‘Hearing an Irish accent abroad connects you to home’
‘Ireland and Me’: Gráinne Perkins, South Africa
‘Surely South Africa, a country with eleven native languages, would have no problem pronouncing Gráinne?’
I think I know how Gráinne Mhaol, my namesake and a distant relative, gained her reputation as a no nonsense pirate Queen of Ireland. Non-Irish nationals couldn’t pronounce her name, and after a while she obviously got tired of repeating herself.
Irish-named J-1ers can relate from summers spent in America, where their names are transformed beyond recognition. Siobhan becomes “Shy-o-ban”’, Niamh becomes “Nymph”, and who can forget being called “See-a-moose” (Seamus) for an entire summer? I’ve become accustomed to “Gráinne” having many accented variations, all of them wrong.
Emigrating to South Africa in 2012, I thought my pronunciation troubles were behind me in the American summers. Surely South Africa, a country with eleven native languages, would have no problem pronouncing Gráinne? Paddy Power couldn’t have predicted how wrong I was.
Irish emigrants often forget how both their Irish names and accents shape their identities. A South African recently told this born and bred Dublin Northsider how they loved the way the Irish always sound hungry; because we eat the ends of our words.
After recently returning to Cape Town from Dublin, someone asked me what language I was speaking. “English,” I slowly replied. Both my accent and the speed at which I talk was just too much for them.
Apart from sounding constantly hungry, misunderstood accents can have profound consequences, as I’m sure Gráinne Mhaol discovered. In a conversation with two South Africans, it took only two sentences to cause mass confusion. I’m sure this is how many wars have started. The conversation went along these lines:
Ray: “I’m going to the Mosque. I’ll be back later.”
Me (hearing “I’m going to buy a mask. I’ll be back later”): “Are you going to a party?”
Ray: “What’s apartheid got to do with it?” (He heard: “Is it to do with Apartheid?”)
Although our accents differ, it seems that South Africans enjoy a similar sense of Irish humour.
My love of Irish accents has never waned. When home, stealing a day to wander Dublin and soak up the accents of the capital is a requirement. The sounds of the question-raising Cork-onians, perfect word ending Dublin 4-ers and Daniel O’Donegal-ers always remind me of the mix that is my home, a place where we sound hungry because we love our words.
While this love is evident in our poetry and prose, it is most obvious in our random conversations. Strangers in Dunnes, coffee shops and pubs share comments in a uniquely Irish manner which can make you buy that dress or have that second pint. When heard abroad, an Irish accents connects you to more than your county, it connects you to home.
To change my name or alter my accent to fit in would be to change my identity, so South Africa will just have to adopt my name. I can only hope that someday my name will be understood with no repeats or explanations required. Then I’ll be as much at home in the Mother City as I am in my Dirty Old Town.
Last November, The Irish Times invited readers abroad to submit reflections on their relationship with the land they left. This story is one we received. To read more, click here. The Irish Times 'Ireland and Me' eBook is available for download here.