Double-barrelled names… Why do they sound so over-engineered, over-thought, slightly confrontational, pretentious even? Is it only in Ireland that they provoke a “would you look who’s getting notions about herself” kind of reaction? A double-barrelled name makes a statement, but not really a feminist one.
When I added my husband’s surname to mine, seven years after we married, only men asked, “Why didn’t you just drop your own name altogether?” Only women wondered why I hadn’t simply stuck with it. To those on both sides, a double-barrelled middle ground looks a lot like hedging your bets, the option that’s neither here nor there. Everyone asked if it wasn’t a bit cumbersome, a bit of a mouthful?
The answer to the last question is simple. I’ve always had an awkward name. No one remembers the fada in Cristín and everyone pronounces it wrong. My surname is frequently misspelled Leech. I’ve been happily dealing with a “cumbersome” name since I was five.
The answer to the first surely doesn’t have to be spelled out. I have been working in the media under my own name since 1998. Will I drop it now that I’m married? I doubt it’s a question any male journalist ever asked himself.
As a student, I wrote a thesis on my great-great aunt, the journalist Eily McAdam. She edited the Donegal Vindicator during the Civil War and I followed her editorials from there to the Catholic Standard in Dublin where she wrote a column in the 1940s and 50s. Then I lost her in the archives because, as I discovered post-submission-date, she began writing under her married name, Walsh.
That experience lent weight to my feeling that changing your name upon marriage is a pointless, sexist custom. This stance – generally labelled feminist – is one that I held until I discovered something. The answer to the second question is to do with family: it turns out I wasn’t happy about not sharing a surname with my children. It never occurred to me to consider giving them my own.
In January the European Court of Human Rights ruled that an Italian couple be allowed to give their daughter her mother’s surname. They had fought the case in Italy since her birth in 1999. The ruling found that tradition could not justify discrimination and that the Italian system was “excessively rigid and discriminatory towards women”. Different countries, different traditions, different rules; for once, Ireland is more progressive. Here, the surname registered “must be the surname of the father or mother or both”. I know people with their mother’s surname only, but it’s not common.
I am happy for my children to have their father’s name. Even without marriage, surnames change and disappear over time. If I am the only Leach Hughes ever to exist, so be it.
If feminism, for men and women, is about equality, then the double-barrelled name should represent a clear-cut statement of the equal importance of both parties. It’s not that simple of course. Names must be dropped over time, otherwise three generations of cumulative nomenclature could result in a McCarthy O’Donnell Murphy Smith Magee Flynn and that’s a name no five year old should ever have to deal with.
But I also see no reason why children shouldn’t be given their mother’s surname, and I wonder what effect a more prevalent move in this direction might have on the choices men make about their own married names. Might a father who did not share his children’s surname decide, as I did, to add his spouse’s name to his own, to make the family connection explicit? Now that really would be a feminist statement.
A version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times Ireland Comment section in March 2014.