March 2008: Mary Mary Quite Contrary

Has anybody else noticed how many politicians are named Mary? Of course, they are all female politicians, which is one thing in their favour. Then again, men have been known to harbour the dark secret of a female middle name. I do recall that a certain Jack Lynch from Cork had Mary as his middle name.

But back to the real Marys of Irish politics. Our president is a Mary and she replaced a Mary. We have at least three minister Marys … Hanafin, Harney and our own Coughlan. Then we have the senior lady of the house, Mary O’Rourke as well as Meath’s Mary Wallace and a lady called Mary Upton. You can include Mary Lou McDonald, I suppose, and Mary Banotti, a former MEP.

Even Dana can get in on the act as Rosemary Scanlon, although her credentials may be a bit dubious. As a politician, I mean, rather than the hidden Mary in her name.

Being a President Mary seems to be the most sought after role. Another Mary politician, Mary White has recently being making noises in that regard. Mary who, I hear you ask and well you might. Mary White is a Fianna Fail senator and, while she was kicking her heels in the lower house last month, she came up with the bright idea of running for president. Perhaps she began to think of the Mary factor and got a rush of blood to her head.

Anyway, the fact that the next presidential election is not until 2011, three years away, does not deter her. Nor does the fact that she will be pension age when the election is being held. She points out that the good old US of A could be electing a seventy one year old next November to hold a quivering arthritic finger over the Big Red Button. This, rather frighteningly, does not seem to bother her in the least.

Mary, of course, is an ancient name and not even Irish, although we seem to have adopted it as so. Jesus’s mother was named Mary and his good friend (allegedly) was called Mary Magdalene. In fact, and Bertie should take note of this, three Marys attended the great man’s crucifixion. Our embattled Taoiseach should count his Marys whenever he faces another Dáil vote. (For those of you who wonder about these things, the third Mary at the crucifixion was “Mary Clopas, mother of Joses and James”.)

Perhaps the most bizarre story about any bearer of the name Mary is the one about a circus elephant who was hung because it killed its trainer. In 1916, this trainer was killed by Mary the Elephant while he was taking her to a pond to drink. This came about because he thopughtlessly prodded her behind the ear with a hook as she reached down to eat. She went into a rage, threw him against a drink stand and then stepped on his head, crushing it.

Popular opinion turned against Mary and the circus owner, fearing cancellation of his shows, arranged for her execution. A crowd of over 2,500 people watched as Mary  was hanged by the neck from a crane. The first attempt resulted in a snapped chain, causing Mary to fall and break her hip as dozens of children fled in terror. The severely wounded elephant died during a second attempt and was buried beside the tracks. Presumably the SPCA did not attend the event to oversee things.

While Mary the elephant might have been unpopular, the name Mary has always been a favourite of the Irish. Why is this so? Is it to do with our Roman Catholic leanings as most people believe. Well, not really.

As you might guess, it’s the fault of the dastardly English. Use of old Gaelic and Celtic names died out from the time of the Penal Laws, since these laws forbade the use of Irish names. It was not wholly the English who were to blame though – Canon Law played a big part too. For very many years the Catholic Church would not baptise a child unless the name chosen was that of a saint or, in the case of a girl, was a version of Mary. These constraints ensured that there was a fairly narrow range of names used and so, there was a Mary (Máire) and a John (Seán) in just about every family in Ireland.

I suppose after such overuse down through the years, it is not surprising that many mothers nowadays shy away from naming their daughters (and certainly their sons) Mary. In the last census, the name does not feature in the top ten of most popular girl’s names. It does not even feature in the top fifty, unless you count “Molly” as a version of the name. Perhaps it has something to do with our perceptions of the Marys in politics.

But, if you think that having so many Marys in the Dáil is disconcerting, just count how many Michaels we elected last time around. No fewer than eleven of them. For the record they are, in no particular order of ability: Ahern, D’Arcy, Higgins, Finneran, Woods, Martin, Ring, Lowry, Noonan, Moynihan and …last and probably least … Kitt. Now that’s really taking the mick..


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