Irish Roots

January 24h, 2011

John Grenham


One of the repeated irritations of indexing family records is the double-barrelled surname. If a hyphen is supplied (“Day-Lewis”), there is no problem. But most clergymen shun such frivolous vanities as punctuation, leaving the problem in the lap of future generations. To some extent a flexible database design can finesse the problem, allowing searches across any text in the record, but for a transcriber there are still repeated quandaries. Take a name such as ‘William Leigh Clarke’. Does this include two forenames or one two-part surname?”

But these are trivial obstacles compared to those that will face future researchers. Thanks to perfectly reasonable feminist objections to only the paternal surname being inheritable, more and more children are being registered with double surnames. A small problem for this generation, but what happens when two of these double-surnamed individuals have children themselves? And what about their quadrupled-barrelled children’s children? It is not possible for a surname simply to grow generation after generation - once past two words in a name, at least in English, there is a growing sense of outright absurdity. (Which is why a common joking response among family historians on hearing the name of Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor is to keep going: “-Walsh-Kelly-Byrne-Doyle …” ) There is a proposal that second-generation double surnames should comprise the paternal grandfather’s and maternal grandmother’s names. This is a bit cold-blooded and counterintuitive, but it is at least sustainable for more than one generation, preserves some continuity and avoids outright silliness.

Speaking of which. The practice of naming shops with the forename of the owner and a business description seems to on the wane, but it has produced what look like very strange double-barrelled surnames. An occupational hazard of genealogy is to see these shops and immediately have to imagine the names of the children of, say, Felicity Hat Hire and Peter Hair Creation.


Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.

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