Slouching Towards Bantry

A journey is a hallucination. -- Flann O'Brien

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Losing the O'


Conr Carter, 62, a grounds keeper at Gougane Barra National Park in County Cork, built this dry wall by himself in a little more than a week. Carter, a Gaelic speaker, is also an exceptional raconteur in English. One story he told in his deep Cork accent recounted the explanation given by a friend of his daughter's on how the O' was dropped from her last name of Sullivan. .

"We drank the soup and dropped the O'," she had told him. Carter laughed heartily after repeating the young woman's words. That was the punchline, but, of course, I had to have it explained to me.

According to Carter, during the famine in the mid-19th Century, many Irish-Catholic families converted to Protestantism, which often mandated changing their names, too. The O'Sullivans, a clearly Catholic name, became just plain Sullivan so that the newly converted could be entitled to the soup being doled out by the Protestants. In other words, the name change and religious conversion were precipitated by the threat of starvation.

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