‘The Glorious Heresies could be set only in Cork. Some truths you can only tell in dialect’
If the narrative hops, sings and pulses with life, we have Cork City to thank. If we could manage Ulysses and Trainspotting, we could manage the odd reference to yokes or gowls
Lisa McInerney: I’m much happier in a world where articles titled “13 Words That Will Only Make Sense If You’re From Cork City” go viral than a world where young wans don’t recognise their ould fellas’ colloquial patter
It wasn’t for the glory of linguistics I wrote a novel peppered so generously with Cork slang; The Glorious Heresies is set in Cork and populated entirely by characters from Cork, so it would have been a rather sterile work had I written it in geographically-neutral terms. Besides, a writer should have the best of intentions towards the vernacular, lest he or she get too wrapped up in the secret languages of their own literary genius. No one can accuse you of falling short of genius if you insist you always intended to obscure it.
I’m often asked about the language in Heresies, especially as it pertains to such a specific setting – did I write it because Cork is underrepresented in Irish literature; was I ever under pressure to move the story to Dublin, the home of standardised Hiberno-English; wasn’t I worried that people wouldn’t understand terms like guzz-eyed, the gawks, the berries, mockeeah? No, never and not at all are the answers. It’s set in Cork because I’d spent half of my youth in Cork, no one had ever suggested the theme would be better served in Dublin, and in fairness if we could manage Ulysses and Trainspotting, we could manage the odd reference to yokes, gowls or nodges.
I’m not from Cork, though I am tangled up in the place and probably irrecoverable. My cousins are navy brats from Carrigaline (my very first Cork word was “poppies” because my small cousin liked them roasted and from his own county only, please); I moved to the city to study in UCC at 17; I married a Leesider; I worked for years in Cork’s construction industry, which was a foolhardy way to carry on faced with a countrywide economic crash and a government that couldn’t see past the Pale.
And I think everyone’s a little bit hyperopic when it comes to dialects, accents, local colour. At 17 and newly of the Real Capital I was convinced that there was no such thing as a Galway accent, because I simply couldn’t hear it. In Cork I would identify particularly gorgeous slanguage, only to be asked if I could provide a Galwegian equivalent. I usually couldn’t. What peculiarities I had in my vocabulary were never stark enough on the ear for me to note. And there are such overlaps anyway: beour/beur, sham, feen, feek . . . a lot of which may have passed down from Traveller cant.
In any case, Cork provided new definitions and inflections: further uses for words like “savage” and “pure”, supertexts to phrases like “I will yeah”, “How bad?” and “I’d be sure to”. Some of my colleagues – who were older urban natives – got a kick out of further corrupting my tongue. Theirs was a kind of Cork Hiberno that was quickly becoming archaic: a lexicon of the mid-twentieth century, often steeped in Irish. One colleague had a much-loved book of Cork slang which he lent to me on the strict proviso he’d get it back (though I’m still not sure why he was more in need of it than I). One of my friends, city born and bred, sat at my kitchen table and went through the book rapt, nostalgic and tickled. He read out almost-forgotten phrases to his teenaged daughter, as much of the city as he was. She looked mostly bored and occasionally said “What’s that mean, like?”.
It seems we’ve rediscovered a fondness for Hiberno parlance in recent years, in some small part due to the rise of the listicle. The Buzzfeed effect isn’t always a good thing, but in this instance – the hunger for easily digested content colliding with our need for tribal identity in an increasingly homogenised online world – it’s pure daycent. If we are to maintain our linguistic idiosyncrasies, our slanguage and argots, we need to feel a small bit exceptional. I’m much happier in a world where articles titled “13 Words That Will Only Make Sense If You’re From Cork City” go viral than a world where young wans don’t recognise their ould fellas’ colloquial patter. If this interest in locale-specific slang means renewed appreciation of the vernacular and protection of our dialects, it’s not a good thing: it’s a great thing.
Another recurrent question I cannot answer is why people don’t write novels set in Cork more often. I simply have no idea – we set our stories where we set our stories, and location is important and peculiar and cannot be fiddled with on a whim.
There is something about a place that speaks to us as creators – gets us going, thinking, imagining, working. But it is, dare I say, a bit of a shame. Of all of the Hiberno dialects – and likely anyone outside of the rebel county will protest this, feeling, as we all should, a small bit exceptional – Cork’s is the most distinctive. A mischievous lexicon combined with an immediately recognisable accent, the accent perfect for the vocabulary, or the other way around. The way we speak feeding the words we use, the words we use strengthening the way we speak – pitch, emphasis, cadence. As setting is important so too are the words your characters communicate with, so does the writer anchor her story, give it blood, let it breathe.
There are truths you can only tell in dialect. The Glorious Heresies could be set nowhere but Cork and so it could use no other lexicon but Cork’s, and so if the narrative hops, sings and pulses with life, we have Cork City to thank.
The Glorious Heresis is published in paperback by John Murray, at £8.99. As always, Hodges Figgis is offering a 10 per cent discount to Irish Times Book Club readers. Come and listen to Lisa McInerney read from her novel and discuss it with Martin Doyle, Assistant Literary Editor of The Irish Times, at the Irish Writers’ Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin, on Thursday, March 24th, at 7.30pm. Tickets €5/€3 in advancde, or €7 on the door, to include a glass of wine.