The Belgian law professor was not impressed, and had no fear of showing it.
Maybe the circumstance could justifiably have caused her ill temper: an oral examination of a pesky Erasmus student who could, I will admit, have been a shade more focused on her studies. But no. Before I had a chance to display my A-grade lack of knowledge, she had got herself bothered by a more fundamental issue – her student’s first name. What was it, she wanted to know, her mood descending with every word.
“Je m’appelle Una,” I replied in my best French accent, confident that this was one question I could definitely get right. This was, however, unacceptable. It seemed my name bore too much resemblance to the French female indefinite article, “une” – and, worse, was identical to it in Spanish and Italian. The more I emphasised that, yes, it was in fact a prénom irlandais, the more frustrated the professor became, eventually forced by time rather than desire to proceed with the examination. You won’t be surprised to learn it could have gone better, possibly closing the door forever on my potential career in Belgian civil law.
[ In the name of the fada: a much-politicised punctuation mark ]
In fairness to the cape-wearing educator (my memory may have added the cape for effect, but it definitely would have fitted the personality in question), Una isn’t the most impactful first name in the Irish language. What it boasts in simplicity of spelling and pronunciation, it loses in length and sharpness. It struck me recently, though: what if I had used a fada when registering for the exam? Would that tiny spelling change have added more gravity and legitimacy to the three letters and made them more palatable to the professor? As it was, she seemed to think I was deliberately withholding my whole name, or perhaps trying to sell myself as a particularly boring one-word trademark. McCaffrey, for all your Belgian legal needs.
‘I can’t believe we’re living here’: Historic Wexford cottage that was at risk of falling into decline is restored
The thing that sparked this fresh fada-awareness was a new work colleague asking me earlier this year whether I was Una or Úna – he had a relative with the same name and was thus more aware than most of the difference. For the first time, I paused for a beat before answering. Maybe this could be the time for reinvention? As a new decade looms in my life, perhaps I could discover my secret Úna after all. I could become a new person in a subtle but effective way. A middle-age relaunch to better reflect my inner brand values of authenticity with a spark of creativity.
I have a child whose name has a fada and I flinch when it appears without it – it looks naked and paltry, even before I take account of the spelling issues
I’ve been asked the question rarely enough through the years (never in the North of my birth, and only a handful of times in Dublin) and have never hesitated in saying there was no fada. You see, nobody I knew growing up in Tyrone had one – it just wasn’t a thing, regardless of the extent to which your household looked south of the Border for its identity. Lots of my contemporaries had Irish names – we had plenty of Maireads, Siobhans, Sineads and Orlas – but there wasn’t a fada among us. And if there was, good luck if you wanted to try using it on an official form. (Yes, I know Orla without the fada means vomit, but it’s not something we talk about.)
Several decades later, I have a child whose name has a fada and I flinch when it appears without it – it looks naked and paltry, even before I take account of the spelling issues. This leads me to the very late realisation that other people probably feel the same way when they see my three lonely letters, bereft of their fada, shamed by inaccuracy. With my paranoid head on, maybe it even gives those residents of the Republic who like to question the full Irishness of Northerners more fuel for their theories of difference. Do I actually know how to spell my own Irish name?
[ CSO to recognise names featuring síneadh fada ]
On the topic of Unas in general, it’s all becoming fairly academic in Ireland anyway. The most recent data on baby names from the Central Statistics Office (that agency’s equivalent of The Late Late Toy Show in terms of viewers) shows that neither Una nor Úna feature in the top 100 names for girls these days, pushed out by much cooler Emilys and Fiadhs. With three new Unas per year seen as an outstanding performance for my Una-ssuming name, it must be time for a renaissance, surely? Maybe the rebranding exercises could be backed by my very favourite childhood song: Una Paloma Blanca sung by Slim Whitman?
As for my personal rebrand, I’m trying it out for size today – whether it sticks or not remains to be seen. Alas it’s too late to discover whether it would have pushed my Belgian civil law mark across the line from a very bad fail to a slightly more defensible one.