What's in a name

The name on my birth certificate is "Kevin Chekov Kolbe Feeney".

Kevin was the name of my paternal grandfather, which was probably the inspiration for my first name. My mother may disagree, but I don't always trust the fidelity of her motivational recollections, so my explanation is good enough for me.

Chekov was in honour of the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. The spelling of my name - with a 'K' rather than a 'KH' is down to changing trends in romanisation of Cyrillic characters. The Russian character 'Kha' written as 'х' used to be commonly transposed to 'K' or "CK" in the Roman alphabet, rather than the more linguistically accurate 'KH'. I share the old-fashioned spelling with Star Trek's Pavel Chekov who was created a little over 6 years before I was born. My name has, in any case, resolutely retained the same, old-fashioned romanisation of Чeхов - Chekov. Birth certificates are stubbornly immune to the tides in fashion among linguists.

Kolbe was a tribute to Maximilian Kolbe a Polish Catholic priest who was killed by the Nazis in Auschwitz and subsequently canonized.

In Ireland, for some weird reason, children who go through the Catholic confirmation ritual supplement the crop of names that they received at birth with a "confirmation name" - a totally pointless thing to do as the name is immediately and ubiquitously ignored for all ensuing eternity. A confirmation name has to be the name of a saint, which effectively ruled out interesting and funny names - although I recall that one of my classmates took "Mary" as his confirmation name which was funny, albeit unintentionally so.

Anyway, I chose Paul as my confirmation name. I vaguely recall thinking that a classmate named Paul was cool on the day that we had to pick names and that being the driving force behind my choice. So, my name grew to become "Kevin Chekov Kolbe Paul Feeney": quite a mouthful. On the few occasions that somebody has called my name out loud from an official document, I have winced with embarrassment.

Since then I have supplemented my names with a few acquired titles - I believe that the most full and proper version of my name is now "Dr. Kevin Chekov Kolbe Paul Feeney schol." (having gained a PhD and a foundation scholarship from Trinity College Dublin which entitle me to use the honorifics) although academic honorifics have dubious standing in Ireland. Thankfully I have never actually had any reason to use them.

Where my name came from

My parents were left-wing bohemians with strong non-conformist and post-Vatican II catholic renewal influences. They met at a meeting of a Catholic-Marxist protest group in 1968.

Yes, I did say Catholic-Marxist.

Between the partition of the island in 1920 and the 1980s Ireland was a very culturally homogeneous place. There was virtually no immigration or minority cultural influences, with most of the protestant minority busy setting up their own miserable theocratic state North of the border. It was an extremely poor and predominantly rural place with a culture of mass emigration which served as a social pressure valve: the most vibrant and adventurous elements of each generation left for the UK or USA, rarely to return. The centuries-long ethnic-religious-cultural conflict between the protestant Anglo-Irish and the catholic Gaels also left a strong residue of catholic nationalism in its wake, which persists to this day, albeit in a somewhat diluted form. Ireland's abortion laws, for example, are easily the most repressive in the Western world and are arguably harsher than those of the Muslim theocracy of Saudi Arabia.

My father, John Feeney, helping the guards with their enquiries. This followed an arrest at Leinster House, Merrion Square, following a demonstration by the Dublin Housing Action Committee. A large version of this photo hung on our living room wall throughout my childhood. Ireland image: 1969

The Irish catholic church guarded their hegemony with vigour - repressing, harassing, excluding and generally crushing anything that smelled of a cultural challenge. Developments in communication technology, particularly the advent of English television channels which were beyond the reach of the Irish censors, started to erode the absolute nature of catholic control from the 1960s onwards. Nevertheless, Ireland remained relatively well-insulated from the wave of youth radicalisation and cultural liberalisation that swept the Western world in the late 1960s. A variety of "Christ of the poor" religious leftism was about as radical as it was possible to get and even this only managed to gain an influence amongst a tiny fringe of third level students. This was the milieu in which my parents met.

