If I asked you to phonetically say the word cat, you would clearly start with the caa and end with the t. Caa-t … caa-t … caa-t. Now take away the t. Just say the first part of the word. Caa … caa … caa. Now if you added the word hill to the end of that sound, you’d get Caa-hill. Caa-hill. Caa-hill.
This might look and sound silly, but it’s my name. Yep, those two sounds blended together make up what my mother and father (mostly my mother) decided to call me nearly a quarter of a century ago.
The reason I am explaining this is quite simple. Firstly, when I speak here in Toronto, I don’t sound quite as people imagine I am going to. I have, I suppose, an accent. I am Irish. And my name is also Irish.
The Irish language, known as Gaelic here in Canada, is (unfortunately for me) not English, and therefore does not follow the same rules as English. For example, my name: Cathal. That lovely th in the middle has caused much confusion in my time outside of my island.
As you can imagine, I have heard the name Cathal pronounced in a plethora of manners. “Cath al” or “Cath all?” Then I explain the t is silent. “Ca hal” and “Ca hall?” And then there are those who really don’t get it. “Kay hell,” “Kel al,” “Keel hall.” At times I feel like I am Superman’s dad, but that’s a bit of a nerdy reference.
Then there are those who put intonation on the wrong syllable, and say hill as if every breath they have in their lungs must be expelled to say it properly. Just replace “Jack and Jill went up the …” with Caa and you have nailed it on the head.
The Caa-hill explanation is hampered by the surname Cahill, which is pronounced Kay-hill. I have lost count now, but in my first month in North America, I must have heard it at least 30 different ways.
A lot of people don’t understand why I don’t just Canadianize my name, but hey, why should I? It’s my name. It is a matter of identity, something with which a lot of Canadians can identify. I appreciate those who take the time to grasp it. It really isn’t that difficult, it is just new and different and takes a little time to learn it.
Toronto in particular is so wonderfully diverse that it still surprises me when people are so intolerant of my accent and name. Generally Canadians live up to the stereotype of being polite, but I have found a number of people who are quick to poke fun at the accent and dismiss the name as unimportant. Initially, I put this down to humour, but there are a number of people who are being not-so-subtly xenophobic.
There is a lot in a name, though I don’t live up to the Celtic meaning of mine: strong in battle. I have been in two “battles” in my entire life, both of which were minor skirmishes in the playground of primary school.
But I think most people feel a sense of attachment to their names. Part of my identity is in my name. It helps all humans have some sense of self. “I am John,” or, “I am Mary,” or, if you are me, “I am Cathal.” I am not Cal, or Kyle, or anything else … just Cathal.
And don’t blame me, blame my mother. My naming was a little controversial. You see, my dad is Charlie Grimes. His dad was Charlie Grimes. His dad was Charlie Grimes. His dad was Charlie Grimes. His dad? You get the idea. My grandfather had to wait for his fifth son before he got to name my dad Charlie. He had finally worn my grandmother down and got what he wanted.
I was my father’s third son, and it looked like my dad had finally worn my mother down to get the name he wanted for one of his boys. But my mother didn’t really fancy a Charlie as a son and she stood firm. So on the day they picked my name she decided on Cathal, the closest Irish equivalent.
Though it irked my dad, he accepted it. I mean, my mom did have to carry me around for nine months and then go through the whole rigamarole of childbirth. The least he could do was let her call me what she wanted.
People never believe me, but at one stage on my street alone there were five Cathals. I also worked in a movie theatre when I was younger with three other Cathals. So yes, quite a common name.
I have been in Canada for a little over a year now. I have met some amazing people, and I am pleased to say I love how Canadians say my name in their accent. The name is a conversation starter at the very least, and it makes for some interesting discussions. When I meet new people it usually helps to get my Canadian friends to say my name first, just so my thick brogue doesn’t completely baffle the person.
So will I ever name my child Cathal? Of course not! I love my name, but I think there needs to be a return to the traditional Grimes name: Charlie. I have already had that conversation with my partner. She really likes the name – but for a girl.
Hey, it will be a good story for her to tell some day.
Cathal Grimes lives in Toronto.