Being Brians

"There are 215 Brian Doyles in the United States..."

There are 215 Brian Doyles in the United States, according to a World Wide Web site called “Switchboard” (, which shows telephone numbers and addresses in America.

We live in 40 states; more of us live in New York than any other state. Several of us live on streets named for women (Laura, Cecelia, Chris, Nicole, Jean, Joyce).A startling number of us live on streets and in towns named for flora (Apple, Ash, Bay, Berry, Chestnut, Hickory, Maple, Oak, Palm, Poinsettia, Sandlewood and Teak) or fauna (Bee, Bobolink, Buck, Buffalo, Bull, Deer, Fox, Gibbon, Hawk, Pine Siskin, Salmon, Swift, Wildcat).

Some of us live on streets named in the peculiarly American fashion for a bucolic natural place that doesn’t exist, a pastoral Eden of the imagination, the sort of name that has become de rigueur for housing developments: Bellarbor, Greenfield, Greenridge, Cresthaven, Cricklewood, Knollwood, Pleasant Hill, Shady Nook, Skyridge, Ridgewood, Spring Winds, Trailwood.

And there are Brian Doyles in uncategorizable but somehow essentially American places (Vacation Lane, Enchanted Flame Street, Freedom Road, Sugar Land) and in some places that seem to me especially American in their terse utility: Main Street, Rural Route, United States Highway, Old Route, New Road.

One of us is paralyzed from the chest down; one of us is 18 and “likes to party”; one of us played second base very well indeed for the New York Yankees in the 1978 World Series; several of us have had problems with alcohol and drugs; one of us is nearly finished with his doctorate in theology; one of us is a 9-year-old girl; one of us works for Promise Keepers; one was married while we were working on this article; one welcomed a new baby; one died.

The rest of us soldier on being Brian Doyle.

“Tell me a little bit about yourself,” I wrote us recently:

How did you get your name? What do you do for work? What are your favorite pursuits? Hobbies? Avocations? Have any of us named our sons Brian? What Irish county were your forebears from? Where were you born? Where did you go to college? What’s your wife’s name?

Brian, the doctoral student in theology at the Catholic University of America:

I ride my bike and search for new microbrews. No children. We still have family in County Kerry. They live on a dairy farm and moved out of the thatched-roof cottage about 15 years ago, but it still stands on the property.

Brian, the New England field representative for Promise Keepers, “a Christian ministry dedicated to uniting men in vital relationships so that they might be godly influences in their world”:

My wife and I are committed to honoring Jesus Christ in our lives, marriage and in all that we do. He is Central to our daily living.

Brian of Waltham, Mass., in a handwritten note:

I am a union iron worker in Boston and have been iron working for 23 years. I am pretty much a free spirit.

Brian, the undergraduate at the University of Kansas:

Hiked 700 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. Biked from Newport, Ore., to San Francisco down Highway 101. I don’t know much about my name, but now you got me curious.

Brian of Red Hook, N.Y., 18 years old:

Being 18 really is not bad. It is cool for the first couple of months but the novelty wears off after a while. I am a junior at Red Hook High School where in my class there is only about 150 kids. Red Hook is a very small hick town (in the countryside). I have two jobs one at a place called Beverage Way, a beer and soda warehouse, and my second job is at Bard College where I do catering for parties. It is not much, but it pays the bills. Since I am only 18 I am not married yet, but I have a high school sweetheart named Heather. My hobbies include basketball, quadding (four wheeling), taking care of my car and partying as any teenager loves to do. Besides that there is not much more to do up here.

Brian in Denver, Pa.:

Our clan came from Kerry around the turn of the century. One of my uncles became chief of police in New York City.

Brian of Leicester, Mass.:

I never realized that there are that many of us. I am 49 years old and was injured in the military back in 1969. I was wounded three times in Vietnam and got to walk off the plane, but within two months I was involved in a motor vehicle accident while home on leave and I became paralyzed from the chest down. I have worked as a police dispatcher and clerk/dispatcher for my local highway department. In the last three years I have been spending the winter months in Florida and the summer months here in Massachusetts, and eventually I will be spending all my time in Florida as there is so much more to do and a lot easier to get around. I am currently retired as I decided a few years ago that it was time to enjoy life right now as I grow older I will not be able to get around as easy as I can now. My wife Shirley is legally blind with a degenerative eye disease. So let’s go for the gusto and enjoy while we can. I do not know what county my Irish forebears came from. I wish I did. I went to work at our local highway department after my one year in college and was drafted into the Army in 1968. Hope to hear back from you.

