What’s in a Name?

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Most people I meet have trouble getting my name right and I’m quite used to being called Pierce, Peter or Pierre. Admittedly they all mean the same thing, referring to the rock on which Christ decided to build His church (Matthew 16:18) — quite fitting for the son of a vicar, it would seem. If I’m in the mood, I may explain that it’s Pier, “as in Dun Laoghaire” or “as in jumping off the Pier”. Even in Holland, where I grew up, the name is unusual — and that’s because my name is not Dutch, but hails from Friesland, the most northern province of the Netherlands with its own distinct heritage, language, and of course — cattle.

Pier Haagsma and Minke Bosma, 26 June 1915
Pier Haagsma and Minke Bosma on their wedding day, 26th June 1915

My parents took the tradition of naming their children after their respective own parents very serious. My brother, being the oldest son of the oldest son, became the bearer of our paternal grandfather’s name — Harmannus or Mans for short — thereby continuing a sequence that’s lasted for generations. My sister was named Minke after my grandmother on my mother’s side, because tradition has it that the oldest daughter is named after her mother’s mother. When I arrived on the scene, I would have been called Lammechien after my father’s wonderful mother; only I’m of the male variety and so became the proud namesake of Pier, my maternal grandfather.

Pier Haagsma was happy and honoured to have his grandson named after him — his wife Minke Bosma was slightly disappointed that I “would never be a Haagsma”. Like the Kuipers family, there had been a generations old tradition of the oldest son inheriting his grandfather’s name — Jacob begot Pier, Pier begot Jacob and so on, until Jacob begot Ids, who was named after my uncle (as the second son, uncle Ids had been named after his maternal grandfather) who was executed by the Germans in 1944. If it wasn’t for that tragic event, the name Pier would not have been an option to my parents — like I said, they were serious about naming and didn’t believe in using a name that had already been claimed by another family member. In the Friesian tradition, me and my brother and sister as well as most of our Friesian cousins do not have a middle name — my American cousin Esther Minke being one of the few exceptions. With her middle name, Esther is of course named after — or for, as the Americans would say — the same grandmother.

My grandmother’s disappointment with me not carrying the Haagsma family name may well have been shared by one of her husband’s ancestors. It turns out that the name Pier arrives in the Haagsma family in 1811 — before the Haagsma name had even been officially adopted — when Jan Jakobs marries Ybeltje Piers. Note that the letter S after the second name denotes “son or daughter of”. Jan and Ybeltje name their first born son Jakob after his father, as was the norm. When their second son is born in 1817, he is of course named after Ybeltje’s father and so becomes Pier Jans — and since Jan has adopted the family name of Haagsma in 1815 in accordance with the new Napoleonic law, Pier Jans Haagsma is the first person in the lineage that was broken when my cousin became Ids Haagsma and I became Pier Kuipers.

As children we were always very much aware of our family history, especially on my mother’s side. Photographs of relatives long deceased adorned every corner of our home in Rotterdam, which — although rented — was in itself a family heirloom, occupied by members of the Haagsma clan since 1936 until my mother moved back to Friesland in 2002.

The portraits of Rinske Gietema and Jitske van Ketel, both dressed in traditional Friesian garb, were hung in the stairwell. They were my mother’s paternal and maternal grandmothers respectively, my mother carrying on the name Rinske. Following the rules of the naming traditions, that would mean that my mother is a second daughter, since the name of the maternal grandmother — Jitske — was reserved for the oldest daughter. This was indeed the case, but my aunt Jitske de Lange-Haagsma and her husband Piet both died from tubercolosis, in the same year that also witnessed the tragic death of Ids. They had been married for only a year.

Birth Certificate Jitske van Ketel
Birth Certificate of Jitske van Ketel

When I was visiting my mother a few months ago, we started talking about our family’s history once again. Among all the names, photographs and dates in my mother’s vast collection, the one thing she was missing was the precise birth date of Jitske van Ketel. Google came to the rescue and I soon found myself ploughing through dozens of genealogical websites, news groups and mailing lists. What we were looking for quickly came to light —the 26th September 1855, along with a copy of the entry in the relevant registry of births. What I had not expected however, was the avalanche of information that followed this discovery.

