An Unusual Name

This is a recording of a short prose piece entitled ‘An Unusual Name’, concerning the reputed origins of the name ‘Boran’ and the name of my late father’s Travel Agency at no. 74 Main Street, Portlaoise

IS IT A BLESSING or a curse to have an unusual name? In the Boran family mythology, for example, there are two competing theories for the history of our less-than-common surname: the first, and most likely, is that it derives from the bodhrán drum, and indeed the name is most densely clustered in the south midlands where bodhrán-making has long been known.

The second theory is a little more exotic, and controversial. According to its proponents (of whom, with a few drinks on board, I’m likely to be one), the name originates in East Africa where there’s a famous Boran tribe (footnoted in Arthur Hailey’s novel Roots) and even a distinctive, hump-backed cow of the same name. Needless to say, the Out-of-Africa theory held some appeal for my late uncle Paddy, a Missionary priest who served in Kenya for so many years that he would refer to himself, with no discernable irony, as Man from Africa. “Man from Africa is going out in the motoring car,” he would say, this thick-set younger brother of my father’s who must have found his occasional trips back home as baffling as he once found his new life in the Kenyan bush, a white-skinned Boran surrounded by his dark-skinned kin.

However, when weighed up against the popularity of the name in Turkey, and indeed in Thailand (where there’s a city named Muang Boran), the African theory seems somewhat fanciful. Indeed, sceptics will point out that the two syllables of which our surname is composed are common in almost every language in the world.

And yet, if this is so, the almost total absence of the name in the library of English literature invites further investigation.

In Book IX of his monumental Alfred, the 18th century British poet and physician Richard Blackmore references a Boran (no first name given) who makes a single, brief appearance in this long and, it must be said, corpse-strewn battlefield of a poem. On this occasion, said Boran (a chief, it should be noted) is on his feet just long enough to be dispatched by the eponymous hero. Thus:

Alfred his Weapon next at Boran threw,
Which struck the valiant Chief, and, passing thro’
His Bosom, enter’d deep his bleeding Heart
That trembling felt low ebbing Life depart:
The Warrior fell and in Convulsions lay
Striving with earnest Eyes to catch the Day.

There’s something almost touching about this set piece that leaves my namesake so cruelly dispatched (the victim of the 18th century equivalent of a drive-by shooting). Certainly, it’s a pity that there’s no other reference to who this particular Chief might have been—the inventor of the much too popular bodhrán, I’m tempted to suggest.

Perhaps it was the style of the epic poems of the early 18th century to distinguish minor characters with names if only to flesh them out before cutting them down. Either way the first appearance of a Boran in English letters is a less than distinguished one.

And, it must be admitted, some two hundred and fifty years later, the same may be said of the second.

In Christopher Logue’s War Music*, the scene this time is Troy, the city made famous by Homer (and, incidentally, widely believed to have been in northwest Turkey). Some way into this action-packed retelling of The Iliad, Logue’s Boran, again without a given name, gets his walk-on part, his fifteen seconds of fame:

Hector is in the armour. Boran lifts
A coiling oxhorn to his lips. And though
Its summons bumps the tower where Priam sits
Beside a lip that slides
Out of a stone lion’s mouth into a pool,
The king is old and deaf, and does not move.

In other words, on this occasion after waiting a quarter of a millennium for a second shot at literary immortality, like Joshua at the walls of Jericho Boran emerges from the shadows to blow his horn, but… what he blows with such conviction falls on deaf ears.

So much for ancient Britons, Greeks and Turks— gone, every one, the way of Man from Africa.

And yet our names must come from somewhere, must have a place and moment of conception, and in the current of our lives must attach to something. Do our names become us, or do we become our names? What if the immigrant families of recent years are carrying the names that will be seen as typically Irish in centuries to come? The Nagys from Naas perhaps, Kowalskis from Castlecomer; the Piotrowskis from Main Street, Portlaoise.

And when it comes to the name Boran, that familiar mystery, it was my father who beat the rest of us hands down, Richard Blackmore’s, Christopher Logue’s, and all my own pseudo-literary efforts rolled into one. For, faced with the task of finding a name for his 1970s small-town travel agency, at first he flirted with the craziest of ideas: Sky Boran, Wind Boran (which reduced us kids to tears of laughter, for obvious reasons) and even Hawk Boran, a name better suited to a 9th century Saxon overlord in the Blackmore vein. A single leaf of Basildon Bond writing paper preserved his initial brainstorming session for decades in a cupboard, until it, then the cupboard, then the business and building itself went the way of all things.

Even so, the final item on that list survived them all as if, by whatever magic, my father had come face-to-face with the name he would choose, the name that had chosen him.

For whether by accident or miracle, in a nod to transience and the impermanent, to the movement of peoples across the planet and through time, on the last line of that page my father accepted his Fate, his Destiny. And I see him still, in a light blue shirt and brown check jacket, one Saturday morning out there on Main Street, admiring his newly-painted signboard which reads—inevitably in retrospect—not just plain Boran but ‘Airboran’ Travel.

(from The Invisible Prison, Dedalus Press, 2009/reissued 2019)

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