Nuala McCann: What's in a name, and why my diphthong matters

Nuala McCann

Nuala McCann

Nuala McCann is an Irish News columnist and writes a weekly radio review.

'My name is Nuala - not Noola, Naula, Maula or New-la'
'My name is Nuala - not Noola, Naula, Maula or New-la'

LISTENING to Nuala O'Connor on RTÉ's Sunday Miscellany felt like falling into the arms of a kindred spirit.

Her name was always a bug bear, she confessed.

It would have been better if they had slapped a moratorium on its use circa 1945.

Yes, there are great Irish writers who go by that name - Nuala O'Faolain and Nuala ní Dhomhnaill - but there is also the curse of that Frank Kelly Christmas parody The Twelve Days of Christmas: "Noo-ala ... you durty Jezebel, you have scandalised my mother."

Yes, and if I had a penny for every time I had that said to me then I'd be writing this from under a palm tree on a sandy beach in the Caribbean, sucking on my pina colada.

And then there are the comedian Nualas - yes... my sigh is icy cold as the north wind.

Nuala has become quite the joke of a name... an idiot, a numpty, an eejit.

I never understood why my parents called me Nuala.

Mary - yes. We are all three sisters gifted with that second name.

Our parents thought that the very gift of the name would instil virtues in our hearts.

I have known boys who have also been gifted Mary as their second name and I feel sorrier for them. When it came to roll call in school, it could be deeply wounding.

Not nearly as sorry as I feel for the Plunketts and the Canices of this world - they're up there with the Nualas, only Nualas are never holy.

Apparently, there was a Celtic princess of Connaught called Nuala.

"We gave you your name because we liked it," said my mother in the very long ago.

As the fourth child under four years old, born at a time when my father was so ill that he just about held on until my mother exited the hospital for him to enter it, I can't imagine either of them were liking very much.

Nualas were a rare breed in 1960s Ballymena.

My name proved quite the tongue twister.

Neither of my parents were actually from Ballymena - one Belfast, one Derry - so they sent my sister and I to elocution lessons... perhaps they didn't quite like the Braid twang that we love.

"Get two or more of you together and you all speak Braid," says my husband.

And we do, and proud.

Still, Nuala was the start of my troubles.

"It's an Irish name," I'd say.

In some quarters this would go down like a lead balloon - like I was a rebel hand, off to set the heather blazing.

Every year at the speech and drama festivals, your name was called out for all to hear before you tripped on to the stage to perform your poem, play, Bible reading or quick study.

Only, my name was open to all sorts of pronunciations.

From ages eight to 18, I have been Maula (a misprint in the festival programme); Naula and NuAla.

For a small shy girl this led to constant misery.

It was a bug bear. Why couldn't people just get their tongues around it? Why did my parents plump for that name?

Noola - as in Noola with the hoola - annoys me.

But it's when people say New-la that my hackles truly rise.

We Nualas are more of a tribe these days, so there's absolutely no need to get it wrong.

In France and Germany, I could understand the pronunciation issue. I'll tolerate that.

But on home turf, I expect more.

In fact, I warm to people depending on just how they say my name.

All those 'Newla' sayers out there, you've been warned.

People who get that subtle diphthong just right are my kind of people.

I met a man once who said my name perfectly... he got the oooh-aaah diphthong just right. Reader, I married him.

And then we had a son and we wanted him to have an Irish name.

So we plumped for one of those.

We ditched the extra dh in the middle but kept the rest including that ua diphthong of which I am inordinately fond and including an essential fada at the end.

Sadly, he has had his moments getting his name said right and spelled right too.

What is the problem?

Down the years, he has suffered. In a world of computers, that fada on application forms can also pose all sorts of problems.

Mea maxima culpa, woman hands on misery to man, it seems, and it deepens like a coastal shelf.

Talk to me about it. Only get my name right first.