"Celebrity has long granted leniency in the policing of social norms"

In 1974, a year after I was born, they decamped from the city for a life closer to nature in the nearby Wicklow mountains. They bought an ancient cottage on a small parcel of land which they populated with chickens, goats, a donkey, an orchard and a vegetable garden and proceeded to produce several more children (giving them 5 boys in total).  What the locals thought of these interlopers with their impractical commune-farm and a house full of subversive books, one can only imagine.  However, any suspicions that they aroused were partially allayed by a few factors.  Firstly, my father became quite famous as an iconoclastic journalist who used to appear regularly on TV and radio. Celebrity has long granted leniency in the policing of social norms.  Secondly, my mother became a teacher in the local primary school - the best position from which to integrate into a community.  Thirdly, my father was a saint of a man who would spend his free days ferrying the sick children of  the local poor to hospitals, schools and on various excursions.  Nevertheless, the local clerics kept a close eye on us. I recall, on one occasion, an entire sermon in the tiny local church - which housed no more than 30 people - being devoted to a vigorous denunciation of my father's views.

Country life hippy-style. My parents with myself and my elder brother in the garden of our cottage in the Wicklow mountains. image: 1975

In keeping with their bohemian non-conformism, my parents eschewed the popular convention of sticking to typical, time-honoured forenames or 'christian' names to bestow on their children. My elder brother's first name is 'Larkin' after James Larkin. Myself and my younger siblings were given more conventional first names while our middle names - Chekov, Kolbe, Lorca, Ritsos, Flaubert - expressed their cultural values.

Irrespective of what my official name was, as far back as I can remember, I was always known as Chekov to my family. In my early years I was scarcely aware that I had any other name. Why my parents chose to use my 2nd name to address me, I do not know. I suspect that they came to regret their timidity in giving in to convention by giving me an ordinary first name. Another plausible hypothesis is that the decision was motivated by a desire to annoy my grandfather, Kevin, who was a fairly conservative man. A final possibility is that it was simply a family convention - my grandfather Kevin's actual name was John Kevin, if my memory serves me correctly. Or perhaps it was a mix of all three or was just a whim.

By the time that I was 4 years old and started to attend primary school, I became aware of the fact that my name was unusual, but, aside from the routine corporal punishment,  Curtlestown was a gentle place and my schoolmates were too young to be able to understand the cultural signals that forenames send out, so it was a matter of little concern to me.

My immediately younger brother had an even more unusual name. Although he was baptised as John Lorca Ritsos, for the first 3 or 4 years of his life, he was known exclusively as "Loki" - after a Norse God of mischief. When he reached school-going age, he decided that Loki was a name fit only for a baby and insisted that he be known as Johnny from then on. A few months of raging tantrums later the matter was decisively settled in his favour. I recall observing his rages and deciding that it was not worth the effort for me to impose a similar re-naming of myself. For one thing, I was content with my name as it was. For another, even at the age of 5, I was strongly disposed against making a fuss about myself - a trait which has remained with me ever since. I have sometimes wondered if my life might have developed in a different way had I taken a similarly strong line back then. My brother Johnny certainly ended up taking quite a different direction in life than I did.

The advent of Kevin

In 1982, at the age of 8, my parents decided to remove me from the gentle rural surroundings of Curtlestown national school and to send me instead to the Preparatory school of Gonzaga College S.J. one of the principle training grounds of Ireland's post-independence catholic elite.  I think that this decision was a consequence of my parents deciding that my elder brother's journey through the free public school system had been a failed experiment. 

Upon admission to Gonzaga, I was interviewed by my new school's headmaster, a peculiar man named Daniel McNelis. During this interview I told him that, although my name was Chekov,  I also had another name, Kevin, which I did not use.  He asked me by which name I wished to be called.  On the spur of the moment I decided that it would be exciting to have a new name and I answered "Kevin".  With this whimsical answer at 8 years old, a lifetime of partitioned identity was launched. Since that moment, it has almost always been the case that I have been known as Kevin in some environments and Chekov in others. These worlds have rarely crossed paths, so that, for example, if you were to ask any member of my family or close friends about "Kevin" they would likely not know who you were talking about and if you asked an academic colleague about "Chekov", they would be similarly at a loss. 

I have sometimes wondered whether I could have spared myself a significant amount of future trouble if my 8 year old self had answered that question differently.  On balance, however, it was probably a wise decision.  As a simple country boy from a distinctly unconventional background, adjusting to life amongst the offspring of Dublin's aspiring elites was difficult enough.  Teenage life in such an environment is brutal. I was compelled to learn how to fight with some urgency as it was. The added burden of drawing attention to myself with a culturally alien name would surely have been unhelpful from a survival point of view.

