Irish English – a threatened species

By Aidan Doyle

Much has been written about the decline of the Irish language in the last 400 years. For most people, this has been a regrettable occurrence. Recent commentators have compared the death of languages like Irish to the extinction of plants and animals. In this short piece, I’ll argue that Irish English is also under threat.

This might seem a strange claim to make. After all, the population of Ireland has risen considerably since 2000, and most of us speak English as our first language. What I have in mind with Irish English is not English as it is spoken in Ireland today, but the varieties spoken until very recently in rural Ireland, and in smaller towns. This was the version of English that emerged in the period 1600-1900, with the shift from Irish to English. It was this distinctive way of speaking that captured the ear of writers like Synge and Lady Gregory, and which found its way into much of the literature composed in Ireland in the 20th century.

A number of features distinguished it from standard ‘English’ English. The most striking was the sound system or pronunciation. Many of these pronunciation features are familiar from stage Irish dialogues that can still be heard in productions from Hollywood and the BBC: pronouncing stag as shtag, why as fwhy, and most notoriously of all, thin and this as tin and dis. Then there were a number of grammatical structures, like the after perfect, as in ‘I’m after eating my dinner’ instead of ‘I have eaten’. Another characteristic was the reluctance to use the words yes or no when answering a question. And finally, there were many items of vocabulary borrowed from Irish, like bonove ‘young pig’, scéal ‘story’, or emotive expressions like yerra and ora.

What delighted observers like Synge and Lady Gregory, though, was something more subtle than the linguistic features I have just mentioned. It was a certain way of expressing oneself which seemed quite different from that of mainstream English. Consider this passage:

The spuds were taken up, strained and put steaming. In a while’s time they were turned out on the table and plates full of home-cured bacon and cabbage. Oh Glory, and I was ravenous! The woman of the house, give her her due, invited me to sit over, and of course I knowing my manners said ‘No! No! No! Look if it killed me I couldn’t touch it – I only left the table after me.’

This passage is taken from a collection by the story-teller Éamon Kelly. There are no words here that will not be found in any dictionary of English. The strangeness is in the way the story is told. The conjunction and in ‘and I was ravenous’ emphasises the extent of the narrator’s hunger. At the very end, the sentence ‘I only left the table after me’ is meant to convey that the narrator has just eaten, and so out of politeness must refuse the food, although he is in fact famished. And the whole passage is characterised by a rhythm which adds vividness to the telling.

Eamon Kelly

However colourful and charming Irish English was for writers and tourists, it was a heavy burden for the emigrants from rural Ireland to carry, whether their destination was Dublin, London, New York, or Melbourne. A rural Irish accent was a sign of backwardness, ignorance and poverty, and was a formidable obstacle to social and professional advancement. So accustomed have we become to an Irish accent being received positively all over the globe, that we have forgotten how recently this re-evaluation took place. In the United States Irishness became respectable with the rise of the Kennedy dynasty. In Britain it was only in the 1980s that it became unacceptable to make fun of an Irish accent in public. As one emigrant in the 1920s put it: ‘We had to leave the fats [whats] and fys [whys] behind us when we left home’.

It is true that speakers of Irish experienced the same prejudice and discrimination abroad as speakers of English. However, in Ireland the Irish-speaker had an advantage that the English-speaker lacked. Because of the efforts of the Gaelic League to revitalise Irish, and because this became official state policy after 1922, speakers of Irish were given a special status. For revivalists, they were the keepers of the flame of Irishness, the one group that had not abandoned their cultural heritage for material gain. Speakers of English, on the other hand, were referred to as West Britons and shoneens, and did not qualify as true Irish people.  

The opprobrium was particularly severe in the case of the west of Ireland where Irish had lingered longer than in the rest of the country. It was felt that because Irish had been spoken there within living memory, the language shift could, and should, be reversed effortlessly. The logic seems to have been something like: Irish English is just Irish with English words. Therefore, these people only have to relearn the Irish words that are lurking in their DNA, and they will all be speaking Irish again.

