Nicknames are an inherent part of the linguistic and social culture of all places. Possibly even more so in industrial cities were people lived and worked in such physical proximity to each other. The sheer closeness produced more interaction and with it incidents, relationships and insights.
Throw in the intense community and neighbourhood cohesion of a city like Belfast, shaped by competing identity and intra communal solidarity and you have the ingredients for an even richer stew of names. – This is my attempt at intellectualising the fact that we, Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter – have the best nicknames in the world.
Even a glimpse at my class in school tells a tale or hints at them; Dinger of course, for the ubiquitous Bell, Seed, Kipper, Zipper, Gruff, Big Moon, Budgie, Daisy, Froggy (due to nostril width and nose shape) and a Campbell who wasn’t Soupy but Bendy because of his near rickets-induced leg shape.
Personal feelings and sensitivities were inverted to torture you with a nickname which became your moniker for life. Fondness or positive affirmation rarely featured. A young woman in our year in our neighbouring sister school had enormous breasts and cleavage, her name was Rhonda, and she was henceforth known as The Valley. She must have hated us.
Step outside into the town. Nicknames like Dingers and Soupys abounded and were explicably linked to surnames and products, but others had a mad dynamic of their own. Wardrobe, a famous Lavery’s bouncer had a shite vocabulary and limited memory, referring to inanimate objects, close family and clergy as “Wardrobe.”
On the same pub door there resided The German, Crap Fingers who had weird mutated digits with missing knuckles, the food loving Boss Hogg, the Lizard King and Macbeth, as every time you said his real name somebody invariably got punched later that night, such was his capacity for bad luck. Totem was reputedly well-endowed and his wife who worked on the bar became The Squaw.
On the Antrim Road/New Lodge area painfully walked a man cursed with a horrendous back and spine condition since childhood. It was not curvature but a perverse angling from his pelvis to lower back that created a cruel linear and angular stoop that saw his nose three inches ahead of the rest of him wherever he went. Naturally his nickname was “photie finish.”
There were the hard men, Stormy Wetherell from the Shankill, Buck Alec from Tigers Bay and Silver McKee from the Market. Can you imagine their christenings? How many communities had a “nail in the boot” because somebody had a limp? How many IRA and UDA men shared the nickname Bo or Spud? Or Mad Dog for Republican Dominic McGlinchey and UFF man Johnny Adair…
There is a rich tapestry of so many others…Shipyard Freddie, Paul Drumbo of the mental health problems who frequently turned up in Drumbo, Eric the Greek who had never left north Belfast, the Millie’s whole generations of women, Glentoran Maggie who lived beside arch enemies Linfield’s ground. It is a joy to hear the nicknames, the stories behind them can be sad and mad.
My last word is about this. The inter-generational hand down. Many young men were their father’s son even if it wasn’t wanted. It’s still a parochial society. My da was Henry Harris Donnelly. Henry Harris was his uncle, another Shankill hard man apparently. Thus my da was given the honour of the Henry Harris mantle. However my da was known as Dan. I became Donzo not Dan. Strangely Donzo is a derivative of Donnelly but common in nationalist and Catholic families. I also get Rab from Robert, my second given name, which conveniently rhymes with wab.
Here’s the last word again… Matthew my son is 14. Mattie has always been his everyday name. Over the last year several of his teachers who know me from other worlds have started calling him Donzo.
I have watched him struggle with the imposition of my name and identity until recently a teacher said “alright Donzo junior!” Mattie replied “it’s Donzo, not Donzo junior.”
Smug da bake.