A Bit of Afters – Frank McNally on a cornerstone of Hiberno-English
An Irishman’s Diary
Rachael Blackmore: “I just can’t believe I’m after winning the Grand National.” Photograph: Tim Goode/Getty Images
After winning the English Grand National on Saturday, Rachael Blackmore couldn’t believe she was after winning it and, saying so in those terms, confused at least one British newspaper. Deciding there must be a word missing from her expression of disbelief, the Observer inserted one in square brackets. The result read: “I just can’t believe I’m [talking] after winning the Grand National.”
In fairness to the Observer, there may indeed have been a word missing somewhere, but not from Blackmore’s sentence, which was impeccable Hiberno-English. Any absence was in the original Irish – the language she was channelling, consciously or otherwise – which has no exact equivalent of the English verb “to have”.
To describe recent events, therefore, Irish speakers have traditionally used a construction involving the verb “to be” and the preposition “after”. As a result, even in English, we still break news by saying we’re “after” doing something. Most of us don’t win Grand Nationals, of course. A more realistic example is the thing we say when refusing the first offer of food in a neighbour’s house: “No – I’m after having my dinner.”
This is such a cornerstone of everyday speech here that novelists from elsewhere, when creating Irish personae, will often insert “afters” into their quoted speech, for instant characterisation. But not understanding the nuances, they equally often break the rules, or seem to. What the rules are, however, nobody is quite sure.
Linguists sometimes call this construction the “after perfect” tense, or the “hot news perfect”. And it does seem to be something used mainly for very recent events, although even in Irish literature there are many exceptions.
For the classic usage, there is a textbook example in James Joyce’s Ulysses, via the episode in Barney Kiernan’s pub, when Alf Bergan lets drop that he has just seen somebody on Capel Street “with Paddy Dignam”. Consternation ensues.
– Don’t you know he’s dead? says Joe.
– Paddy Dignam dead? says Alf.
– Ay, says Joe.
– Sure I’m after seeing him not five minutes ago, says Alf, as plain as a pikestaff.
This is “hot news”, by any measure. And it would have been even hotter if Dignam were still alive. Unfortunately, as Joe goes on to break gently to Alf: “They took the liberty of burying him this morning anyway”.
But whether the event was five minutes ago, or hours, or days, the paradox of Hiberno-English “after” is its limited shelf-life. After a certain period, in other words, “after” no longer applies. You cannot still be after having your dinner tomorrow, for example, even if you haven’t eaten anything since.
With bigger events, it seems, there is more leeway. In the case of the Aintree Grand National, you could probably say you were after winning that for up to three or four days. A week might be pushing it. But I’m really not sure.
Getting back to Paddy Dignam, the paradox is at its most paradoxical in connection with the dead. Because there seems to be a limit even to how long a typical Irish person can be “after dying”. Again, it’s hard to be exact, but as a rule, I suggest it can’t be longer than the wake.
JM Synge has also given us an instructive example, via the play The Shadow of the Glen, in which an unnamed “Tramp” arrives at the cottage of a young Nora Burke, whose elderly husband is laid out on a bed.
Tramp [entering slowly and approaching bed]: “Is it departed he is?”
Nora: “It is, stranger. He’s after dying on me, God forgive him, and there I am now with a hundred sheep beyond on the hills and no turf drawn for the winter”.
Nora’s description of the scene is doubly interesting for language scholars because not only does it include the “after perfect”, it also features a case grammarians call the “dative of disadvantage”. That exists in many other languages, including Latin and Greek, but expressing as it does here an action done to the speaker’s detriment, it seems especially well suited to Hiberno-English.
Thus, Nora’s husband is not just “after dying”, as she says; he’s “after dying on me”. [Note to the Observer and other overseas newspapers: this does not refer to the husband’s physical location at time of death, vis-à-vis Nora, only that she has been severely inconvenienced by his demise].
In fact, as we soon learn, he’s not after dying at all. He was only pretending, to test her reaction.
By the end of the play, the husband is alive and well again, but – Hot News and Plot Spoiler Alert – Nora’s after leaving with the tramp.