'Brain on Shamrocks'
This was one of the most memorable Thanksgiving weekends for me because I spent it with cousins I never knew I had!

I met this lovely man from my old Hudson County stomping grounds at one of my book signings over the summer, who proceeded to blog about the book and our meeting on the Jersey City Facebook page that he runs.

A woman I did not know replied to his post. “OMG! I think this is my cousin!”

A cousin I didn’t know about in Jersey City? Impossible!

“Yeah, we have some McNaught cousins,” my dad confirmed flatly when I mentioned Donna McNaught’s name, not offering much detail as to why we never connected. “Your aunt had more to do with them than I did.”

We discovered that we both lived in Monmouth County, and lunch at a nearby Perkins was arranged a week later.
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Donna walked in and I could see no family resemblance whatsoever. She had an olive complexion kissed by the sun that was in stark contrast to my pink and freckled skin.

As we began our rapid fire exchange with one another, however, it was clear there was a lot of common ground. We went to the same grammar school, had the same teachers, were pathologically cheery and outgoing, and were raised by a good hard working stock of parents that ensured Irish roots were planted deep inside their children.

“I have a question I’ve been dying to ask,” Donna said before the waitress could even take our order.

“Why is your last name Farragher and my mother’s maiden name Farrington?”

My father’s uncle/Donna’s grandfather Darby had come over in the thirties and had changed his name to Farrington in an attempt to blend in.

With parades on Fifth Avenue on St. Patrick’s Day and Irish pride stronger than ever, it seems inconceivable in this day and age to conceal your heritage in the American melting pot, but prejudice against the Irish was strong back then and that’s exactly what had to be done to survive in this new land.

My dad’s older sister Mary came to America in the early fifties at a time when the effects of the “no Irish need apply” ethos were a not-too-distant memory, and she listed Farrington as her last name as well.

By the time my dad came over later that decade, jobs were plentiful for the Irish and he had more of a say in the matter of keeping the family birth name.

We decided to reunite our parents at our next meeting, and Donna’s mother Audrey came to my house for a barbecue. There was a tough Irish American matriarch under that thatch of dyed red hair, and she was not buying into this explanation of why our names were different.

“Your family changed your name before you came over,” she said, wagging a finger toward us and becoming visibly upset at my father’s explanation.

“You remember Peggy Ford?” my dad asked.

“Of course,” Audrey replied with a huff.

“Her family’s name was Rabbitte and they changed it when they came over,” my dad explained. “The only Ford ye’ll find in Ireland is parked in a garage!”

Audrey took this as more blasphemy and my father, allergic as he is to conflict, smiled politely and agreed to disagree. He kept his tongue until they left -- but just barely.

Of course, the practice of changing names predates my grand uncle Darby. The author Darren McGettigan blogs on familyhistoryireland.com that the first signs of change in Irish surnames actually began with the mass dropping of the O and Mc prefixes to many names during Elizabethan times.

The Tyrone surnames McCawell and O’Gormley became Campbell and Grimes, as an example, and the family of O Duibhdhiorma became O’Dermot and even Darby.

It was interesting to hear the plausible family legends that sprung from this name change when the larger group of cousins met over the weekend.

“He changed his name even before he hit Ellis Island is what I heard,” said one cousin.

“No, Darby was running from the Black and Tans and made his way over to Scotland, probably because he was running away from something or someone,” reasoned another in a more dashing interpretation of family history. 

Though the reasons why names were changed and the opinions on who has the “correct” last name may never be resolved between my dad and his cousin, it allows their offspring a space to share in a wicked humor that is a universal family trait.

“We’ll have to do this again soon, only bigger,” my cousin Donna said as she kissed me goodbye.

“And next time, we’ll make the reservation under Farrington!”

A name is but a name. I’m counting the days!

(Instead of fighting mall crowds, log onto www.thisisyourbrainonshamrocks.com and get a signed copy of Mike’s collection of essays!)
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