In the Name of the (Holy) Father

What the new Pope means for the Franks of this world

‘The still strange-sounding Pope Francis may or may nor mark a change of fortune for the name. Either way, I’m sorry my mother didn’t quite live to see the development: she would have been thrilled. She might even have startedcalling me by the full version again, without waiting for visitors.’ Photograph: Andrew Medichini/AP Photo

‘The still strange-sounding Pope Francis may or may nor mark a change of fortune for the name. Either way, I’m sorry my mother didn’t quite live to see the development: she would have been thrilled. She might even have startedcalling me by the full version again, without waiting for visitors.’ Photograph: Andrew Medichini/AP Photo

Wed, Mar 27, 2013, 06:00

A few days before the papal election, by coincidence, I received a phone-call from a bank official who kept calling me “Francis”. It wasn’t a sign from God (I think). In
fact, bank officials often address me as Francis, because it’s the name on my birth certificate and I must have
written it on an application form once.

I usually just ignore it when they do. But this official was one of those people who use your name in every sentence. So after the fifth or sixth reference I felt moved to explain that, these days, I went by “Frank”, mostly. “Nobody calls me Francis any more,” I said.

Only one person ever did call me that, actually. And even then, it was reserved for special occasions. Like many mothers, mine used to undergo a personality transformation whenever we had visitors, especially if they were from Dublin, or somewhere equally exotic.

At such times, along with producing the good china and the clean tea towel, she would start referring to me by my full, baptismal title. I suspect she hoped this would have a transformational effect on me too. That, at least for the duration of the visit, I would do an impression of the saint for whom I was named.

But if that was the plan, it never worked. Instead, I used to pretend not to know who she was addressing on such occasions, and indeed to have trouble recognising her too. When the visitors were gone, my mother would revert to being herself again, and
I’d go back to being
“Frankie”, which was and is the only thing my family ever really called me.

I must have been “Francis” at school too, sometimes, if only during religion class, because I distinctly remember the unease that this involved. The problem here was not the Italian holy man himself, who, given his reputation for being able to communicate with animals, was the sort of saint that most children could like.

The problem was his place of origin. Whenever the phrase “Francis of Assisi” was mentioned, even the class half-wits would see an opportunity for satire. Fifteen-watt light-bulbs would flicker on over their heads and then, like day following night, would come the immortal quip. Age never withered the wit of this barb. It was a like a responsorial psalm, only gathering power from repetition.

Happily, Francis is one of those names that, if only for phonetic reasons, sounds too formal for everyday use. Hence Frankie, or the schoolyard variant, Francie, as my normal monikers. Oddly
enough, it wasn’t until adulthood, when I started working, that I took the ultimate step. That was the 1980s, a time – like now – of savage cutbacks. Becoming a monosyllabic “Frank” was in keeping with the spirit of the age.

As I’ve lamented before here, the name in all its forms fell badly out of fashion at some point after I was born. It can’t be that it’s merely old-fashioned. The likes of John, and James, and Patrick are still popular, after alI.

I like to blame a secret memo circulated among Hollywood directors circa 1970, following which all Franks in cinema had to be either idiots (eg Frank Drebbin ) or psychopaths (eg Frank Booth, in Blue Velvet ).

Maybe the decision was made slightly earlier, in 1968. Because when even Henry Fonda was cast as a bad man, against type, in Once Upon a Time in the West , they called him “Frank” too. But on this side of the Atlantic, worse damage was probably done by a TV character, a man very much on the idiot side of the spectrum: Frank Spencer.

I still await the positive impact of a more recent cinematic development: the decision some years ago of the Clones Film Festival to title its annual awards the “Francies”. Then again, those being named after a famous fictional murderer, Francie “the Butcher Boy” Brady, one can’t be too optimistic.

The still strange-sounding Pope Francis may or may nor mark a change of fortune for the name. Either way, I’m sorry my mother didn’t quite live to see the development: she would have been thrilled. She might even have started
calling me by the full version again, without waiting for visitors.

Maybe she was channelling something through that bank official recently. But if so, I’d still be uncomfortable about such people reminding me of my name-saint. The banks have caused us enough worries already, God knows. I don’t want them hinting, even subliminally, that I should consider leading a life of poverty.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com