Baby Name Fashions

My mother always complained that there were five other Marys in her class at boarding school. At the Brooklyn party on Saturday, half the women wore “Mary” or “Maria” name tags. Standard issue 1950s Catholic names (Mum’s sisters are Breda and Theresa, hardly a great departure).

My grandparents’ generation were given solid English names, like Charles, William, Margaret, Winifred. They were born before Irish independence, and before airs and notions. We Lemass-era baby boomers, on the other hand, were given high-falutin’ old Gaelic names, hard to spell and worse to pronounce. Any Dearbhailes, Sorchas, or Siobhans you meet are almost certainly around 30. Mostly, our parents tried to punt with old names that were still saints’ names, like mine, but a few daring ones went all-out on Celtic myths and called their darlings Naoise, Oisin, or Niamh.

Then the pope visited Ireland in 1979. This was back before a papal visit was launched on just any old country, and we thought we were something special. People bought televisions for the event.

“Young people of Ireland,” he boomed, “I LOFF YOU!”

Seven years later, my mother started to see a trickle of small John-Pauls in her classroom. It grew to a flood in the next five years, and she dreaded them.

“John Pauls are nearly always thick as a plank. And bold, too. John Paul Brennan, John Paul Loughnane, the lot of them.” she says.

Why are baby names subject to fashion and class distinctions in some countries and not in others?


Back in July, I met a woman who has no sense of smell. She shook huge quantities of salt and pepper onto her salad to prod her tastebuds, but most flavors were lost on her. I couldn’t imagine being deprived of my wine-loving gluttony, but she’d never known anything different.

Barbara Kingsolver has a piece in The Poisonwood Bible where Adah returns to America after years in the Congo. She marvels at supermarkets, which have a massive, odorless arrays of food, and misses the smell assaults of her African market.

The US is terrified of smell, I think. Procter & Gamble has warned us about all the nooks that harbor body odors, and we’re careful to hunt them down with the right products. There are too many people in New York to escape smells completely—our garbage ripens on the sidewalk, and Chinatown smells of raw fish and cooking all winter long. For the most part, though, you can persuade antiseptic Americans to bond over hushed stories of the guy in the office who had B.O., or the time they rode the Paris metro.

I wonder, what’s the big deal?

My friend Mark is taking steroids for a particularly nasty sinus attack, and can now smell properly for the first time in years. The experience seems traumatic. He’s being mugged by a sense he’s ignored until now. He sends me plaintive notes about previously unremarked smells and tastes—cleaning fluid, garlic breath, Diet Coke.

“I’m particularly concerned about the cat’s ass,” he says.

I realize that compared to him, I’ve been living in the olfactory equivalent of Pepys’ London, all chamber pots and reeking fish. I kind of like it. Nostalgie de la boue.

Could we launch a serious threat to P & G by offering sinus cauterization as a cosmetic procedure for the sensitive? No more need for Shake ‘n’ Vac, scented tampons, or Diptyque candles at $45 a pop.

On second thoughts, the economy might collapse altogether.


When I first moved to Manhattan, almost everyone I knew was between 25 and 30. The school you’d been to seemed much more important than your Old Country. In fact, some of the new arrivals seemed to regard Kentucky or Michigan as the Old Country, and the extreme cases thought that Harvard was.

Carroll Gardens is different still, despite all the chi-chi restaurants that opened for yuppies like me. Most people at Saturday’s party were Irish, Italian, or ‘half-and-half’, as Dominick says. Each side told jokes about the other. Matt, my Santa Claus neighbor, says:

“The Irish people and the Italian people, that can be a real beautiful mix for a marriage.”

Everyone wanted to know what part of Ireland I was from. Matt told me that his friend, Damian, who was killed in the Trade Towers, was one of nine kids of a family from Donegal. They all grew up in Inwood in the ’70s, when it was still an Irish neighborhood. Matt’s from the Bronx, but his family had a summer house in the Catskills next to all these Inwood families. Four Green Fields, they called it. Matt’s father would put on a brogue when talking with the rest of the Four Green Fields men, and the kids would tease him for it. Matt was a year or two younger than Damian and was dying to hang out with the bigger boys.

I realized I’d read a huge New York Times feature about Damian and Inwood a few weeks back. Sonuvagun, If Isn’t Dominion. The article isn’t online any more, but I remember that the whole family was crazy for Gaelic football. Damian was the youngest boy, and his father used to put him down to bed doing commentary on an imaginary match where the brothers all played on the same team.
“And Michael passes the ball to Sean…and Sean passes the ball to Eugene…and Eugene heads it over to Paul….”
The ball always ended up with Damian, and he always scored the winning goal. Lucky kid. He was golden, Matt says.


On the walk home from Max’s reading last night, we stopped off at a playground in Park Slope. I’d been tempted by the swings here two Saturdays before. These are cool municipal swings, not like the truncated little set in our back garden when we were growing up. Long, solid chains, wide seats, and smooth tarmac underneath. I knew these swings would let me be a safety-harnessed Tarzan, but I didn’t want to be near the bored, jostling 14 year olds who claimed them that day.

At 1.30 last night, though, they were mine. At first, I felt exhilarated. Then I couldn’t go much higher and I started to realize I was going nowhere. Back and forth, back and forth, an endless revving up for nothing. Drunkenly, I tried to calculate how drunk I was, which made me nervous. I imagined what would happen if I let go at the top of an arc. There were butterflies in my stomach as the swing dipped each time.

Someone said that a fear of heights is really a fear of our impulse to jump, and it’s true.

A Technical Term

When I worked at an internet service provider, they put a dorky little cartoon of me on the web site. I was the help elf for new users of the service. It stayed up there for a year or two after I left. I used to get emails from ex-coworkers when my avatar changed outfits for the season (“Dervala has a hat now. And mistletoe.”). Once, a woman wrote in to say:”It’s nice that you have a cartoon character for your demo, but does it have to be that one? The cartoon girl you have looks so cheap and tacky”.

After I left, I went back to a staff party and was feted briefly as the real Dervala. A new employee said: “Wait—you’re Dervala? The cartoon? I just assumed ‘dervala’ was a technical term.”

If I were a technical term, what would I describe?