Life went on and my identity remained divided between school life and home life.  This was not particularly problematic as long as my family life remained at a considerable physical distance from my school life.  However, in 1984, shortly after my 11th birthday, my father died in a plane crash and, within a couple of years, unable to cope with bringing up 5 young children in a cottage on the side of a mountain, my mother moved us back to the city.  Now, my two worlds rubbed shoulders on a daily basis and some of my siblings even attended school with me.  

On one of the first occasions that I invited school friends back to my house I carefully prepped my family that they were to refer to me exclusively as Kevin for the duration of the visit. Naturally, it was a total failure. Years of habituation easily trumped my prepping.  A series of conversations began with "Chek.... sorry.... um... eh... Kevin" complete with pained apologetic expressions and my poor school friend was left in a state of total confusion.  Within about 15 minutes I had abandoned the exercise. It seemed ridiculous that I should put my family through such pain merely for calling me by the name that I had always been known to them. From that moment onwards, I resolved to abandon any and all attempts at intervention in the quetion of how people addressed me.

Non-intervention as a naming policy

As my teenage years progressed, I found that my new policy worked surprisingly well. My school friends became a larger and larger part of my life and the "Kevin" name rose to prominence. I figured that this was probably how things would progress - Kevin would prevail and Chekov would become a family based eccentricity, a pet name, the sort of thing that is not all that unusual. Nevertheless, my home-name did probably have a psychological impact whereby I was able to maintain two entirely separate senses of self. As a teenager named Kevin I was externally indistinguishable from any other straight-down-the-middle rugby playing private school boy.  However, the fact that I was still called "Chekov" by all of my family meant that I retained a sense of myself as a non-conformist, unconventional radical. This proved surprisingly resilient. For example, I recall feeling a distinct sense of dismay when the Berlin wall fell in 1989 which would probably have horrified my school-mates had I been foolish enough to express it.

Kevin Feeney, rugby-playing Gonzaga boy image: 1987

Nonetheless, the twists and turns of fate would not let Chekov fade away as I had imagined it might. As teenagers approach adulthood, the overriding survival-based imperative to conform starts to give way to an urge to express one's individuality. By the time that I was 16 or 17, I was hanging out with the alternative cool kids in school and, having visited my house many times and having heard how I was addressed by my family, they started to refer to me as "Chekov". This happened slowly and subtly, but by the time I came to leave school, entirely without intervention on my part, it seemed that it was Chekov that had won out after all.

The fall and rebirth of Kevin

Upon leaving school, I went to Trinity College Dublin to study ancient history and archaeology.  I thought that this might be my opportunity to finally settle the question of my name once and for all.  I was registered as a student under my official name, from whatever official documents they received, but I thought that it might be possible to intervene at an early stage and ask the department to refer to me by my middle name.  Thus, after the induction lecture for my course, I approached the lecturer with the intention of asking him whether it would be possible to change my name on the class list to Chekov rather than Kevin.  I had to wait my turn as a mature student got to the lecturer first. As I waited, I heard the mature student request, in the most urgent tones, that his name be changed on the class lists.  I wilted on the spot.  I felt that if I made the exact same request, particularly when my middle name is so unusual, I would look as if I was simply copying the man in front of me and I would look totally absurd.  I sloped away with my tail between my legs, resigned once again to a non-interventionist policy.  

In any case, as it turned out, my closest college friends were people whom I had known before joining college who knew me as Chekov and I rarely socialised with those in my course.  A few years later I switched to Computer Science and the division between my friends and my classmates became even more firm.  Kevin became an official name, used purely for identifying myself to faceless educational institutions. 

Upon graduation, I felt that the issue of my name would, finally, become resolved.  I would no longer have to habitually deal with institutions that registered my identity from official documents.  I could present myself as I wished from now on.  Kevin would fade into history, becoming no more than a bad memory of my unloved school days.  This was particularly attractive as I had come to identify as an anarchist and very few of my new social circle had known me during my school days. The friends that I had retained were the ones that had started to call me Chekov as a teenager.  What's more, one of the particular qualities of the anarchist milieu is that people tend to be extremely accepting of diversity and extremely respectful of how people choose to present themselves.  Nobody batted an eyelid when a man with as unusual a name as "Chekov Feeney" introduced himself. 

Graduation Day A conflicted identity expressed in sartorial form - the hat says Chekov, the gown says Kevin Ireland image: Aoife Feeney

Beyond the anarchist milieu, I took various jobs in IT companies and there too, being generally comfortable with odd-balls, people were quite happy to accept my unusual name. I spent much of this period out of Ireland and, when I returned, I had virtually no contact with anybody from my old school days. By 2002, the name Kevin had almost entirely faded from my consciousness as it had been at least 5 years since anybody had used it to address me. 

