I have never lived in a place where people knew how to pronounce my name. In fact I have to admit that even I am not absolutely certain how it should be pronounced. The only country where it should be easier would be Poland; but even there most people would find the spelling disconcerting, because at one stage in my family’s history one of my ancestors, in an attempt to make the name look more Germanic, changed the spelling from Pradzynski to Prondzynski. In fact that doesn’t make it much easier for Germans, but it really confuses the Poles. A very distant relative who moved to the United States changed the spelling to Pronshinske, but his great grandson told me that everyone still stumbles over it. I think that we Prondzynskis cannot win here, we have to accept that we are something unpronounceable.
I suppose that to most people the name must suggest something Eastern European. At any rate it did to Captain Armstrong. Captain Armstrong was for a little while my right-hand man in a free legal advice centre in England. I was a postgraduate law student, and every Saturday I gave up my morning to offer free legal advice in the centre. This particular centre had the practice of allocating a volunteer to support the lawyer offering the advice. Their job would be to act as receptionist and take down the client’s details, and then bring them into the consulting room with a few words of introduction. My volunteer was a retired army officer and World War 2 veteran, Captain Armstrong. And back in 1979 one morning, Captain Armstrong brought in my next client with the following words of introduction:
‘This is Mr Bauer, and he has an employment problem. And you [and here he was addressing me] will appreciate that, if I had met Mr Bauer 35 years ago I would almost certainly have shot him.’
This sounds crude and cruel, but if you had known Captain Armstrong you would have known he was really a kind man, and this was his way of breaking the ice, even if it was just a little strange. But there was a bit of irony in all this of which Captain Armstrong was totally unaware. Mr Bauer (as I discovered as soon as I began to talk to him) was, despite his Germanic name, a Pole; whereas Captain Armstrong had somehow never come to realise that I, with my Polish name, was German; or German-turned-Irish, but if the good Captain had been aware of that combination it might well have sent him over the edge.
Names really do tell a story, but not always the one we expect to hear. They contain cultural and historical lessons, and can be bridges between what we are now and what we once were. More than once in my life I wondered whether ‘von Prondzynski’ was just a bit much, wherever I might be living, and whether I should change my name. I never did, and now I never will. It has something to say, and it is right that it should be said. And as Ireland has become much more multi-ethnic, the colourful tapestry of names and the stories they tell will enrich our culture and society.