The Importance of being Mary
By Sue Leonard
Published in Reality Magazine, June 2012
Once, Mary was the most popular girl’s name in Ireland. It topped the ranks of the name charts for no less than 55 years, and was also a popular boy’s name, used for 225 boys in 1906. Chosen by parents, largely because of their devotion to Mary Mother of Jesus, the derivations of the name were also popular; with many babies called Marie, Maria, Maire, Maureen, Carmel, Dolores, Miriam, and Marian.
The name Mary has now fallen out of favour. There were just 119 Marys born in 2010, and it ranked just 60th. What, though, it like to be called Mary? Do those given the name find it an advantage? Does it provide an extra element in their relationship with our lady?
Mary Kenny, the author, broadcaster, playwright and journalist, who was born in 1944, didn’t like being called Mary.
“I felt my parents showed a distinct lack of imagination in giving me the same name as fifty per cent of Irishwomen at that time,” she says.
“I felt being called Mary robbed us all of individuality. And Christianity is very firm on the uniqueness of each individual. That uniqueness should be acknowledged with some thought about the Christian name, however revered Mary was in devotional tradition.
“I think Irish families overused the name, and it was often a laziness or tribal reflex. I was called Mary after my grandmother. My parents thought it would please her, and that’s not a good enough reason. I’d have preferred a variation such as Marina, Mariga or Maya, and I’d really have liked to have been called Ekaterina! But I’m more reconciled with my name now.
“In my young days I was inclined to rebel against the milk and water portrayal of Our Lady. Her submissiveness was much underlined. I preferred saints whose stories showed a bit of spirit. Saints like Joan of Arc, or Catherine of Sienna, who drank a cupful of leper’s pus to prove she was unafraid.
“It wasn’t until I became a mother that I began to identify with the Blessed Virgin Mary. I think that Michael Angelo ’s magnificent sculpture of Mary holding Jesus after the Crucifixion, the ‘Pieta,’ says it all.
“A school teacher in Dublin recently told me there was now only one Mary in her school. That particular Mary must feel it’s a privilege to have the name. She won’t, like me, feel she’s part of some tribal herd.”
Mary O’Rourke, a former minister with Fianna Fáil, who was born in 1937, likes being called Mary. But she’s not so keen on her other Christian names.
“When I was going to primary school there were so many Marys that they used to call all our names out. And I hated that. I was Mary Constance Hannah. All that would be read out in the classroom, and I would die of embarrassment.
“I was called Constance after Constance Markievicz, because my mother, who was from Sligo, admired the Countess so much; and I was called Hannah after my father’s mother, who had died when he was in his infancy, and also Hanna Sheehy Skeffington – another woman my mother admired.
“I quite like being called Mary and I always did. Of course there were a lot of Marys in politics and especially in the Fianna Fáil party. There was Mary Hanafin, and Mary Coughlan.
“I don’t think it has, particularly helped me in my relationship with Mary, the Mother of Jesus. It hasn’t made me feel anything special towards her, though one of my favourite prayers, The Memorare, is to Our Lady.
“It’s the prayer I use when I’m in a dilemma. I used that prayer when I was praying for my nephew, Brian Lenihan Junior. I prayed and prayed like anything for him, and she didn’t spare him. She let me down ferociously. I suppose she didn’t have the opportunity.”
Mary Nally, Founder of Third Age, The Senior Helpline and Fáilte Isteach feels that being called Mary is greatly significant.
“I have great faith. Being called Mary meant a lot to me, and to my parents as well,” she says. “They were very good Christians, and their faith meant a lot to them too.
“I wasn’t aware, specifically, of being named after Our Lady, but my brother was called Joseph; I’ve another brother, John, and a sister, Eilis, a variant of Elizabeth. So I could see they always chose saints names.
“I feel that it’s my faith that helps me in the work I do. And I believe, sincerely, that the Lord and the Blessed Virgin help me in that work. I don’t think I would be able to do what I am doing without the powers that be helping me. I pray on a daily basis for help and guidance. And I believe I get it.
“Mary is very significant to me, and I do feel my name gives me a link to Our Lady. I’ve never resented the name for being too common. I’m proud to be called Mary.”
Mary Davis, Chairperson of Special Olympics Ireland, MD of Special Olympics Europe /Eurasia, and a Presidential candidate in 2011, is proud of her name. But she doesn’t feel it gives her any special spiritual links.
“I was named Mary for religious reasons. Especially as, born in August, it was the Feast of the Assumption. But in 1954, when I was born, it seemed to me that everyone was called Mary. There are a lot of Mary’s but perhaps more so in the fifties.
“I like the name Mary. I’d like to see it regain some popularity. But people felt it was far too popular, and we shifted to all the modern names we now know.
“I have faith, but to me, that means how you live your life every day. It’s how you interact with people, how you engage with them. I don’t think of faith as anything different to that.
“At school I was called ‘Mary R,’ for Rooney, because there were so many of us. And there was the usual ‘scary Mary,’ and ‘hairy Mary.’ My children still call me Scary Mary to this day!
©Sue Leonard 2012.