Nicknames: a directory of occupations, geographies, prejudices and habits

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2010), Volume 18

The wake of Katy Tyrell (above)—when photographer and native John Minihan showed his Athy collection to Samuel Beckett (below) in 1980, the playwright observed that they were both capturing the same angle of the soul. In particular, he was inspired by the sequence of shots of the wake of Katy Tyrell. The photos often referred to nicknames rather than given names. (John Minihan)

The wake of Katy Tyrell (above)—when photographer and native John Minihan showed his Athy collection to Samuel Beckett (below) in 1980, the playwright observed that they were both capturing the same angle of the soul. In particular, he was inspired by the sequence of shots of the wake of Katy Tyrell. The photos often referred to nicknames rather than given names. (John Minihan)

Like most places in Ireland, Athy, Co. Kildare, boasts hundreds of nicknames, some unique to the individual, some family nicknames, others specific to a townland or street. When renowned photographer John Minihan presented his Athy collection to Samuel Beckett, the playwright observed that they were both capturing the same angle of the soul. The photos presented by Minihan often referred to nicknames rather than given names. There are the given names that encapsulate the hopes of parents and that record descent, the names used by officialdom. And then there is the alternative universe of nicknames, names given, sanctioned and maintained by the community. Nicknames often showcase rapier wit and breathtaking wordplay (often from people who never sat in a classroom). Whether it refers to geography, history, physical ability or simple rhyming slang, a nickname is a gem that not only informs you about the holder but also tells much about their community and its attitudes. Somewhere between the spoken word and the written word lies an approximation of the truth, echoing as it does Donald Runsfelt’s ‘unknown unknowns’.

Physical attributes

78_small_1274260511Nicknames, to be sustainable, must make sense to the community around the named person. Physical attributes, abilities and disabilities are often the starting point. There is the tall, stiff-bodied ‘Bottleneck’; there is ‘Green Eye’ with his one weeping glass eye; there is ‘Short-arse’, ‘Hopalong’ and a variety of ‘Skinneys’. Even nicknames referring to physical looks can harbour the attitudes of a community. Nicknames such as ‘Nigger’, ‘Chinaman’, ‘Chow’, ‘Yellaw’, ‘Jap’ (a nickname that appears in Kings of the Kilburn Highroad) or even ‘Buckwheat’ all give an insight into how the community imagined the physical or facial features of foreigners. It also suggests a set of nicknames imagined in a previous mono-ethnic Ireland, as many would be shouted loudly in public, a situation unthinkable in present-day multi-racial Ireland.

 

Non-Athy people had nicknames peculiar to their relationship with the town. The ‘Yank’ is easily recognised in Athy, less so in Dublin but not at all in New York. Likewise, ‘Wicklow’ O’Brien or ‘Wexford’ Foley are unlikely to have the same nicknames in their home towns. A nickname is usually given to someone and not self-chosen. Names like ‘Hang Loose’, ‘Hard Boiled’ or ‘The Sheriff’ are respectable, even desirable, nicknames. (‘The Sheriff’, a popular character in the town, was accompanied by his son, ‘The Deputy’.) Some families were particularly rich in nicknames. (There was the father called ‘Die Hard’ and his three sons, ‘Gut’, ‘Silo’ and—my own favourite—‘Touché’.) A nickname I hadn’t understood for years was ‘The Gangster of Love’ for a man called Maurice until I heard the lyrics of the Steve Miller Band’s hit Space Cowboy, from the 1976 album Fly like an eagle. You don’t get to pick your own nickname. One particular individual who had hoped for a ‘cool’ nickname was forever after known as ‘Duckshite’.
A nickname is sustained only by the acceptance of the community. It does not simply seek to identify the individual but also to mediate their persona within that community. Often a nickname will act as an equalising mechanism, those community sanctions that serve to level the playing field. For example, a person who was quick to share unsolicited knowledge or opinion would be brought down a peg or two through the sarcastic name ‘The Prophet’ or ‘The Professor’. Behaviour that was approved of by the community won people other names, like ‘The Hummer Clancy’, a barman who hummed rather than listen to gossip. At their worst, nicknames constituted community cruelty or even bullying: ‘Blahblah Blahblah’, the kid with the speech impairment; the wheelchair-user called ‘Riverdance’; or ‘Stevie Wonder’, who, as you may have guessed, was blind. This again, however, highlights the importance of recording nicknames. The language of the media and academia will often be ‘politically correct’, and this is without doubt the correct approach, but it may mislead future historians as to the attitude of a community at a particular time.

