Me and the Alphabet of Knowledge

Despite my Scottish accent, both my names are as Irish as a grumpy donkey tied outside a whitewashed cottage, seagulls trying to steal chips on Dun Laoire Pier, and the ability to tolerate excessive levels of shocking shamrockery in order to fleece tourists of pint-money during the weeks around St. Patrick’s Day.

Aefa is a version of Aoife. The name means “radiant”, which would have put a lot of pressure to glow on a girl during my formative years if I’d ever bothered to looked up the meaning of my name before last week. My namesakes straggle back through Irish history and include a legendary woman warrior, a wild princess prone to battling her wee sister, a goddess who stole an alphabet of knowledge from the gods, and an evil stepmother who turned her stepchildren into swans for 900 years. It’s a lot to live up to.

Mulholland is an anglicised version of the lowly northern Irish name, O Maolchalann, which translates as “servant of Saint Calann”. Saint C was a minion of Saint Patrick’s, so my ancestors don’t sound like they were the most commanding of folks. My ancestors have been beetling back and forth across the Irish Sea between Scotland’s Hebrides and the north of Ireland since before the year 1000. The last few generations, myself included, have continued this indecisive commute across the same 20-mile stretch of water. I just kept going.

In Scotland, of course, most names have a colour scheme — a tartan — attached. These days, rather a lot of them are entirely made up, having been hastily scribbled to fill an ever-expanding roll call of names. Or they’ve been mix-and-matched online with a tartan app or something of that ilk (authentic, centuries-old German-American Tartan, anyone?) I love tartan apps! I once created a very fetching design I like to call Dolly Parton Tartan by mixing pink (for the subtle hues of Ms Parton’s wardrobe), white (for the rhinestones with which she drenches herself) and brown (for the guitar made by Dolly’s daddy from the wood of the shack she grew up in). So, should you so desire – and I do, you can really commission clan colours for pretty much anything, from princesses to pandas. I’m working on my tabby tartan right now. So, it seems, are a lot of others.

But I’ve never felt any particular bond with the McDonnell tartans, the clan colours of the Mulhollands for the last few hundred years. They’ve never felt relevant to me. But, in a muddy field in East Tennessee, a charming 30-something-year-old tartan enthusiast from the North Carolina Tartans Museum said he thought he’d seen a Mulholland tartan in his files. Ninety seconds later, he produced a crumpled print-out. Gold threaded through a blue as deep as Loch Awe and a green as fresh as those enthusiastic Loch Lomond ferns and the name “Mulholland” printed above it. I was caught off-guard. I knew that this was something cooked up two, maybe three years ago. I knew this was something woven together for the sake of a sale, yet I felt a rush of pride, of ownership. I felt a fierce, inexplicable joy at the sight of the colours. My colours. Finally, for the moment before I realised that one flip-flop had got irretrievably stuck in an ankle-deep trough of mud, both of my names coincided and I felt truly radiant.

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