Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Being Irish in Britain: a pronunication guide

‘Generations of Irish emigrants have gone before me desperately trying, and failing, to make their names understood’

Fri, Apr 11, 2014, 10:04


Helen O’Rahilly

“O’Rahilly. I’ll spell it for you. O….Apostrophe…R.…
R…as in Rrrrr.
Oh you mean Aaaar?
Oh. That would be Aaaa?
Sorry, what?
Haitch as in Hell, Hades, Horror.
You mean Aitch?
Yes…..” (loses the will to live)….

Try repeating that exchange above on the phone, up to 50 times a day, for the last 26 years. Funny? Funny how?

Working my way up the BBC ladder from researcher to channel management, that exchange was my daily mantra. Just as ”The Angel of The Lord Declared Unto Mary” was the automatic chant of my convent school years, this “How To Pronounce and Spell Your Name to British People” became the daily incantation of my working life in London.

After my first day at BBC Pebble Mill in August 1988, I rang my mother and tearfully told her that the British public didn’t understand my surname so I was just going to call myself O’Reilly. She wasn’t having it: ”You’ll do nothing of the sort. You’re an O’Rahilly. A small tribe from Kerry & Cork with a venerable history. Don’t give in.” That was me told off. I was to persevere. I did. Fifty times a day. For 26 years and counting…

So my surname is a burden over here. Generations of emigrants with historic Celtic and Gaelic surnames have gone before me desperately trying, and failing, to make their names understood but still the British simply can’t fathom how to pronounce or spell our quintessentially Irish names. So for this poor O’Rahilly, the default option has always been O’Reilly, not helped by the hugely popular episode of “Fawlty Towers” where hapless builder Mr O’Reilly (played by the late, great David Kelly) is called the “Orelly man” by Manuel, the Spanish waiter. If I had a Queen’s shilling for every quip made down a phone line about being related to that cowboy builder, I’d be richer than the joint account from the civil partnership between Michael O’Leary and J.P. McManus.

There’s no point in trying to explain my surname’s honourable roots from the 17th century poet Egan O’Rahilly of Sliabh Luachra, to “The O’Rahilly”, hero of the GPO in 1916, to pop pioneer Ronan O’Rahilly, of Radio Caroline fame, in the1960s: there’s simply no frame of reference for my British brethren. A solution was needed and as I was living in their country, it was *I* who had to adapt: “Pronounce it like Sir Walter Raleigh or the Raleigh bike your rode as a kid: O’Raleigh”. It worked! It’s not perfect but, in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, it’s a compromise to allow normal relations with my neighbours. I still feel sorry for my fellow emigrants with monikers such as Ó Muircheartaigh, Ó Súilleabháin, MacShuibhne, or Ó Ceallacháin, for they completely stump the British with their multi-syllabic, fada-strewn soubriquets.

So, a warning to new emigrants with venerable Irish surnames coming to the UK, expect a plethora of alter-egos on bills, invitations and tax returns. Here are just a few British attempts at my surname that have appeared on envelopes over the past twenty plus years: O’Reilly, Riley, O’Rily, Oriely, Orally, Oralilly, Rahaighy, Raligh, O’Rawlee, Rawleigh, O’Haily, Orly, Orealee.

Oh, really? No, O’Rahilly. O…Apostrophe…R… No, don’t get me started.

This article forms part of a series on Irish emigrants in Britain on the Generation Emigration blog this week to coincide with the President’s historic State visit. For full coverage of the events, including live blogs by our correspondents in London, galleries, live videos and more, see The Irish Times State Visit subsite.