But, the universe wasn't about to let me away with it that easily.  Sweet Jebus no.  Events conspired to see me returning to Trinity College to do a PhD at the end of 2002.

I could, of course, have asked that I be henceforth known as Chekov and TCD would have been undoubtedly happy to respect my wishes.  Indeed, I informed my supervisor that I was normally known as Chekov and he asked me whether I would like to be known by that name as a PhD student.  I declined.  I told him that Kevin was fine.  I had a couple of reasons for taking that decision. Firstly, as usual, I simply wanted to avoid making a fuss. Secondly I was still stubbornly insistent on a non-interventionist policy - people could call me whatever the hell they liked as far as I was concerned. Thirdly, I had become a reasonably prominent organiser within the anarchist movement and I reasoned that it would be prudent if I could keep my political identity somewhat separate from my scientific and academic identity.  I feared that my political activity could easily damage my scientific reputation and that my research would become tainted by the whiff of political radicalism. It was not that I actively tried to conceal anything - I was always quite open about the fact that I was commonly known as Chekov, but I tended to sign my academic papers "Kevin Chekov Feeney" or "Kevin C Feeney" or even just "Kevin Feeney", depending on how much political attention I was receiving at any particular time.  This meant that my political output was not intermingled with my scientific output when it came to simple things like Google searches.

Chekov Feeney, Revolutionary 1 May 2004 image: William Hederman

At the time that I started my research, I was very committed to political agitation.  I saw my PhD as something that would provide me with the space to continue to be politically active without wasting away on the dole. I never really expected to graduate and my focus on political activity was so all-consuming that I didn't particularly care one way or the other.  Hell, there might even be a revolution before it was noticed that I was a subversive.  Hence I was quite happy to maintain a separate identity in that part of my life.

Now, over 10 years later, it's obvious that things didn't quite work out like that.  In one way, the partitioning of my identity is worse than ever - as academic research became a bigger part of my life and as political activity faded away, more people in my day to day life came to know me as Kevin.  Of course, my family and most of my friends still know me as Chekov and it's inconceivable at this stage of life that that will ever change. However, while my identity may be partitioned among two names, any differences in persona that may have existed between the two identities in earlier years have slowly disappeared as my life has settled into a much more unified and balanced whole.  At this stage all that remains of the division is the name itself. 

Living with a funny name

Having described, in some detail, the history of my name, I will finish by briefly reflecting on my experience.  This can be divided into two quite separate matters: having a common name that is different from one's official name; and having a culturally unusual forename.  

The first matter is, in my opinion, almost entirely without merit.  No matter how pervasive the common name may be, there are always times when one has to use one's official registered name - passports, bank accounts, bills and general dealings with large public institutions.  Having to use a different name than one's common name in these circumstances is simply annoying.  It leads to people who know you getting confused when they hear you addressed by an entirely different name.  You can easily become used to it yourself, as I have, but you constantly find yourself putting those around you in awkward situations.  The only possible benefit is that it gives you the ability to conceal parts of yourself from some of the people you know, but this is a poisoned chalice - it's just more healthy to take responsibility for your own words and actions and not to partition them into different identities.  What's more, when people learn of the divergence between your common name and your official name, as will inevitably happen from time to time, they tend to assume that you have chosen a different name because you have something to hide.  And this is a very hard impression to shake because, more often than not, it is true.  

It is surprisingly frequent for people to go by names that are different from their registered names and they normally guard the secret jealously. I only know this because I frequently am drawn into conversations about names where people reveal such details about themselves to me.  In most cases it is explicitly motivated by a desire to separate oneself from some aspects of one's past.  The most typical case involves immigrants who adopt a new name that is more culturally normal in their new home, but there are many other reasons and they normally involve a desire to draw a line between one's present self and one's past self.

When we hear that some pop star or other has called their child "Moonbeam" or "Brooklyn", a frequent response is to say "the poor child."