The birth certificate tells us that Jitske van Ketel was the oldest daughter of Bauke Ygrams van Ketel and Trijntje Baukes Tiemstra. Using our naming formula, we can deduce that Trijntje’s mother’s name must have been Jitske. What we can also assume, is that her oldest brother would have been called Ygram — if she had any brothers, that is. The plot thickens.

The pre-Christian tribes — including the Friesians — who occupied North-Western Europe before Irish monks came along to spread the Gospel, believed that their spirit would live on in descendants who bore their name. As a good pagan, you were obliged to name your children after your parents to ensure the survival of their souls. It appears that even in Christian times, the resulting tradition was pursued with a degree of fanaticism.

Although the names you’ve read about so far may seem unusual, Ygram is in fact very rare even in Friesland. Looking through the records of Jitske van Ketel’s siblings, I disovered that her dad went to extreme lengths in looking after the wellbeing of his father’s soul. Jitske did indeed have an older brother called Ygram, but he died in 1871 when he was just twenty and with no children of his own. Following Ygram’s death, no less than four more sons are born. All die when they are only a few months old — and all four were called Ygram.

The available records of my ancestors the van Ketels go back much further than any other branch. Using the name Ygram as a marker, the trail first goes back as far as 1661, when Jancke Ygrams van Achlum introduces the name into the family by marrying Jan Alberts van Ketel. Jancke’s mother was a lady by the name of Sara van Vierssen, and this family has been traced back as far as the early 1500s — that’s 12 generations back from my own.

Louis IV, Holy Roman Emperor
My Great(x18)-Grandfather ?

The pedigree does not stop there, however — far from it. Moving further and further back in time, we come across a girl by the name of Elisabeth who is born sometime in the mid 14th century. She is said to have been an illegitimate child of William V, Count of Holland and Zeeland, also known as William I, Duke of Bavaria. William was the son of no other than Louis IV, Holy Roman Emperor, who lived and ruled in the first half of the 14th century.

I recently read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose for a second time and with a slightly different perspective. When the Holy Roman Emperor is mentioned in the story, I now allow myself to think of this historic figure as my great18-grandfather. I wonder where I should go to claim my rightful place on the throne?

Oh, and in case you don’t believe me — check this out:

Pier Kuipers Pedigree
My Claim to the Throne of the Holy Roman Empire


Ernst-Jan Munnik and his messages to the Yahoo newsgroup Friesland-Genealogy:
Message 19254
Message 19256
Alle Friezen, website that presents data from Frisian municipal archives
Genealogie Online
Tresoar, website of the Friesian Historic Museum
Google and Wikipedia
My mother’s archive

The Urge For Going

In fourth year of secondary school in Rotterdam, we were asked to write a French essay on the subject “voudriez-vous vous habiter à l’étranger?” — “would you live abroad?” I remember it well, rambling on about how I wouldn’t mind spending some time travelling the world, but concluding that I would never wish to move away from Holland permanently.

Famous last words.

It’s now almost 25 years since I came to live and work in Dublin — and so I have spent more than half my life away from the home of my French essay. Of course I’m still a blow-in, although it appears that being Dutch is not half as incriminating as being from, God forbid, Cork or some other culchie place.

Ireland has been good to me, even if the romantic idea of playing the pipes by the turf fire in a cottage somewhere in county Clare is not something that has become a regular part of my life here. I’ve always played it safe, and moving to Ireland was something I did only after I secured a job so I would not have to depend on busking for a living.

Europe was in a recession back in 1986, although I don’t remember anyone calling it that. I had finished a two year course in Finished Art at the Amsterdamse Grafische School and decided to enroll for another course to turn me into a proper designer. I didn’t get very far. Having spent the summer doing freelance work, a return to the school benches felt like a step backwards.

There were other factors that contributed to my sudden decision to pack up and go — although I suppose a 23 year old does not need much of an excuse to develop itchy feet. My friend and oboe teacher Joost Flach had set an example of how you can take control of your life, when jobs for oboists were at a premium after he graduated from the Amsterdam Conservatory. In 1984 he took a job with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and has been living in South East Asia ever since. It was Joost’s radical move that planted the idea in my head that you can always try your luck abroad.