Sexuality and sexism

 

‘Cuddy’ Chanders checks the form in a betting office in Duke Street, Athy, in 1974; he was so called after Jack MacCuddy, a character in his party piece, a recitation called ‘Happy School Days’—or alternatively for his ‘canny’ play for Kildare in the 1935 All-Ireland football final. (John Minihan)

‘Cuddy’ Chanders checks the form in a betting office in Duke Street, Athy, in 1974; he was so called after Jack MacCuddy, a character in his party piece, a recitation called ‘Happy School Days’—or alternatively for his ‘canny’ play for Kildare in the 1935 All-Ireland football final. (John Minihan)

Sexuality is never far from the surface in the creation of nicknames. There was the amorous ‘Five Mickies’, the popular young lady ‘The Commer Bus’ and the man who fathered only girls and earned himself the title ‘Shecock’. Romance was never treated with sympathy: a lifetime struggle in the search for a soul mate coined the nickname ‘Love Me Tender Danny Pender’. Sexual characteristics also featured heavily, for example the two sisters of varied breast sizes, ‘Half-Pint’ and ‘Quart’. There was the short-trousered, red-haired lollypop man known as ‘Ginger Nuts’. Cocky and Horny, however, referred to surnames. Sexism also featured. Two spinster sisters were known locally as the ‘Lemon’ sisters owing to the fact that they were considered ‘bitter’ and ‘twisted’!
Inspiration for nicknames came from far and wide. ‘Bapty’ Maher was a shortening of his given name, John the Baptist Maher. There was also a ‘Gandhi’, a ‘Tellytubby’ and a ‘Hitler’. ‘Hitler’ had gained his nickname in school as his surname (at a stretch) rhymed with the word German. This led to a particularly awkward moment when his friend attempted to explain to a group of Polish drinkers that they were ‘only’ celebrating ‘Hitler’s’ birthday. From ‘Fireman’ Tim to ‘Sparky’, nicknames can inform the keen observer about the economics of a particular time and the resulting occupations. Names like ‘Shopboy’ not only recall Athy’s past as a market town but also the class system within it. Canal men were called ‘Bargepole’. A family business in barbering spawned two generations of ‘Hockers’. ‘Chicken Choker’ was a butcher but ‘Wood Butcher’ was a poor carpenter. In a single factory there could be numerous nicknames that only existed during working hours and in the confines of the factory. ‘Sledgehammer’, ‘Brasso’, ‘The Major’, ‘The Black Pearl’ and ‘Jackdaw’ made up the 4–12 shift in one particular factory.

 

 

‘Bapty’ [John the Baptist] Maher at the funeral of Paddy Prendergast, 1980. (John Minihan)

Bapty’ [John the Baptist] Maher at the funeral of Paddy Prendergast, 1980. (John Minihan)

As we have seen, the history of a town or a community may be found in its nicknames. Nicknames can be cruel or humorous, affectionate or disparaging, historic or sarcastic. What is always true is that they are worth looking at. At their nastiest, nicknames can be about toughening up a child for a crueller world or forcing acceptance and ownership of ability. By the same token, a cruel nickname can damage a person long into their adult life. It is not important to approve or disapprove of nicknames; what is important is the role they play in understanding community dynamics and the history of those dynamics. HI

 

Colm Walsh is an anthropology and history graduate of NUI Maynooth.

 

Further reading:
J. Minihan, Shadows of the Pale (London, 1993).
F. Taaffe, A short history of Athy (Athy, 1999).

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