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Food for Thought

What’s In A Name?

Who is Tim Madigan?

At night when all the world’s asleep
The questions run too deep
For such a simple man
Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd
Please tell me who I am, who I am, who I am.
— Supertramp, The Logical Song

The topic of personal identity is one that I have in recent weeks really started to take personally. I’ve had some serious doubts as to just who I am, all because of uncertainties about the one fact I once felt completely confident about – my name. If there’s one thing you should be able to rely upon to know who you are it should be your own name, but lately I’m not so sure.

For instance, about two months ago I started to get mysterious emails and telephone calls from strangers relating anecdotes about their love for the late children’s television host Fred Rogers. While I have nothing against Mr Rogers or his neighborhood, his show was not one I usually watched as a child – I preferred the more surrealistic world of Captain Kangaroo and his ever-bouncing ping-pong balls. What possible connection could there be between the cherubic, beloved entertainer Mr Rogers and acidic, misanthropic me? Suddenly it became clear, when the emails and calls started to say how much they enjoyed reading my new book, I’m Proud of You: My Friendship With Mr Rogers. Unaware of having written such a book (and knowing that had he known me at all, Mr Rogers would surely have said “I’m ashamed of you”) I did a quick Google search, and lo and behold, I saw that another Tim Madigan, a reporter in Texas, had written a book with that title. It must have done quite well for my namesake, as I continue to be accosted by people wanting to hear more from me about the kindnesses bestowed upon me by the red-sweatered icon. When I insist “It ain’t me, babe” they look at me askance, as if I’m hoarding precious anecdotes for a proposed sequel, Mr Rogers: The Dark Side.

As if that wasn’t unnerving enough, one of my colleagues at St John Fisher College recently told me how he was looking forward to hearing my talk at an upcoming sociology conference. I was unaware that I was offering such a talk. I went online and there was my full name, Timothy J. Madigan, listed on the program, giving a lecture on the topic of friendship, which sounded like one I might in fact deliver. I did I double-take. Had I somehow offered up a paper without remembering? Had someone sent in my name without my knowledge or permission? Both seemed plausible, if equally disturbing, possibilities. Then I looked at the academic affiliation listed after the name. It was a school other than my own. It turns out there is a professor of sociology with my full name, whose previous existence had been unknown to me. I am not sure where he stands on Mr Rogers, but I do know that for the first time in my life I started to truly understand the concept of doppelgangers. Double doppelgangers, in fact!

Like someone trapped in the Supertramp song, I now desperately started asking “I know it sounds absurd, but please tell me who I am.”

Obsessed with learning more about the roots of the name ‘Madigan’, I traveled to Dublin with my fellow Irishman Tim Delaney. Much to my chagrin, while in a store that sold nothing but memorabilia with Irish names attached, I could not find a single artifact with the name ‘Madigan’ on it. Finally I asked the young lass at the counter why there was nothing with my name in the store. “Madigan,” she mused, as if she’d never heard the word before, “Are you sure you’re Irish?” Now my very heritage was being questioned! To add insult to injury, I could see by the tag on her blouse that the lass’s last name was McMahon, which was my mother’s maiden name.

This caused me to ruminate on my first name as well, for it was my mother who bestowed upon me the name ‘Timothy’ (she was also the only person to ever call me by my full first name, usually in angry tones – so that to this very day, whenever I hear anyone say Timothy I cringe). From whence did she get this particular appellation? Well, like many people, I was named after a relative. But in my case this naming was rather unorthodox. Apparently my mother, after having already given birth to two males, was hoping that her third child – namely me – would be a female, and she had only considered female names. Upon my birth, after no doubt muttering a curse to the angels of nativity, she decided to name me Timothy after her first cousin – Sister Timothy, a Roman Catholic nun. In those days nuns would assume a male name upon taking up the wimple. I’m not quite sure what the significance of all this is, but I’ve always felt somewhat akin to the character in the famous Johnny Cash song A Boy Named Sue. (The etymology of the name ‘Timothy’, by the way, comes from the Greek, meaning ‘one who honors God’. Perhaps it’s not surprising that I became an atheist.)

Pan back to the Irish giftshop. In desperation, with Delaney now shunning me as a bogus Irishman, and tourists laughing in derision at my distress, I demanded to find out why the good name of Madigan was nowhere to be seen. The poor salesgirl finally found from a dusty shelf a book of nomenclatura, which showed that ‘Madigan’ was a derivation of ‘Madden’, thereby explaining why it didn’t warrant its own appearance on a mug or a t-shirt. But what does ‘Madden’ mean? Ah, that was the unkindest cut of all. It comes from the Gaelic word Madadh, meaning ‘mastiff’ or ‘hound’. No wonder I’ve had such an identity crisis – finally I’ve learned the sad truth. I ain’t nothing but a hound dog!

© ‘Timothy J. Madigan’ 2007

Tim Madigan now prefers to be known by the symbol formerly used by the recording artist Prince.

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