I had been on holidays in Ireland just once before, in the summer of 1984. While the rest of the world was watching Live Aid, I took uilleann pipes lessons at the Willie Clancy Summer School in Miltown Malbay, co. Clare. After a week I was joined by my friends Bill and Jochum and together we hiked across the Burren and Connemara.

Plans to return to Ireland for another holiday were thwarted through lack of funds. The closest I got to anything Irish were frequent music sessions in The String, just off Dam Square. And then I suffered a broken heart (but that’s another story) and one night I announced to my brother’s understandable bewilderment that I’d had enough and was going to move to Dublin. My brother and I shared an apartment with two other guys at the time. Their joined efforts at making me rethink such a drastic decision did little to divert me from the road ahead.

I have been asked that question many, many times: why Dublin? The connection with Irish music was one reason, the fact that they speak English another. I had wanted to go back anyway, so why not try and live and work there for a few months?

As it turns out, there was in fact a good reason not to move to Ireland: the Irish themselves were leaving en masse. “Will the last one to leave please turn off the light” is said to have been painted on the outside of my namesake in Dun Laoghaire, at a time when more than 40,000 people a year were leaving Ireland for good. Jobs in 1980s Ireland were a rare commodity, but I was determined to find one.

Armed with photocopies of the advertising and printing sections from Dublin’s Golden Pages, kindly sent to me by the Irish embassy in The Hague, I set out to write 200 cold call applications. Only 17 companies bothered to respond with the familiar “we’ll keep your CV on file” — and then there was the single phone call that changed my life.

Irish International was one of the bigger advertising agencies that were dotted around Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Square area. They happened to be on the lookout for a competent finished artist when my letter arrived. As it turns out, formal training in finished art did not exist in Ireland, and the job was usually given to design graduates with higher aspirations.

I was asked to come over for an interview, and on the 10th September I was in Dublin for the second time in my life, scanning the impressive Georgian doors I had photographed two years previous. When the formalities were over and done with, I was told that I got the job and brought to Sachs Hotel for a liquid lunch, in good old Dublin advertising tradition. All I had to do now, was go home to pack for a one-way trip.

Schiphol, 22nd September 1986
Schiphol, 22nd September 1986

Two days after my 23rd birthday, friends and family flocked to Schiphol Airport to bid me farewell in a bizarre reversal of Irish fortune. As always, my wonderful mother fully supported my decision, my brother reckoned that moving from one big city to another is probably less traumatic than moving between rural and urban habitats, and my sister would be the first to visit me in my newfound home.

Joost and I now share the common bond of being expats. What did not strike me as relevant at the time, is that we both hail from Friesland — and like the Irish, the Friesians have a tendency towards emigration; much more so than people from other parts of the Netherlands. America and Canada were popular destinations with tens of thousands of my fellow tribesmen and -women over the years, and the parallel with the Irish diaspora is remarkable.

In keeping with this Friesian characteristic, my mother’s family has seen its fair share of emigration, my uncle Meinte moving to the States in the early 50s. The other two uncles passed the buck to my generation, with cousins from both families settling in America and Spain respectively. And so it appears that the urge for going is part of my genetic makeup.

By moving to Ireland from Holland in pursuit of a career in advertising, I unwittingly became part of yet another tradition. Nick van Vliet, Gerry Huisman and Willie van Velzen are just some of the names associated with a wave of Dutch graphic artists who invaded Ireland in the latter part of the 20th century to exploit a gap in the market. Having a Dutchman on the studio’s payroll appears to have become the holy grail for Irish ad agencies in those days. This might be the reason why MD Finbar Costello invited me to join him and his team at a client briefing in my first week in the job — his agency could now boast two Dutch graphic artists, since Willie van Velzen Jr. had joined their ranks earlier.

On holidays in the sun a year or two ago, my sister-in-law was discussing the merits of moving to Spain to live and work there. In all innocence she asked me if I would ever consider such a move. The truth is, I wouldn’t mind spending some time travelling the world, but I would never wish to move away from home permanently.

Been there, done that.