Irish accents

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"Lost in translation — navigating accents in a changing world"

Joe Horgan, Irish Post (8/7/23)

An engaging story:

WHEN I first started associating with English people I had to translate when my father spoke to them. I’d grown up in a very large Irish community in an immigrant area in an English city and it wasn’t until I went away to a northern English polytechnic that I really got to know English people.

When they met my dad he would speak and they would smile and look worriedly at me and I’d say he’s asking if you want a cup of tea and if you’ve eaten.

He did mumble a little, my father, if I’m being honest but not to the extent that he was unintelligible.

But he did have a very strong Cork accent and it certainly seemed to leave the English a little bewildered as he smiled and joked and welcomed them. It bewildered me at first as I, obviously, understood him easily but I got used to it and it just became part of what I’d do if I brought English people in to the house. Translate for Dad. Mum had her accent too but she seemed to be generally understood — perhaps because she was more clear in her speech, or because she was only 19 when she first came over.

This thing about accents came back to me recently, strangely enough, while I was watching Ryan Tubridy’s appearance in front of a TD’s committee. One of the TDs*, Mattie McGrath, was widely mocked for his appearance at the committee.

Now, McGrath’s appearance was worthy of mockery. He is astonishingly incoherent. His questioning was nonsensical and his faux outrage a show for the cameras. He is one of those who would be more than happy for you to think of him as nothing but a fool. And maybe he is and maybe he isn’t. He is, as they say, a cute hoor. What was also in the picture, though, for mockery, was McGrath’s accent.

Now I’m the proud owner of a pretty strong accent, though the years living outside of that accent’s origins have diluted it somewhat. But I still like having it. It tells of my origins, reminds me of who I am, and of where I’ve come from. It is the sound of the English city my Irish parents went to. As an Irishman it is the place of my birth, my rearing , my youth, and an integral part of my identity. I’m a big fan of accents, even my own.

Indeed, his accent is probably the one thing I admire about Mattie McGrath. Yes, the ideas he espouses are nonsensical but he, at least, says them in an authentic accent.

Of course there is a class element to this. Ryan Tubridy, for instance, child of privilege doesn’t just have a neutral accent because he works in the media, he has an accent attached to his class. Don’t you see it everywhere in Ireland or England? The accent of the better off, for want of a better term, does not denote any kind of geographical identity. Their accent is one of class identity. An upper class Irishman doesn’t sound of Cork or Dublin or Limerick. He just sounds of his status. An upper class Englishman doesn’t sound of Birmingham or Leeds or Newcastle. He just sounds of his status.



  1. Stephanie said,

    August 13, 2023 @ 9:10 am

    I was born and brought up in Yorkshire and have had the same experiences: translating what my parents said, feeling at home when I go back to the home country.

    As someone whose working life has mainly been in London my accent has shifted to sounding plausibly like a standard English (not Upper Class though). But when I do go home, especially if seeing relatives, it takes a couple of days and then the veneer disintegrates and the home tongue reappears – partly in terms of accent but more strikingly in terms of grammar. The attempts of my parents and my teachers to get me to "talk proper" were clearly not as effective as they hoped. But when I return to London my inner censor rapidly re-establishes the right way to say things.

  2. Read Weaver said,

    August 13, 2023 @ 9:44 am

    As it happens, as a US native, my initial reaction to the original story was slight surprise that English folks would find an Irish accent unintelligible, while thinking, "Now, if it was Yorkshire…"


    August 13, 2023 @ 10:25 am

    In 1966 I returned to the US after 2 years in Bolivia, not having heard my parents' voices for that period. [An "international" call was unthinkable!] As soon as I crossed the border from Mexico into the US I make a "long distance" call and for the first time "heard" my parents and my East Texas accent.

  4. Cervantes said,

    August 13, 2023 @ 11:10 am

    As a youth I visited the Cotswolds for a couple of weeks — my grandfather had spent an academic year heading an overseas campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University in Wroxton. The local speech was nearly incomprehensible to me. My grandparents told me it had taken a while before they could communicate with the local shopkeepers.

  5. mg said,

    August 13, 2023 @ 11:48 am

    My handyman was born in a heavily Irish neighborhood of Boston then when he was 10 his father moved the family back to Ireland. Living in the Boston area, once gets used to Irish accents, but my handyman's is so heavy that I often have trouble understanding him. One day I was bewildered by his statement that "the boards are chirping" until I realized he meant the birds.

  6. Robert Coren said,

    August 14, 2023 @ 8:54 am

    That comment that's headed "Read Weaver" is actually from me; I misfired on a drop-down menu. Apologies for any confusion (and also to Read, who presumably won't have seen it).

  7. Oatrick said,

    August 15, 2023 @ 8:12 pm

    Rich veins of accent gold to be found on the (archives of) the Motherfoclóir podcast. One of the hosts, Darach Ó Séaghdha, has a rmarbly impenchble accent (to my Californian ears), whereby about 1/3 of the syllables disappear completely. Believe me, there’s lots of sporin (supporting) evdence!

    For the unique features of Limmerick (the city, not the poems), cf. the Blindboy Boatclub podcast. Blindboy regularly discusses mentlelt issues.

    Lee Vinsert

  8. Aotearoa said,

    August 19, 2023 @ 6:30 am

    We speak our indigenous language, Te Reo Maori, at home and all of our children have learned it as a first language before inevitably being swamped with English TV, newspapers, monolingual family members, friends etc. They have retained Te Reo Maori as their heritage language in the face of English dominance. The one exception being our youngest. We don’t speak English to him and haven’t for 20 years. He learned his English by watching Thomas the Tank Engine on TV. Ringo Starr (one of The Beatles) was the narrator. He is a scouser (Liverpudlian) with a strong accent. Our child spoke English with a Liverpool accent for many years, and still has traces of it. It confused people he met. People would hear us speaking Maori and then hear him switch to English with a scouse accent. Unique I think in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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