County champions: On the surprise popularity of the name Tyrone

About the same time that Winston Churchill was giving two Northern Irish counties a permanently bad name in 1922, a future Hollywood actor was growing up Connecticut who would go a long way to redeeming one, if only by accident.

Tyrone Power was born in 1914 and was a matinee idol thanks to such roles as the title character in The Mark of Zorro (1940). His short-lived fame (he died aged 44) must be the root cause of why the name of an Ulster county continues to be attached to boys on both sides of the Atlantic, although many recipients will never have heard of the place, even via Churchill's despairing comment about "the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone".

There is a small irony in that the latest celebrity so named, footballer Tyrone Mings, has also become a thorn in the foot of the British government. But we'll return to that later.

The name is a doubly odd gift from Ireland to the world in that very few people here have it, even in Tyrone. It's unusual too in that, unlike Kerry, Galway, Monaghan, Kilkenny, and other counties, it rarely features as a surname, with one notable exception from literature.

When the playwright Eugene O’Neill was thinly disguising his own tragic family in the masterpiece Long Day’s Journey into Night, he called them “Tyrone”. The logic was obvious: Tyrone being the county most historically associated with the O’Neill clan (even though the writer’s real-life father was from Kilkenny).

Less obvious was the name of the fictionalised mother, although that’s interesting too.

O’Neill’s real-life matriarch was a Quinlan but when dramatising her, he reached for another Border county. No, not poor Fermanagh, whose steeples remain unredeemed by Broadway or Hollywood. He named her “Mary Cavan”.

Like most latter-day cases, Tyrone Power may not have been consciously named after the place. It was a well-established family tradition by then, hence his full title Tyrone Power III. Numbers I and II in the dynasty had also been actors: the former, Waterford-born William Grattan Tyrone Power (1797-1841), was said to have been the highest-paid comedian on these islands, commanding £150 a week.

But even that supposed original of the franchise was himself the son of a Tyrone Power, described vaguely as a “minstrel of sorts”, so the name went back to at least the mid-18th century.

In Shakespeare's time, it had been synonymous with one man: Hugh O'Neill, whose Nine Years War came close to overturning English rule in Ireland. The Earl of Tyrone was the title conferred on him from London, in preference to The O'Neill, his native honorific. But he became "Tyrone" for short, and the name must often have been uttered in anger by Elizabeth I.

A small but telling echo of O’Neill’s former notoriety is an annual festival in Devon, the centrepiece of which is the Hunting of the Earl of Rone, in which a fall-guy is chased through the village of Combe Martin, sitting backwards on a donkey, and his body dumped in the sea.

The custom is thought to descend from a legend that, while sailing into exile after the Battle of Kinsale, O’Neill landed in Devon and was killed there. But the origins are now somewhat lost in both history and translation. As the Earl of “Rone”, O’Neill has been deprived of his country in more ways than one.

The Irish pronunciation of Tír seems to be lost on most overseas users of the name. Then again, it's often lost on Pat Spillane and other southern GAA analysts, who tend to sound the first syllable of the county as in the item of formal neckwear.

The "tie" prefix also features in a 1997 song, Tyrone, by Erykah Badu. That was a musical tirade against a boyfriend who neglects his girlfriend in favour of hanging with his "homeboys", especially the aforementioned.

Perhaps that was a setback for the name's popularity. On the plus side, Tyrone Mings may yet inspire a belated fashion for its use on this island. His reproof of British home secretary Priti Patel's double standards on protests against racism during the recent European Championships added to the British government's discomfort at social campaigning by black players, most notably Marcus Rashford.

Prime minister Boris Johnson likes to model himself on Churchill, however pale the comparison. But he too, in his own way, may live to rue the moral scruples of Marcus and Tyrone.