Could Irish fiction sound a bit less, well, English?

Irish authors have given the world a quare and good rake of quality fiction, but little in dialect. Douglas Hyde, who sought to de-Anglicise Ireland, must be birling in his grave

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Picture a green forest glen where the leaves fissle underfoot and the greedy goblins gorb on critters in the knarly undergrowth. A wain happed up in a thick woollen coat danners along the path behind his parents, kicking the stones and blattering the trunks of the trees with his sticks. He trips and he cowps into the prickly thorns. He scrabs his face and the sleekit, crabbit goblins laugh as the man and the woman traik on without their son.

In 1892, Douglas Hyde appealed for an increase in Anglo-Irish literature in his “De-Anglicising Ireland” speech. His discourse centred on Celtic literary traditions, and not those of the Ulster-Scots tongue in the prose passage above, but the concept is relevant to all dialects found in Ireland today.

A recent realisation that my childhood home was a bilingual one propelled me to think about how I could address dialects in my own work. My novels make a nod and a wink to urban Belfast and Ulster-Scots, but they are essentially written in Standard English. It is in children’s stories that I have been able to expand my literary wings into the gledsome world of Ulster-Scots.

Writing in dialects is not new. I can still hear the voice of Huckleberry Finn 20 years after reading his adventures. Twain managed to encapsulate dialect into the body of a prose that flowed as effortlessly as the Mississippi, yet he did acknowledge in a note that his work was “painstaking”. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to generate a piece of literature that rolls from the tongue in defiance of punctuation and syntax, “Miss Watson she kept pecking at me, and it got tiresome and lonesome”.

I took a trip to the local library to assess the dialect situation on the Irish shelves, and I fear that Hyde would be birling in his grave. Most contemporary authors, and, in particular, international female Irish authors, havenae taken heed of the call. As I peeled back the pages on about 50 books, I deduced that the Irish author has given the world a quare and good rake of quality fiction, but a proportionally small amount of dialect. Although it would be wrong to make a judgement about Irish dialect from such a small selection of books, the pick of bestsellers does tell its own story.

As for Ulster-Scots, in a town where folk were reared on cannae and dinnae and wouldnae, I didnae see so much as a novelette in the local language. What I did find was Roddy Doyle and James Joyce.

The Barrytown Trilogy is the fattest book in the Irish section of Larne Library, and Doyle’s Dublin brogue is loud and proud, “Been ridin’ annythin’ since I seen yis last?” I was transported back to 1991 when my school friends and I were uplifted by excessive F words and soul music at the cinema. “Dunnae be goin’ near thon film,” my dad had said at the time. “It’s meant tae hae wile bad language in it, so it has.”

Joyce, meanwhile, is often quoted as the master dialect writer, experimenting in Ulysses with a mix of English words with phonetic spelling, Irish idioms, and literal translations from Gaelic into English, “It’s them has the fine times, sadly then she said.”

Although Ulster-Scots it is mostly heard as a dialect today, it is, at heart, a poetic language enshrined in the work of poets like James Orr. The purity of Orr’s Scots may be too difficult for the modern writer to master in a work of prose, but there were some successful prose authors in the nineteenth century, including John Gamble, James McHenry and WG Lyttle. Andrew James’ 1911 novel, The Nabob, a tale of the 1798 rebellion is a good example of how Ulster-Scots words can be delivered within the conventions of English syntax, “And their auld mither, as might be expected, went ravin’ mad, and her neice, who, when she had heard o’ the trouble, had come frae Ballymean to watch ower her, nearly went mad too.” The problem is, these books are old. How does the modern author handle Ulster-Scots dialogue and why are there no particularly famous dialogue prose authors from Northern Ireland?

Tony MacAuley narrates a charming Belfast story in Paperboy, a memoir that is as fascinating as McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, but that hasn’t yet had the same global success. It opens with a well-known Ulster phrase, “I was too young, so I was.” In Arlene Hughes’ Martha’s Girls, which is set in Belfast during the war years, Hughes writes in Standard English, but the dialogue builds into an urban Belfast one, “You can tell our Theresa I’m not goin’ anywhere the night.”

Martina Devlin’s The House Where it Happened is a recent story based on the Islandmagee witch trials of 1711. Devlin combines Ulster-Scots idiom and historical expressions that are still common today, “It did the heart a power of good to see them wee scaldies with their wide-open beaks.” Philip Robinson’s, The Backstreets of the Claw, which I had to order from a second-hand book shop, is a feast of dialect. By marrying Standard English with Ulster-Scots, Robinson is able to capture the dry wit of Ulster characters. A wife asks what’s wrong with her son this weather and her husband assumes offence. “‘Ach what’s wrong wi’ ye now?’ John said, mair in defence o himsel than his son.” Many of Robinson’s words were unfamiliar to me, but within the context of the Standard English prose, I was able to decode them instantly.

Sam Hanna Bell’s December Bride was written more than than 60 years ago, but it is worth a mention. Although scribed in Standard English, the voice of the author rises and falls like the loanen and the braes on which his characters danner. “He grew out of the soil and a man and a bush and a beast kept their appointed places in his world,” is how Hamilton is described, so that when he speaks, his words merge into the prose, “Ye canna interfer wi’ us Martha. If you’re no happy here, I’m sorry.”

Irish dialects are disappearing and as we greet and girn about their demise, the prose author has a unique opportunity to transpose to paper a vernacular world that was once as varied and resplendent as the mountains, glens and rivers upon which it thrived.

Hyde was concerned about how un-literary Ireland had become in the late nineteenth century, and today educational failure in low-income areas of Northern Ireland is just as well documented as that in urban centres in Ireland. In order to to bring those marginalised people back into the literary world, the literary world has a chance to invite the poetic dialects of the land back into their prose.

Angeline King is author of Snugville Street. The prequel, A Belfast Tale, is composed in Standard English with some Ulster-Scots dialogue. A Belfast Tale is ready for publication. Angeline’s blog contains some short stories in Ulster-Scots: www.angelineking.com

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