It’s often assumed that the name we are given at birth is the name that we will carry with us to the grave. Although surnames can change (for those that choose it), usually our first name remains. For some trans and/or non-binary people, however, changing our name is often one of the first steps that we take towards social transition.
It’s a difficult process, choosing a name. I know of many people who simply shortened their name to the first letter. B, D, G, J, K and V are the most common letters that are shortened into gender-neutral names: with spellings such as Bee/Bea, Dee, Gi/Gee, Jay/Jai, Kay/Kai, Vee (to list those that I’ve come across). However, if you’re unfortunate enough that the first letter of your name does not shorten into a useful nickname of sorts, then you have to actually make a decision before you ask those around you to change the way that they address you. The first letter of my birth name is N. En. Enn. It doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well as some other letters, does it?
Many trans people choose not to share their birth name, and I am usually one of that cohort, but for the purpose of this story, I will tell you my given name.
My parents named me Niamh (pronounced neev, or nee-uv). It’s a rather beautiful name that comes from an old Irish legend about the Land of (Eternal) Youth, Tír na nÓg in Irish (Gaelic). The legend tells a tale of a young Irish lad named Oisín who falls in love with Niamh, a girl with golden hair who rides upon a white horse. He goes with Niamh across the ocean on the back of her white horse to marry her in her homeland – the land of eternal youth. The wedding celebrations continue for 101 days, at the end of which Oisín begins to miss his family and asks to return home. However, time on Tír na nÓg passes much more slowly than time in Ireland. One day on Tír na nÓg is the same as one year in Ireland! Niamh explains this to Oisín, but he still insists on returning home. Resigned, Niamh lends him her white horse and, as he mounts it, she warns him that on no account is he to set foot on Irish soil, for if he were to do so, he would become the age he would have been had he not come to Tír na nÓg.
I think it’s only fair to tell you now, before I go on, that most Irish tales tend to have very sad endings. I expect, knowing this, that you can probably imagine what happens next. Oisín travels back across the ocean and returns to his village, only to find that everyone he ever knew is dead. He discovers that his parents, believing that he had run away, died of broken hearts. Devastated to hear this, Oisín return to the ocean’s edge, intending to return to his sweetheart on Tír na nÓg, when he comes across a group of men struggling to lift a log. As Oisín was descended from the last of the Irish giants, he has incredible strength and so offers to lift the log for the men. But as he leans over, his saddle slips and he falls onto Irish soil. As he touches the ground, he ages before their eyes, into a very frail, old man. This much of the story remains the same in retellings, although later versions will say that one of the men runs to find a priest who performs the last rites, before he is allowed to die. Personally, I prefer the original version without Catholicism, but pick whichever appeals to you most. When Niamh’s white horse returns to her without Oisín she guesses what must have happened and is overcome with grief. And here ends the story. I did warn you…
So as you can see, there’s quite a bit of Irish storytelling history behind my birth name, which I was always quite proud of growing up. The decision to change my name was incredibly difficult for me because I wanted to pick a name as equally significant. However, in the end I chose to go with Naomhán (nay-von, neev-awn, nih-von) because I believed that it would be easiest for people to switch to, being quite similar to my birth name. In order to honour my parent’s name choice, I changed my middle name, which had originally been Margaret for both of my grandmothers (Margaret and Maighread – the Irish of Margaret), to Oisín. Thus, I kept the story of Tír na nÓg in my name, although admittedly I’ve always thought Niamh to be the better character of the story. Irish women have much more developed characters than the men, perhaps a reflection on those who told the stories! Incidentally, the name of this blog originates with this story. Tír na nÓg. Tirnanog. Tirnanog-no gender. Tirnanogender!
So there you have it. From Niamh Margaret to Naomhán Oisín, the story of how I changed my name. There have been advantages and disadvantages to the similarity between my birth name and my chosen name, but I’ll write about that next week…