How to talk Tyrone: They’re not people-pleasers, but I love their bluntness

Tyrone folk can bend words to a different meaning, with confusing results for outsiders

In Tyrone if someone says ‘I doubt they were the better team’, it means there is no doubt about it at all, they definitely were. Photograph: Pacemaker

In Tyrone if someone says ‘I doubt they were the better team’, it means there is no doubt about it at all, they definitely were. Photograph: Pacemaker


I suppose I’m second-generation Tyrone, by which I mean my mother hails from there. I’ve always had time for the county and it’s been a rare delight to hear all the Red Hand accents on the airwaves of late.

Tyrone folk are not people-pleasers, and while they may lack the twinkly, tourist-attracting charm of Mayo residents, I love the blunt and creative way they talk.

Tyrone people can bend words to make them mean what they choose. “Lethal” and “deadly” are actually positive adjectives when used by these tough-talkers.

“I doubt they were the better team” in fact means there is no doubt about it at all, they definitely were better. See also: “Thon midfielder wants a slap”, when he probably doesn’t really.

It can be confusing for outsiders.

A certain super-sub might be skilful enough to score “a lock” of points, while an opposing defence was “all through-other”, meaning in total disarray. See that captain? He “done immense”.

“Thon Ruane boy is a wile hallion,” a Tyrone person might say, to choose a name entirely at random.

Young women and girls can be known as cutties, but menfolk never seem to grow old in Tyrone.

“Thon Spillane’s some cub,” someone might say. Again, these are merely examples plucked from the air.

They have a most characterful way of speaking, whether it be in the rapid-fire, rat-a-tat-tat delivery of Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s Northern leader, or the more slow and sonorous tones of Benedict Kiely, the late writer and broadcaster. Kiely would say, after the August 1998 Omagh bombing, that his “heart was breaking for his sweet Omey town”.

My grandparents were dead by the time that atrocity took place, thank God, but they too had called Omagh Omey town. They weren’t trying to be poetic; that’s just the way they spoke.

Mum’s been in Derry since the early 1970s, but with the loyalty that marks out Tyrone folk, she still calls her corner of the neighbouring county “up home”, even though it’s down, geographically speaking.

Middle of nowhere

Every second weekend of our childhood we would leave our metropolis and make for what we then rudely considered the middle of nowhere to visit.

The smell seemed to us to change as soon as we entered Tyrone, turning suddenly rural and offensive to our nostrils, although the alteration would have in fact occurred before we reached the county boundary. My mother would cheerfully wind down her driver’s window, shouting “breathe it in, it’s good for you!” as we gagged theatrically in the back seat.

We called my mother’s mother Apron Granny.I now realise how awful it is to reduce a woman to the domestic garment she always wore, but children say what they see, and it distinguished her from Portrush Granny, who lived in the Co Antrim seaside town.

We were very literal youngsters.

Although we were only one generation away from the land, we found the Tyrone manners rustic and the way they lived, and spoke, kind of alien. A code we couldn’t always crack. Granny would proudly tell visitors, “Our Mary’s quare and fat”, and would be mystified when I burst into tears.

But they were born near the turn of the last century, and there were unmentioned Famine mounds in the fields that surrounded them, so our fleshy prosperity must have pleased them greatly.

They would eat meat and potatoes – they called them pritties – at the stroke of noon, which wouldn’t even have been lunchtime for us.

They were landlocked in Tyrone and when they wanted sea, they broke for the Border. Bundoran in Co Donegal was their annual destination; they couldn’t have imagined going anywhere else on holidays.

Granny used to always say if she won the lottery she’d bring us all for a week in the Great Northern. Six nights in that hotel run by the McEniffs was her modest idea of decadence and luxury.

Code switching

One of the great joys of my life is engaging in what I believe linguists call “code switching” with my mother. In our phone conversations, she hams up her still-evident Tyrone accent and I chip in with phrases she passed down to me from her mother.

If it has been an unusually warm day, one of us will invariably gravely pronounce, as Granny always did, “The heat’ll kill the people”. Despite Tyrone’s renowned soaraway temperatures, I’m fairly sure that has never happened.

If either of us has the temerity to make the gods laugh by forging plans for the future, we will quickly interject with “if I’m spared”, meaning “I might not be around to see that happening”.

Mum’s sayings tend towards the agricultural. Try to get a brother to subtly nip out to the shop for a packet of biscuits when visitors arrive? “You may as well wink at a blind horse.”

Self-doubt is not a quality commonly associated with Tyrone people, but even she has begun to wonder about her own pronunciation of late.

“I’ve always said Tir-owen, but I hear these wans saying Tie-rone,” she told me recently.

And who are “these wans”? “Presenters.” This creeping dominance of the incorrect version on radio and television must be countered.

Depending on your cultural reference points, think of it as less artists’ retreat the Tyrone Guthrie centre or Coronation Street character Tyrone Dobbs, and more T’rone or TirOWEN, depending on how deep into the county you go.

It’s a matter of respect.