Always and without question, when I email someone I don’t know and sign my name off as:
“Many thanks and kind regards,
Dòmhnall Iain MacDonald”
They reply with:
In my reply to their reply, I once more use “Dòmhnall Iain,” only to have them reply with “Dear Iain” again!
I find this behaviour bizarre. When I complained about this on facebook, I jokingly asked if people thought Dòmhnall was some kind of title? While Dòmhnall does technically mean “Ruler of the World,” I highly doubt everyone who corresponds with me is an expert in Celtic philology.
There is only one possible explanation, then. Whether consciously or unconsciously, people choose to ignore the first part of my double-barreled name. Do their eyes skirt over the exotically spelled part of my name, drawn to the more familiar, Anglo-Saxon-looking Iain? Do they deliberately choose not to retype a name which is an aberration to the rules of English spelling? Does only the English-like (i.e. Biblical!) part of my name count as proper?
One would have thought that it was common courtesy when corresponding formally with someone to address them by the name they themselves use. Dòmhnall Iain stands there, clear as the light of day, in both my actual email address and the name I sign my emails off with. It is not for lack of information my correspondents do not use it.
My problem is subtly different to the chronic Anglicization of names many Irish Gaels suffer, as described by the blogger An Sionnach Fionn. No one is changing Dòmhnall to Donald. Universally, people seem to be choosing not to use the ‘difficult’ Gaelic part of my name. What drove me to complain on facebook was that I was repeatedly called Iain in emails from someone who worked for a UK Muslim organization, who was presumably used to non-English, oddly-spelled names, yet still for their own inexplicable reasons chose to erase half my name.
People might say my complaining is petty. But, honestly, it’s simple. It’s just polite and decent to use someone’s chosen name. No one would ever dare change a Frenchman’s name to English…
Yet this question of what to call ourselves looms large in the lives of Gaelic speakers. Unlike in Ireland, where using a Gaelic name is commonplace, in Scotland we are still nervous about using our real names.
For reasons unknown to me, my father (an advocate of Gaelic his whole life, who worked to get GME in my school) wrote Donald Iain on my birth certificate, yet – alongside everyone else in the islands – he has called me Dòmhnall Iain since the day I was born. I only became aware of this contradiction when I went to secondary school and teachers called me Donald (sometimes with an Iain added on, sometimes just Donald John). This was because I was on the school role (and on my passport, and on the bank) as Donald Iain. Still in the 21st century, then, Gaels are using English for their proper, official names, and Gaelic for their colloquial, real names!
Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul describes this tension in his novel Fuaran Ceann an t-Saoghail (2012:38) –
“Tha iad air cairt bheag a thoirt dhomh le m’ainm air. Criosaidh, tha e ag ràdh aig a’ mhullach, agus Mrs MacDonald aig a’ bhonn. Sin mise. Criosaidh MacDonald. Neo NicDhòmhnaill, mas fheàrr leibh. Neo, gu dearbha, Dhòmhnallach. […] Criosaidh NicDhòmhnaill, ma-thà. Neo Chrissie mar a bheir cuid. Ged a bha cuid eile bha toirt Criostag agus Ciorstag orm. Criosaidh Sheonaidh Ruairidh Chaluim Sheonaidh Iain Dhòmhnaill Eòsag Iain Bhig. Ged a ghabh mi ainm mo dhuine an latha a phòs mi – Seumas a bh’airesan. Bean Sheumais Uilleim Sheumais ic Oighrig a’ Ghunna.”
[“They have given me a little card with my name on it. Criosaidh, it says at the top, with Mrs MacDonald at the bottom. That’s me. Criosaidh MacDonald. Or NicDhòmhnaill, if you prefer. Or, indeed, Dhòmhnallach. […] Criosaidh NicDhòmhnaill, then. Or Chrissie as some were called. Though there were others who called me Criostag and Ciorstag. Criosaidh Sheonaidh Ruairidh Chaluim Sheonaidh Iain Dhòmhnaill Eòsag Iain Bhig. Though I took the name of my husband the day I married – Seumas was his name. Bean Sheumais Uilleim Sheumais ic Oighrig a’ Ghunna’s.”]
When I went to university, I started using Dòmhnall Iain MacDonald. On my university cards, memberships and such like. One day I would like to publish scientific papers under this name.
In Ireland, people often use the Gaelic surname. I’m still a bit reluctant to do this. First, because these Gaelic surnames always seem ugly and unnatural – I would much rather write my sloinneadh. But also because I’ve only just become an adult and I’m still a bit nervous about navigating the world of finance, bills and passports, let alone changing my identity on them.
The reasons I was always given in school for not using Dòmhnall Iain for official purposes was that it would only cause confusion – a classic case would be in job applications, people would just throw away a difficult-to-pronounce name. Now, I don’t know if there’s any truth to this, but if there is, then it’s the kind of situation we need to stand up to. Using Gaelic names needs to be normalized in our society, like it has to some extent in Ireland. Otherwise we will all carry on feeling embarrassed, keeping our real names for the house and family.
This is the Gaelic cringe. I hate introducing myself to people. When I say my name is Dòmhnall Iain, many even refuse to attempt to pronounce it. When I explain it is a Gaelic name, they ask for a translation. I hate translating it because then people laugh at Donald MacDonald – as if this dull Anglicization and it associations with fast food and Disney ducks didn’t disguise the riches of my genealogy, culture and language. My grandfather, after whom I was named, was a Donald MacDonald from birth certificate to headstone, but was also a Dòmhnull Eachainn, a Dòmhnull Eirisgeach, a Dòmhnull Dòmhnullach…
English names are boring. They are a hangover from the days of Empire. They are officialdom’s way of hiding Gaeldom. Besides the few gracious enough to try to pronounce Dòmhnall Iain, I now just ask everyone else in Oxford to call me D.I. I would prefer to use initials that stand for my full Gaelic name, rather than use any invented English name others choose to give me.
I often feel apologetic when I introduce my name – a common name in the islands, foreign in the rest of the country. That is not right. It is those who misname me who should be ashamed.