Monday, September 21, 2009

Sorley Boy Boulevard

Point Reyes, one of the nicest places to go in the Bay Area, is about thirty miles up the coast from San Francisco. Getting there, you pass Drake’s Bay, named after Sir Francis Drake, the English explorer who brought glory to Elizabeth the First by being the first “explorer” to “discover” the place for the Queen. Amazing how the choice of vocabulary controls our thinking. I grew up in New England in an anglophile culture and still remember the adventure stories I heard about him and his ship, the Golden Hind. There were suggestions he might actually be a pirate, but that only added to his hero status. Besides, it was the Catholic Spanish he was stealing from. Who are they to play the victim?

But times change. Spain and England are, to me now, equally wonderful places. Both have gay rights I can only dream of in my own country. And I know Drake now only from Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, which I take from time to time when I drive over the Richmond Bridge to Marin County. Oh yes, and there’s the Sir Francis Drake Hotel at Union Square in San Francisco.

But just as every year on Columbus Day there are a bunch of Native Americans and their sympathizers who want to change the name of Columbus Avenue to something else, and there were big protests at the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ 1492 arrival in North America, the suggestion pops up from time to time that we pitch Sir Francis to the sharks and move on.

In this morning’s Chronicle, letter writer Sean Murphy appeals to his fellow Irishmen in Marin County to remove Drake’s name from the boulevard. His reasoning is sound. Drake (aka “The Butcher”) is known for, among other things, the Rathlin Island massacre of hundreds of Irish. When Sir Francis took the island, it surrendered. He nonetheless massacred not only the 200 defenders but the 400 civilian populace as well.

Murphy suggests the name Sorley Boy MacDonnell, the “great Irish warrior” whose family suffered at the hands of Drake and his men in 1575. Thrown over the cliffs.

OK by me. Sorley Boy Blvd. trips off the tongue as readily as Sir Francis Drake. “I’m staying at the Sorley Boy” is somewhat less felicitous, but we could take this one place at a time.

Name changes are hard on old people, but one manages. I still remember Grove Street, but have no trouble calling it MLK. Cesar Chavez, not Army Street. I could even handle getting rid of the name Sather on Sather Gate and Sather Tower (which everybody calls “The Campanile” anyway). I know when they revamped it recently there was some dirt dug up on this guy Sather and people said it was time to toss him out. The university decided there was simply too much history now associated with the place and the name stays for now.

Supporters of Sorley Boy MacDonnell Blvd. will have to fight it out with supporters of Jerry Garcia Blvd., who would seem to have the edge. Jerry Garcia was a local boy, after all.

It could be disorienting, at first, driving visitors along Jerry Garcia Blvd. to Sorley Boy Bay.

As long as Pt. Reyes is there when you arrive, though, be my guest. And there is something appealing about cleaning up your history. Even if it takes 500 years.

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