An accent tour of Ireland: Norman Freeman on audible differences

There are many variations of every accent within every county and city

I heard of a man whose party piece was to take the guests on an accent tour of Ireland. He started with a sharp Belfast tone, then moved down to a county he called Caavan, with its distinct drawl, then on to Dublin, talking like Ronnie Drew.

From there he went to Wexford town where he said people said dem and dose instead of them and those. Then he moved across to Waterford city where he claimed tourists became tewrists.

This man then gave his versions of Cork, Kerry and Galway accents, finishing up with a Daniel O’Donnell kind of Donegal-speak.

The reality is that there are many variations of every accent within every county and city. I know there are several Belfast accents that can be identified especially by those natives who have an ear for the aural nuances. Some are not easily understood, especially when a Belfast boxer wins a big fight and gives a breathless interview on TV.


I’m told that in Cavan there is an audible difference in accent between people from Kingscourt on the eastern fringe of the county to that of Belcoo in the far west. It’s the same in county Wexford where, for example the New Ross accent melds into that of South Kilkenny and East Waterford.

Accents everywhere shade into one another and it can be hard to tell where one accent begins to fade out and another begins. The slight differences in inflections and pronunciation between accents can be hard to detect.

My own first experience of this was in Tipperary where I grew up. Two parishes formed the Holycross/Ballycahill hurling team. It had famous players like John Doyle and Pat Stakelum. Its captain was a strong player called Francis Bannon. The people from both parishes pronounced it Baannon. Yet I overheard a man saying “Wouldn’t you know that man comes from Ballycahill the way he says the name.” It must have been a very minute cadence of the word because I certainly couldn’t tell any difference.

In cities like Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway there are areas where the strong city accent prevails. It is held dear among those who are proud of who they are and where they came from. Invariably it lessens in the some of the suburbs, shaped by where people live, their educational and social backgrounds and sometimes by their societal aspirations.

Some exclusive boarding schools became known for the way the country accents of some pupils were discouraged. These boys were shamed into adopting a supposedly refined tone. An element of snobbery was involved.

It seems likely that the distinctive sounds of speech are lessening, especially among the younger generations. It could be happening where people are working from home. They may be in regular iPhone/Zoom contact with people from not just another county but another country with different lingual or cultural backgrounds. They find they have to pronounce their words distinctly to be clearly understood. In doing so they may lose some of small inflections of their own way of talking.

It’s probably happening for the same reason where people leave home to work abroad. They have to enunciate their words clearly. When they come back to work here some sounds of their original accent may have faded.

Thankfully the era of Irish returning home with a newly acquired English or American accents is gone. It sometimes happened in the long ago where Irish accents were discarded out of feelings of inferiority. The confident young Irish of today have no such attitudes.

The influence of television and the internet has introduced new words and phrases, mostly from the US, to the ordinary speech of Irish people. It is bound to have some effect on accents too.

Yes, there are places round the country where distinctive accents have been retained mainly because many people there have remained in their birthplace. A few months ago I met a school teacher from Achill Island in Mayo who told me she told me she could actually tell the faint difference in accents between people in the villages there.

A distinctive way of pronouncing certain words is part of some accents. One instance I know of is where the letter “c” fuses with what sounds like the letter “y” if it precedes an emphatic “a”.

The Cooley Peninsula was once a stronghold of this way of speech. It is still there because I heard it used recently . “He got into the cyar and drove to Cyarlingford for a game of cyards.”

My guess is that the “cy” territory lies in north Louth and maybe into Monaghan and Cavan and further north into Armagh. Maybe Frank McNally of this newspaper can add to this observation.