Mar Dhea - Frank McNally on the unusual prevalence of rock stars called John Maher

“Yep, rhymes with car or Mars bar”

Further to yesterday’s subject of Jet Black, aka Brian Duffy, and the phenomenon of second-generation Irish emigrants in England who became rock stars, a correspondent reminds me of the two John Mahers.

Both have parents from Co Kildare. Both grew up, not far apart, in Manchester. Both then joined bands when they were still in their teens.

The older one soon became famous as a drummer in The Buzzcocks. So the younger, who foresaw his own celebrity at an early age, promptly rebranded himself as Johnny Marr, in which form he became guitarist with The Smiths.

Given the extent of Manchester’s Irish population, which included seven of The Smiths’ eight parents, Marr was probably lucky there wasn’t a second Johnny Maher in the same group.


But it was more than mere confusion with the Buzzcocks one that made him rearrange his surname. There was also the problem it presented to English eyes. As he has explained in an interview:

“In school I was always called Ma-her and May-her... So I just thought I’d make it easier for everybody.”

That almost silent “h”, and the resultant merging of syllables, seems to be explicable to English speakers outside this island. Hence also the treatment of another Irish surname Cahill, which tends to become Cay-hill abroad, as in the case of the Australian soccer star Tim.

When it controversially visited the US during the peace process manoeuvrings of the late 1990s, even the “h” belonging to veteran IRA Joe Cahill was refused the right to remain silent.

And then there was the late, great Dennis Cahill, who died last June. For decades he was the beautifully understated guitar accompanist to the fiddling genius of Martin Hayes. If anyone deserved a soft “h”, it was him. But being born in Chicago, he was a Cay-hill too.

Getting back to the two John Mahers, meanwhile, and the problem their surname presented to those with a h-block (as it were), it could have been worse. Their names could have been spelt Meagher.

The incomprehensibility of that collection of letters in English eyes was an incidental subplot in a comic 1889 short story, written by George Henry Jessop and set in an Irish newspaper in San Francisco.

The hero of the piece is one Carrick Meagher, a journalist from the old country fiercely proud of his roots and of his surname, which nevertheless tends to be misread by the uninitiated.

He is also notoriously outspoken. So when he attends to the opening night of a performance by a celebrated English Shakespearian and is less than completely impressed by the performance, he gives the actor an honest review – in person – afterwards.

Unaccustomed to such candour, the shocked thespian regathers his composure by asking for the Irishman’s card. Then, reading the name, he begins: “Well, Mr Meagre”. This results in a rapid escalation of the culture clash.

“You needn’t thry to make fun of me nor of an honoured name,” replies Meagher (in the stage-Irish phonetics then expected by US readers) “becase I ventured to indulge in a bit of just criticism, which, av I’d known ye were so sensitive, I’d have kept to meself.”

Prior to making a haughty exit, he goes on to give the actor a short, pointed phonetics lesson: “You can pronounce it Mar, sir – same as if it rhymed with ‘star’, which you’re fond of calling yourself.”

That story was fictional, I think. But there must have been some real-life Irish-American Mahers and Meaghers down the years who had to simplify their surnames for careers in public life.

Running to be a “Mayor May-her” would be bad enough. As a potential “Mayor Meagre”, however, you could hardly promise a chicken in every pot.

As recently as 2017, the ex-Buzzcocks Maher had to clarify his surname in a British interview. The interviewer was also a former fan of the group, clearly, because he had at various times called all his cats after band members, including one he pronounced “Mayer” before realising that was wrong.

Maher confirmed the lesson with examples. “Yep, rhymes with ‘car’ or Mars bar, or as in Johnny Marr,” he said.

The homophonic rock stars are on good terms, clearly. When they met somewhere a few years ago, the former Smiths guitarist tweeted a picture saying: “Great hanging out with John Fuckin’ Maher. Ace Buzzcocks drummer and Manchester boy.”

John F Mahers must be numerous too, by the way. There may even be a few of them in Manchester. But just for the record, the one in that tweet is not the drummer’s real middle name.