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In Australia, my Irish accent carries less weight than it did in the UK

It is less politicised here, less burdensome to carry. Most people are simply not interested in it. This, it turns out, is far preferable

My mother’s experience raised questions in me early about accents and Irishness. She was born in London to Irish parents who had been part of the wave of emigration to Britain during the 1950s and she spent her childhood in an environment where it was normal to carry the culture of your parents.

Her schoolfriends came from diverse immigrant backgrounds. Years later she would talk about Jewish and south Asian childhood friends and how their families had introduced her to new foods, new customs and the lesson that the way her own family lived was not the only way to live.

How she missed this when she moved to Ireland in the 1970s.

My mother got on a boat with her parents and siblings, ultimately arriving on the steps of Colbert train station in Limerick aged 13. She told me that the vista on exiting was so grim (the area around Colbert station remains one of the most poorly considered in the city) that she wept. Rain was bucketing; she had left everything she knew behind. The stories she had internalised of her Irish identity collided with the view of the actual Ireland before her, and there was little to do but cry.


The view from Colbert station’s front steps isn’t representative of Ireland, but you would have trouble arguing it isn’t a very underwhelming first view of Limerick.

Despite an accent that would suit a BBC newsreader and a fondness for Yorkshire puddings, my mother was raised by Irish parents who had encouraged her to identify as Irish, so my mother thought she was.

In Limerick in the late 1970s, everyone else thought she wasn’t.

She found school difficult, frequently being tripped up or shoved against walls by the teenage welcoming committee, called various unimaginative slurs with the word “English” tacked to the front of them and was treated always like an outsider. My mother lived in Limerick until she died there 45 years later, and even after decades maintained that many people still saw her as a “blow-in”.

In the UK my Irish accent seemed to generate one of two reactions

Her accent barely softened in all that time. Experience has shown me that this is unusual. People’s accents tend to change after emigrating to another English-speaking country. Friends of mine who left for the US or the UK all have either a fully-blown accent denoting their new home country, or the lilt or twang of a foreign cadence that peeps through most sentences. Colloquialisms trickle into their speech and the intonation of somewhere else alters their otherwise Irish voice.

I am in Australia now and the accents around me are so distinctive and different from those at home that I do wonder whether the long, shifting vowels and non-rhotic Rs will amble into my own way of speaking over time. Five years in the UK didn’t alter my accent, as 45 in Ireland barely dented my mother’s. Accents are central to the emigrant experience – they mark time and distance from home as well as immersion in the new place.

In the UK my Irish accent seemed to generate one of two reactions. Upon hearing it, people would either list every Irish ancestor or current relative (a convenient icebreaker for us both – grand so) or immediately adopt a pose channelling the Duke of Wellington and say something spectacularly ignorant such as “All about potatoes, are you?” (that’s offensive because the answer is obviously yes) or “Big drinkers, you lot! Haw haw!” (this would generally be said to me, an Irish teetotaller holding a Diet Coke, by a rather drunk British man holding a beer).

We all have that friend – the one who’s only gone from Ireland a week before they have a full LA accent for some reason and are proselytising about coffee creamers over FaceTime before signing off “Gotta go! We’re going to Erewhon!” and you just think: Siobhán, would you stop, you’re from Roscommon. Or those people who seem to unwittingly ape the speech patterns and accent of whomever they’re talking to at the time. I don’t know how much of accent adaptation is deliberate versus oblivious, but it’s smart. It makes immigrants less conspicuous and signals assimilation.

There are contexts outside of Ireland where you must phrase things differently to be understood

I don’t doubt that my mother’s life in Limerick would probably have been far easier if she quickly stopped saying things like “basmaaaaahhhteeee rice” – a pronunciation even my English husband mercilessly taunted her for – and started saying more recognisably Limerick things such as (my very favourite) “C’mere an’ I tell you a question”.

In Australia, my accent carries less weight than it did in the UK. By this, I mean that it is less politicised here, less burdensome to carry. Most people are simply not interested in it. This, it turns out, is far preferable to fielding the presumptions others hold on to about what the accent signifies. I never felt an urge to play it down, but, of course, there are contexts outside of Ireland where you must phrase things differently to be understood. I once glowered at a colleague at the offices of a British newspaper when he omitted to do something important relating to a joint task and said: “Ah now.” He looked at me in bafflement and replied: “When ... wait, what?”

My mother’s identity was something she had to claim consciously because it was packaged in what people thought of as an accent antithetical to Irishness. It was a corner she had to defend (albeit in an English accent). Her right to be part of the community, to claim her heritage, to say, “Ah now” and to declare this or that a day of “grand drying”.

In London, Irishness was a corner I had to defend in my Irish accent and for different reasons.

Conspicuousness is inconvenient in both places, it seems.