An Irishman's Diary

Omey Island, Co Galway: as its place name of "Templefeheen" hints, the name Fechin can sound quite poetic when used with the appropriate fadas and a western accent

Omey Island, Co Galway: as its place name of "Templefeheen" hints, the name Fechin can sound quite poetic when used with the appropriate fadas and a western accent


ONE OF the features of recent decades here has been a big revival in the use of old Irish names. Parents of new-born babies have scoured the history books for names of saints or kings or warriors: the more ancient-sounding and unusual the better.

There may even be a competitive aspect about it among certain sections of the middle class, viz: “I’ll see your Neasa, and I’ll raise you Naoise.” But one venerable Irish name that has not been part of the revival, so far, is that of the famous holy man whose feast-day falls today, January 20th.

I refer of course to St Fechin, whose name is not only ancient but also continues to have the rarity factor so prized by some. Even in the better class of south Dublin Gaelscoileanna, so far as I can see, Fechins are still few and far between.

The name’s neglect is made more conspicuous by the fact that its original owner was a particularly celebrated figure. Born of an aristocratic family in Co Sligo, he stood out, even in the hothouse of religious activity that was 7th century Ireland.

One measure of his fame is that, although his year of birth is unknown, his death is meticulously recorded as occurring on February 14th, 665.

He was by then most associated with the great abbey at Fore, Co Westmeath – renowned for its “seven wonders”.

But his empire stretches from Omey Island in Ireland’s far west, where a church still bears his name, to Co Louth in the east, where the seaside village of Termonfeckin does likewise.

The saint’s importance was sufficient for several accounts of his life to be written, and his fame continued unabated up to the reformation period, when Hammer’s Chronicle(1571) noted of today’s date: “Ireland remembreth the feast of St Fekin, that he was the king’s bloud, and an Abbot, cured many of the flixe or fluxe, and dyed thereof himselfe.”

In old English, “flixe or fluxe” covered a range of disorders, from haemorrhaging to diarrhoea. But the Annals of the Four Masters say that Ireland was struck by a great plague in 665, which carried off not only Fechin but many other saints. This wasn’t unique to Ireland, in fact: yellow fever ravaged Europe at the time.

There was famine here, too. And there are stories that Fechin had been prevailed upon by the high kings to pray for a plague on the lower orders, to ease the pressure on food supplies.

Or, in another version, that he merely opposed praying for the poor’s relief from plague, since it was the lesser of two evils. In any case, the disease, when it struck, did not discriminate.

It can hardly be any lingering controversy over his role in those events that makes the name Fechin such an unpopular choice among Irish parents. So I suppose it must be the phonetic issue.

OF COURSE,as the Omey Island place name of “Templefeheen” hints, the name can sound quite poetic when used with the appropriate fadas and a western accent. But on the other hand (and the other coast), you have the aforementioned Termonfeckin, and its GAA club, St Fechin’s; or “the Feckers” as they’re popularly known. And there you have the nub of the problem.

In an English-speaking world, you would probably be asking for trouble calling your child Fechin, however many fadas you used. This is even more the case if you have one of those fine old Irish surnames whose meaning was mangled by anglicisation.

For example, a baby boy born in Ireland could easily end up, through no fault of his own, becoming a “Fechin Looney”. And imagine trying to apply for a job as an airline pilot with a name like that. A “Fechin Houligan” would have a better chance.

The irony in this is that the Hiberno-English verb “feck”, which causes the confusion, is considered much less offensive that the Anglo-Saxon F-word for which it sometimes substitutes. But as such, and mainly because of Father Ted, it is now increasingly popular in Britain too. When Magners Cider upset some TV viewers there a while back by using it in an ad (with an orchard farmer saying: “Feck off, bees”), the British Advertising Standards Authority accepted the brewers’ argument that the phrase was just a “mild rebuff”.

The complaints were rejected.

But this also means that, whereas in the past, the name Fechin would not have meant anything outside Ireland, now English people know it sounds like the verb-adjective form of a “mild rebuff”.

So there would no use in a Fechin Looney applying to British Airways either. Not while the war on terror lasts, anyway.

Thus, for all his fame, the name of the seventh-century holy man has joined the list of F-words to be generally avoided: like flixe, fluxe, and the one that you still can’t use in a family newspaper. As a result, to the Seven Wonders of Fore, we could probably now add an eighth. Along with the tree that won’t burn, the water that doesn’t boil, etc, Fore was also home to the Irish saint that not even religious people will ever name their children after.