This approach is problematic. First, Irish English is English, albeit with some influences from Irish. From a linguistic point of view, learning Irish represents the same challenge for an inhabitant of Kerry as it does for an inhabitant of Australia. Second, and more importantly, for the people of the west of Ireland, Gaelic culture was something they already were more than familiar with. The songs, the stories, the belief system of Gaelic Ireland were all carried over into the English-language society that emerged in the 19th century. Learning Irish would not open up new opportunities for these people – it was just more of the same. In such circumstances, it was well nigh impossible to motivate them to learn the language. What blinded the revivalists from the cities was precisely their inability to understand that language is not culture. They felt that the fact that they spoke Irish would enable them to form a bond with the people of the Gaeltacht. But for the latter, identity was first and foremost local. They were related by blood to the English-speakers who lived a few miles to the east of them, and relied on them for economic activity. The GAA was based on parishes and counties, not on the language of the players. To this day, when their county is playing in Croke Park, the Gaeltacht people of the Dingle Peninsula shout ‘Up Kerry’ along with the people of Tralee and Killarney.        

The learners of Irish created a language that was impersonal and standardised, suitable for use in modern, urban life. It failed to catch on in the Gaeltacht for that very reason. In a way, the Irish-speakers west of Dingle did speak the same language as the English-speakers east of Dingle, or even Dingle itself. Both groups inhabited the same world, one that was pre-industrial. They shared the same belief-system, and the language in which it was expressed was largely irrelevant. I would contend that an English-language storyteller like Éamon Kelly had more in common with an Irish storyteller like Peig Sayers, than either of them had with a learner of Irish from one of the cities.

Ireland has undergone enormous social changes since 1970. As a result, both Irish and Irish English are being replaced by a new kind of English, sometimes referred to as ‘metropolitan’. It still is a distinct dialect but it is very different from the rural English so common fifty years ago. Last year I was on a beach on the Beara peninsula of West Cork. Until recently, the local accent was regarded as particularly strong. Beside me were two women speaking in the local dialect. Further away was a group of children, who I assumed were from Dublin. Then one of the women called them and I realised that the children were in fact local. Within one generation, the local speech had been replaced by the metropolitan variety.

This anecdote illustrates how fragile dialects are. At the same time, because their loss does not lead to a change in language, it often goes undetected. The decline of Irish is constantly being written about and analysed, but the loss of Irish English is rarely commented on. This I believe is very much due to the fact that Irish English was never given the official respect it deserved. And yet this is the language of the works of  Synge, Patrick Kavanagh, and Seamus Heaney, writers who are revered both in Ireland and abroad. Another generation or two, and their work will be as opaque to Irish school-children as the plays of Shakespeare.

Change is an essential part of language, and it is impossible to prevent it. Once a particular way of life was lost, it was inevitable that Irish English would be lost, just as Irish had given way to English before that. The difference is that we cherish Irish as part of our heritage. Perhaps it is time for us to start taking the same care of Irish English?

Aidan Doyle lectures in the Department of Modern Irish, University College, Cork, Ireland. His main academic interests are the grammatical structure of Irish and its sociolinguistics. His book A history of the Irish language was published in 2015. He has just co-edited a volume of essays on Irish and Scottish Gaelic in North America.


One thought on “Irish English – a threatened species

  1. Hibernian English really owed all its phonetic and grammatical peculiarities to the Irish language. When the latter declined, and without the benefit of bilingualism, the main formative influence was removed. It was really only a matter of time until the metropolitan version of English became dominant. The expressive qualities of older Hibernian English can’t be denied, but it necessarily represented no more than a phase, though contemporary Irish English retains something of the older colouring. Interestingly, modern Irish has also acquired a ‘metropolitan’ character: younger speakers in the Gaeltacht (the few that remain) are following the lead of their urban counterparts, who are taking the language in a new direction, well away from traditional dialects and phonology.

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