I write back to Brian of Leicester and tell him that I am grateful for his courteous note. I think about him in his wheelchair and his wife who cannot see very well and the days and months he must have spent on his back after his car crash thinking about the irony of surviving warfare only to be savagely injured on a highway, and by then it is time to put my sons and daughter to bed, which I do with the sharp flavor of gratitude in my mouth.

Brian in Livonia, Mich.:

I have four daughters—Nicole, Meghan, Adrienne and Stephanie. Sons? What are sons?

Brian of Livonia adds a genealogical note about our surname, which is an English translation of the Gaelic word dubghaill, or dark stranger, a word often used in early times to denote a Dane. Doyle is now the 12th most common name in Ireland. Brian of Livonia also points out that the name Brian hails from the last Irish high king, or ard righ, Brian Boru, slain in 1014 in the battle of Clontarf.

Brian Doyle in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.:

I know of a few other Brian Doyles—a plumbing supply salesperson, a local restauranteur and an IBM public relations official —but have met none of them. I have been asked several times if I played second base for the New York Yankees in 1978. Of course, I confess that I am this same person who nearly won the 1978 World Series MVP Award—but later confess to this lie.

Brian from Chicago, who turns out to have been a year behind me in college, to our mutual astonishment:

A Doyle anecdote. Our Doyles originally settled in Brooklyn, N.Y. My great-grandfather started a business making men’s dress shirts, the kind without the collar, as was the custom then. Doyle and Black was a good name in dress shirts. Black, the partner, died early on, but the name was retained as Doyle and Black. The business failed during the Depression, but during its early years of prosperity, my great-grandfather gave rings to his sons. The rings, plain gold bands with a ruby, diamond and sapphire—red, white and blue, to remind us of how good this country has been to us—are handed down from Doyle father to Doyle son. I received my father’s ring when I turned 21 and will give it to my son Trevor. My father’s uncle Ed passed away without heirs, so I will have his ring also to pass on to my son Jay.

Brian Doyle in Baton Rouge, La.:

Please forgive me for not responding sooner, but I, like most Brian Doyles, am extremely important and in constant demand. I work as a probation and parole agent, but consider it a ministry. I was born again in 1983 and attended Trinity Bible College in Ellendale, N.D., and became credentialed with the Assemblies of God. Evangelism is my call and my heartbeat. Baseball is my passion. I write as a hobby. My wife and I were actors in Manhattan for over a decade, and she’s a published Christian playwright. I specialize in smart-aleck letters. I’ve never been to Ireland other than in drunken fantasies, back before I got sober in 1979. I know I’m part Irish (the sentimental, poetic, occasionally morose part), part English (the self-righteous, self-important, frequently overbearing part), part German (just ask my son about my ‘Gestapo tactics’) and part French (the part of me that instinctively wants to immediately surrender when I face a battle). I entered AA in NYC in 1979 where I met my lovely and wonderful wife, Christy. She was an actress; I was an actor; we were both drunks; what else could we do but get married? Which is what we did in 1982.We’re still having a great time together.

Brian of Naples, Fla.:

I was also named after the great Brian Boru. Recently divorced, though very much in love again with a wonderful woman. Early life at home was very confusing, and I took refuge in hiding in mind and mood alterers, i.e., alcohol and drugs. I have not indulged in such behavior in over seven years. I have taken up long-distance running and have run 10 marathons and countless other races. I was in the air-conditioning field for 15 years, but as I became more aware it just didn’t feel right.

Next morning I count up the number of letters that have come back stamped UNDELIVERABLE or NO LONGER AT THIS ADDRESS or UNDELIVERABLE AS ADDRESSED or that have the new resident’s angry, scrawled HE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE!!!! on them in large, annoyed block letters: 43. Where are those Brian Doyles? The Lost Brian Doyles, addresses gone bad, addresses rotten, addresses thrown out on the compost heap, moldering.

