall throughout my childhood. Ireland image: 1969

The Irish catholic church guarded their hegemony with vigour - repressing, harassing, excluding and generally crushing anything that smelled of a cultural challenge. Developments in communication technology, particularly the advent of English television channels which were beyond the reach of the Irish censors, started to erode the absolute nature of catholic control from the 1960s onwards. Nevertheless, Ireland remained relatively well-insulated from the wave of youth radicalisation and cultural liberalisation that swept the Western world in the late 1960s. A variety of "Christ of the poor" religious leftism was about as radical as it was possible to get and even this only managed to gain an influence amongst a tiny fringe of third level students. This was the milieu in which my parents met.

"Celebrity has long granted leniency in the policing of social norms"

In 1974, a year after I was born, they decamped from the city for a life closer to nature in the nearby Wicklow mountains. They bought an ancient cottage on a small parcel of land which they populated with chickens, goats, a donkey, an orchard and a vegetable garden and proceeded to produce several more children (giving them 5 boys in total).  What the locals thought of these interlopers with their impractical commune-farm and a house full of subversive books, one can only imagine.  However, any suspicions that they aroused were partially allayed by a few factors.  Firstly, my father became quite famous as an iconoclastic journalist who used to appear regularly on TV and radio. Celebrity has long granted leniency in the policing of social norms.  Secondly, my mother became a teacher in the local primary school - the best position from which to integrate into a community.  Thirdly, my father was a saint of a man who would spend his free days ferrying the sick children of  the local poor to hospitals, schools and on various excursions.  Nevertheless, the local clerics kept a close eye on us. I recall, on one occasion, an entire sermon in the tiny local church - which housed no more than 30 people - being devoted to a vigorous denunciation of my father's views.

Country life hippy-style. My parents with myself and my elder brother in the garden of our cottage in the Wicklow mountains. image: 1975

In keeping with their bohemian non-conformism, my parents eschewed the popular convention of sticking to typical, time-honoured forenames or 'christian' names to bestow on their children. My elder brother's first name is 'Larkin' after James Larkin. Myself and my younger siblings were given more conventional first names while our middle names - Chekov, Kolbe, Lorca, Ritsos, Flaubert - expressed their cultural values.

Irrespective of what my official name was, as far back as I can remember, I was always known as Chekov to my family. In my early years I was scarcely aware that I had any other name. Why my parents chose to use my 2nd name to address me, I do not know. I suspect that they came to regret their timidity in giving in to convention by giving me an ordinary first name. Another plausible hypothesis is that the decision was motivated by a desire to annoy my grandfather, Kevin, who was a fairly conservative man. A final possibility is that it was simply a family convention - my grandfather Kevin's actual name was John Kevin, if my memory serves me correctly. Or perhaps it was a mix of all three or was just a whim.

By the time that I was 4 years old and started to attend primary school, I became aware of the fact that my name was unusual, but, aside from the routine corporal punishment,  Curtlestown was a gentle place and my schoolmates were too young to be able to understand the cultural signals that forenames send out, so it was a matter of little concern to me.

My immediately younger brother had an even more unusual name. Although he was baptised as John Lorca Ritsos, for the first 3 or 4 years of his life, he was known exclusively as "Loki" - after a Norse God of mischief. When he reached school-going age, he decided that Loki was a name fit only for a baby and insisted that he be known as Johnny from then on. A few months of raging tantrums later the matter was decisively settled in his favour. I recall observing his rages and deciding that it was not worth the effort for me to impose a similar re-naming of myself. For one thing, I was content with my name as it was. For another, even at the age of 5, I was strongly disposed against making a fuss about myself - a trait which has remained with me ever since. I have sometimes wondered if my life might have developed in a different way had I taken a similarly strong line back then. My brother Johnny certainly ended up taking quite a different direction in life than I did.

The advent of Kevin

In 1982, at the age of 8, my parents decided to remove me from the gentle rural surroundings of Curtlestown national school and to send me instead to the Preparatory school of Gonzaga College S.J. one of the principle training grounds of Ireland's post-independence catholic elite.  I think that this decision was a consequence of my parents deciding that my elder brother's journey through the free public school system had been a failed experiment. 

Upon admission to Gonzaga, I was interviewed by my new school's headmaster, a peculiar man named Daniel McNelis. During this interview I told him that, although my name was Chekov,  I also had another name, Kevin, which I did not use.  He asked me by which name I wished to be called.  On the spur of the moment I decided that it would be exciting to have a new name and I answered "Kevin".  With this whimsical answer at 8 years old, a lifetime of partitioned identity was launched. Since that moment, it has almost always been the case that I have been known as Kevin in some environments and Chekov in others. These worlds have rarely crossed paths, so that, for example, if you were to ask any member of my family or close friends about "Kevin" they would likely not know who you were talking about and if you asked an academic colleague about "Chekov", they would be similarly at a loss. 

I have sometimes wondered whether I could have spared myself a significant amount of future trouble if my 8 year old self had answered that question differently.  On balance, however, it was probably a wise decision.  As a simple country boy from a distinctly unconventional background, adjusting to life amongst the offspring of Dublin's aspiring elites was difficult enough.  Teenage life in such an environment is brutal. I was compelled to learn how to fight with some urgency as it was. The added burden of drawing attention to myself with a culturally alien name would surely have been unhelpful from a survival point of view.

Life went on and my identity remained divided between school life and home life.  This was not particularly problematic as long as my family life remained at a considerable physical distance from my school life.  However, in 1984, shortly after my 11th birthday, my father died in a plane crash and, within a couple of years, unable to cope with bringing up 5 young children in a cottage on the side of a mountain, my mother moved us back to the city.  Now, my two worlds rubbed shoulders on a daily basis and some of my siblings even attended school with me.  

On one of the first occasions that I invited school friends back to my house I carefully prepped my family that they were to refer to me exclusively as Kevin for the duration of the visit. Naturally, it was a total failure. Years of habituation easily trumped my prepping.  A series of conversations began with "Chek.... sorry.... um... eh... Kevin" complete with pained apologetic expressions and my poor school friend was left in a state of total confusion.  Within about 15 minutes I had abandoned the exercise. It seemed ridiculous that I should put my family through such pain merely for calling me by the name that I had always been known to them. From that moment onwards, I resolved to abandon any and all attempts at intervention in the quetion of how people addressed me.

This story is continued here: http://www.chekov.org/blog/whats-name-part-2

Comments (9)

chekov's picture
chekov

Tune in tomorrow for the rest of this story. In which I discuss the evolution of my name through my youth and give some general reflections on what it's like to have a funny name.

Larkin

Crikey. Now I'm really intrigued. Who knows what incidents from our childhoods might feature - reflections on being a second son? I didn't realise you could append "schol" to your name - how quaint!

Susan Adeboyeku

What might Larkin have become if he hadn't been put through a failed experiment?

Anonymous

Lovely family photo....

Naoise

Keep it coming Cheks.

KmB

Still writes like an angel, more like a Chekov and less like any Khevin I know

Mary

This is really great , nice work.

Ol Butler

...Cheksy (!) your writing perfectly captures both reflection and the contemporary. Really enjoyable.

Dee molloy

Story is lovely, great photos. It makes one wonder how Larkin got on in comparison with gonzaga boys tho! Dee