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On November 1, Corporal Daniel Keighran became the third Australian soldier serving in Afghanistan to receive the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration awarded for bravery in Australia. Corporal Keighran is the first member of the Royal Australian Regiment, and the 99th Australian, to receive a VC, and did so with great modesty and humility. Daniel’s wife Kathryn had no idea of the courage her husband had displayed under fire in battle two years ago until she learned he was about to be decorated for it. The Victoria Cross was awarded in a ceremony at Government House in Canberra.

Watching this story on the news reminded me to look at the list of those Australians awarded the Victoria Cross in the past, as I wanted to cover the name of a World War I hero for Armistice Day, which is on Sunday. As I ran my eye down the list, one name stuck out because it has been in my Request file for ages, and I briefly covered it in my article at Nameberry a short time ago. So it was quite an easy choice for me to select Bede as this week’s Famous Name.

Corporal Thomas James Bede Kenny, always known as Bede, was born in Sydney in 1896. The son of a butcher, he had just begun training as a chemist’s assistant when he enlisted with the Australian Imperial Force in 1915. He initially served in Egypt, then was sent to northern France in 1916 to take part in the second phase of the battle of Pozières, in the battalion bombing platoon.

It was in the spring of 1917, as British and Australians captured the outpost villages of the Hindenberg Line, that he performed the acts of valour that were to earn him the Victoria Cross. In the attack on Hermies, his platoon came under heavy fire from a machine-gun post which caused severe casualties. Bede rushed at the enemy single-handed, hurling three bombs, the last of which knocked out the post. He then took the surviving Germans prisoner, his actions contributing significantly to the success of the operation.

Later he was injured in battle and invalided home to Australia, arriving in Sydney to a hero’s welcome a few weeks before the Armistice. He was offered the chance to join the military police, and rejected it immediately, as for some reason he had a great dislike of them.

In civilian life, he worked as a salesman, and was happily married; he is remembered as a popular man with many friends, and a fondness for innocent pranks. He was left partially deaf from the war, and also suffered the effects of trench foot throughout his life. The great tragedy of his life was the deaths of two of his three children, which he never recovered from.

Like Corporal Keighran, Corporal Kenny never talked about his wartime experiences, and the only sign that he was proud of his military service was that he always led the VC winners at the Sydney Anzac Day marches. He died in 1953, and by a cruel irony, his pallbearers were military policemen.

The most famous person with the name Bede is the 7th/8th century English saint, Venerable Bede. Although it is not certain, it is thought that his Anglo-Saxon name, Beda, is from the Old English word bēd, meaning “prayer”. If so, it’s possible that his parents chose a religious life for him from his birth. The name wasn’t a common one, but interestingly, one of the kings of Lindsey, in England’s north, was named Beda; as Venerable Bede was from this area, it’s tempting to wonder if he was named after an ancestor, or a famous local namesake.

Venerable Bede is most famous for his prolific writing career, eventually completing over sixty books, most of which have survived. He wrote on a wide variety of subjects, including science, history, grammar, hagiography and theology; his best known work is An Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which begins with Caesar’s invasion of Britain, and ends with Bede’s own times. His use of AD to refer to events after the birth of Christ helped it become standard. He was also a teacher, a music lover, and was said to be accomplished at singing and poetry recitation, even writing some poetry of his own.

Bede is the only Englishman to be declared a Doctor of the Church; he is also the only Englishman to be mentioned in Dante’s Paradiso, where he appears amongst the theologians and doctors of the church. He is regarded as a saint in both the Catholic and Anglican churches.

If you are thinking that Bede (pronounced BEED) sounds a lot like the word bead, you would be correct. That’s because the Old English word bede, meaning “prayer” is the source of the modern word bead – because beads are used as a means of keeping count of prayers, a practice in Christianity which dates to the 5th century (although prayer beads are ancient and used in many religions). Because of this, you will sometimes see the name Bede interpreted as “bead” or “prayer bead”.

Bede isn’t a common name in Australia; at the same time, it isn’t all that unusual either. There are plenty of Bedes in the records, and if you go to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, you will find quite a few famous Australians with Bede as part of their name. What you primarily notice is that these Bedes tend to be from Catholic backgrounds (and some High Anglicans), and that Bede is usually one of their middle names. It is also the name of Bede Durbidge, who won Surfer of the Year a few years ago, giving the name a more cool laidback image.

I can imagine some people thinking that Bede sounds weird and ungainly; something only a staunchly Catholic family would use; a name best suited to leaving in the middle position. Which sounds perfectly reasonable – except that less than half a century ago, there was another boy’s name that seemed weird and ungainly, was used almost exclusively by Catholics, and generally relegated to the middle position, usually after Francis.

That name was Xavier, which is now #22 and rising. Could Bede be the Xavier of the future?

It’s a very old name with a solid history of use in Australia, part of the Catholic tradition, and with spiritual associations. It’s short yet substantial, clunky yet surprisingly cool. It’s the name of our heroes, our leaders, our intellectuals, our athletes, our artists, our businessmen, and for many of us, our dads and uncles and grandfathers too.

Wherever it might be headed, I see this name often enough in birth notices to know that it is not going away, which gives me a strange feeling of comfort.

(Photo of the Victoria Cross from The Australian)

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