Denise Doyle, of Saltillo, Pa., in a handwritten letter:

We thought your letter was very neat! Brian is self-employed in the carpenter field: building, remodeling, etc. He loves to fish and hunt. We have a daughter, Brianne, named after her daddy, age 9. Brian is a layed back sort of guy and has a lot of care for other people.

Calm, compassionate, caring—it’s a Brian Doyle thing.

Brian in Houston, Texas: Likes cold beer.

Brian in Braintree, Mass.: Named for Brian Boru. Parents: Francis and Frances, both Irish natives. Brian was the goalkeeper on the University of Lowell’s 1979 national championship hockey team, had a cup of coffee with the National Hockey League’s Phoenix Coyotes, and once played in a high school hockey game where both goalies were named Brian Doyle.

Brian of Valley Cottage, N.Y.: Father called him Boru as a boy. Appalachian Trail nut:

I’ve hiked the trail from Maine to Georgia, and I guess you could say that I’m a woodsman, eastern style.

Remembers with affection his cousin Brian Doyle who died a few years ago in Pittston, Pa., where his father’s people, fleeing An Gorta Mor, the horrendous Irish Famine of 1845 –1851, landed in America to work the coal mines.

Not unlike some of my father’s ancestors, who fled Wicklow and Cork from what my grandmother called “the Horror” and became bartenders, bricklayers, cigar dealers, steelworkers, die cutters, freight clerks and bookkeepers in the 10th, 18th, 20th and 34th wards of Pittsburgh, this line eventually producing my grandfather, James Aloysius Doyle, who with Sophia Holthaus produced another James Aloysius Doyle, my father, who with Ethel Clancey produced another James Aloysius Doyle, my brother, nicknamed Seamus, who died as a baby, my mother discovering him seemingly asleep in his stroller on a bright April morning in New York in 1946, which discovery plunged my parents into a great blackness, but eventually they recovered, as much as possible, and they made a daughter and four more sons, one of whom is named for Brian Boru, high king of Ireland until his last day at Clontarf.

Obituary notice in the Oregonian, Thursday, May 22:

Brian Doyle, died May 16,age 42.Veteran,United States Army; spent last 15 years of life working as mail handler for United States Postal Service. Accomplished figure skater, competed for U.S. Olympic teams in 1976 and 1980. Gifts in his memory are to be sent to the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Catholic organization that collects food and clothes for the poor.

What Brian died of, the article does not say. Nor, for all the facts, does it say who he was. It doesn’t say who or how he loved. It doesn’t report the color of his eyes. It doesn’t show the shape of his ambition, the tenor of his mind, the color of his sadness, the bark of his laugh. It doesn’t say with what grace or gracelessness he bore his name, how he was carved by it, how his character and personality and the bounce in his step were shaped and molded by its 10 letters, how he learned slowly and painstakingly to write

B R I A N D O Y L E [insert scanned hand-lettering]

as a child and so saw himself on paper, how he learned to pick the quick song of Brian out of the soup of sound swirling around him as an infant, how he sat in the first row in school because his surname began early in the alphabet, how other schoolchildren tried to edit and mangle and nick his name—Brian the Lion, Lying Brian, Oily Doyle, Lace Doyley—how he was fascinated as a small boy sitting at his grandmother’s knee and watching her sew a lace doily, the word doily squirming in his mouth, his tongue tumbling over Doyle and doily for days afterward. Probably as a boy he added up the letters and admired the symmetry of his first and last names, as I did. Probably he spent a few moments, once, late on a rainy summer afternoon, bored, writing Mrs. Brian Doyle to see what it looked like, to hold the dangerous idea of a wife on paper for a moment, as I did. Probably he saw and heard his name misspelled, as we all did, on applications and reports and documents and certificates and letters and envelopes and phone calls: Brain Doyel, Brian Dooley, Bryan Doyle, Brien Doyle, Brian Dalkey, even Brian Dahlia once, the woman at the other end of the scratchy phone doing her best to spell what she so dimly heard, to make real the faraway sound of a name.

About the Author

Brian Doyle

Brian Doyle (1957–2017) was the longtime editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland and the author of many books of essays and fiction, most notably the novels Mink River and Martin Marten.

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