The second matter is more complex. It is fairly usual for people to comment with pity upon people who are given unusual names.  When we hear that some pop star or other has called their child "Moonbeam" or "Brooklyn", a frequent response is to say "the poor child."  A highly unusual forename is generally seen as a burden for a child to carry.  However, a lot probably depends on what the unusual name is.  I don't imagine that I would be too happy to be called Moonbeam.  Being named after a great Russian writer, on the other hand, brings with it some connotations of culture and cosmopolitanism, which are attributes that I'm quite happy to be associated with.  I'm also generally fond of Russia and Russian literature and, while I prefer the work of Tolstoy to that of Chekov, I'll happily take the association.

On a slightly broader note, in my experience, highly unusual names are typically a signifier of elite status of some sort.  By giving your child a culturally alien name, you are implicitly declaring that you are quite unconcerned with what the plebs think and that is normally a hallmark of the cultural elites. As an extension of this, many people tend to assume that people with exotic names will be themselves reasonably exotic and interesting. So as long as one has a reasonably extroverted personality to go with the name, it's relatively easy to stand out and to make a greater impression on people than would otherwise be the case.

If you live in a large city, or any region that has significant levels of inward migration and multi-culturalism, unusual names are generally accepted without comment - in New York or London, there are people from so many different cultures that nobody really knows which names are culturally normal.  Even in less cosmopolitan cities, like Dublin, among bohemian circles unusual names are normally not cause for particular comment.  So, for example, amongst my parents' social circles or within the anarchist milieu, my name has rarely attracted any comments or questions at all.  People who are worldly wise generally come to learn that there is great diversity in the world when it comes to names and that it is a sign of cultural narrowness to make a great fuss about somebody's unusual name. 

When it comes to less cosmopolitan places the situation is quite different.  Over the last decade or so, I have had cause to spend a significant amount of time in various rural areas of Ireland and amongst more mainstream parts of the local culture.  Although the majority of people are too polite to make a fuss, there are a significant minority who are not and who exhibit noticeable reactions to being introduced to me.  This phenomenon is exacerbated by the fact that, when it comes to accent and manner, I am unmistakably of indigenous Irish breeding.   A fair number of people are incapable of taking in my name and will substitute their own version of what I must have said for my name no matter how many times I repeat it ("Jacko" is common). In the wild west of Ireland, in particular, I have noticed a phenomenon whereby a look of abject terror runs across people's faces when my name is announced and they physically recoil even as they are in the act of holding out their hand to greet me. 

These reactions are harmless and even amusingly endearing in some ways (the simplicity of the peasantry!). However, there is also a small subset of the population who insist on finding out the 'real truth' behind my name - who refuse to accept that this could be my actual name, assuming that it is a name that I have chosen in order to appear "cool".  I don't think that this actually happens very often, but it is a frequent assumption.

Others launch into long inquisitions as to my name's provenance.  This is annoying as it is a conversation that I have been through many, many thousands of times and, while I don't mind if somebody asks me about my name, there is nothing that I find more boring than responding to a series of questions from somebody who insists on delving deeply into the matter and making a big deal of it. 

I was once on a radio show to talk about some political matter and the host spent about half of the allotted time expressing amazement that I was a leftist revolutionary with a name like "Chekov" - "what are the chances" he asked in amazement.  I responded, several times that "it's just a name".  I had to suppress a strong urge to grab him by the lapels and shout "Anton Chekhov was a gentile playwright, short story writer and Doctor who wrote delicate accounts of the economic and cultural decline of the Russian gentry in the 19th century, just because he was from Russia doesn't mean he was Trotsky or Lenin, you fucking moron, now stop talking about me and my name and ask me about the thing that I'm on your fucking radio show to talk about".

But, having said all of that, it is mercifully rare that somebody manages to really annoy me about my name.  I am so well used to inquisitions that I have a large repertoire of made-up stories and tall tales to recount when the occasion demands.  

Finally, if any readers of this story happen to meet me and wonder what they should call me: either Chekov or Kevin is fine.  I tend to associate Chekov  with more social situations and Kevin with more work-based situations but they're all fine by me.  At this stage Chekov will always feel much more like my real name as it has been much more commonly used in my upbringing and habituation is hard to reverse.  Whatever you do, don't insist that I tell you this story again because I won't.  This is the first time in my life that I have ever recounted this tale in full and it is, hopefully, the last time that I will do so. One of my minor motivations in setting up this website  was to give me a place to write out this story in full so that I could direct interested parties to it and not have to explain my name ever again if at all possible. 


 The story of my name was originally published as a blog post in 2 installments, here and here.  Comments and responses can be added to those posts.