Stories and sounds of a seanchaí

Eamon Kelly (1914–2001) was an actor and seanchaí* from the south-west of Ireland. Below are two video clips that showcase not only his skill at spinning yarns, but also some memorable Hiberno-English idioms and idiosyncrasies, delivered in Kelly’s colourful Kerry accent.

You’ll hear examples of how differently vowels can be pronounced in colloquial Irish English: either as /’eːd̪ ər/ (‘ay-dhr’), one as /wɑn/ (‘wan’), boy as /baɪ/ (‘by’).**

Note too the frequent, characteristically Irish insertion of h: train as ‘thrain’, sleep ‘shleep’, just ‘jusht’, tracks ‘thracks’, sleeper ‘shleeper’, dry ‘dhry’, first ‘firsht’, pony and trap ‘pony an’ thrap’, nostrils ‘nosthrils’ (or even ‘noshthrils’). Incidentally, in Ireland the consonant h is widely pronounced ‘haitch’, not ‘aitch’.

Some syllables are split. In English As We Speak It In Ireland (1910), P. W. Joyce wrote:

There are some consonants of the Irish language which when they come together do not coalesce in sound, as they would in an English word, so that when they are uttered a very short obscure vowel sound is heard between them: and a native Irish speaker cannot avoid this. By a sort of hereditary custom this peculiarity finds its way into our pronunciation of English.

This phenomenon is known in linguistic jargon as anaptyxis, a form of epenthesis whereby a sound intrudes between two consonants. I hear it regularly all around me (e.g. film as /’fɪləm/ ‘fillem’ or ‘fillum’). In the videos, Kelly pronounces storm and farm with two distinct syllables – the latter in ‘faarum o’ land’. (Dropping the f from of is also common; the remaining vowel is sounded as a schwa /ə/.)

Some long vowels are lengthened further: goat almost rhymes with poet; bone and even too are similarly elongated. Elsewhere, certain syllables are merged: th’other, th’oven. There are modest instances of rhetorical redundancy and repetition, both of which have a grand tradition in Ireland. Which reminds me: lots of rolling r’s, too.

In the front garden, Peig she had ridges of flowers
I’ll have you up before the judge the man in the white wig
I have he said I have a donkey chained there

And some striking idioms and turns of phrase:

She was a dinger on the box (very good on the concertina)
Peig complained the goat to the farmer (complained about…)
His teeth were swimming inside in his mouth for a bite of it. (A vivid suggestion of salivation!)
Is it any woman as a small child before she was able to talk could go up to the high note in Danny Boy? (Is there any woman who, as a small child…)
Shedding the tear for Parnell (a remarkable euphemism for urination, or to be interpreted literally?)




Here is a lovely short essay about Eamon’s life and career, written by Mattie Lennon, who tells us that “Eamon didn’t lick his storytelling ability off the ground”. The Princess Grace Irish Library has further biographical details.

Update: More discussion at Clusterflock.


* Traditional Irish storyteller. Pronounced /’ʃænəxiː/ or /’ʃænəkiː/, i.e. “shan-uh-kee” but with a soft k like the ‘ch’ in loch.

** My knowledge of IPA is limited, and these renditions are not meant to be definitive. Suggestions, corrections and observations are welcome.

22 Responses to Stories and sounds of a seanchaí

  1. John Cowan says:

    On my only trip to Ireland, in 1980, I saw him perform a version of Seamus Murphy’s Stone Mad at the Abbey. Amazing stuff, the memories of a lifetime.

  2. Sean Jeating says:

    Great treats, Stan. Many thanks!
    Only the other day I enjoyed re-reading two of his collected stories: Beyond the Horizon and The Connachtman’s Story. Wonderful!

    Lookily :) I could listen to him with Pegg the Damsel in front of my eyes. Otherwise I’d have missed almost each pun.
    Afterwards listening again and hanging on his lips was, of course, even more fascinating.
    Thanks again, Stan.

  3. wisewebwoman says:

    Thanks for this, Stan. I remember him well. If memory serves me well he would start a lot of his great stories with “In me father’s time” adding several extra vowels worth to “taieme”.

  4. Michael Farrell says:

    Sounds quite correct, no?

  5. Stan says:

    John: That must have been quite a show. He had a gift for performance.

    Sean: Delighted you enjoyed it! I can see how combining audio/video with text would be very helpful in deciphering some of the expressions. As you indicate, there’s enough going on in his art to reward repeat visits.

    WWW: I thought you might! His prosody, like many a minority dialect, shows a kind of casual ingenuity, conjuring extra syllables out of apparent nowheres.

    Michael: I’m afraid I’m not sure what you’re referring to.

  6. Ahh absolutely marvellous stuff Stan. I could listen to him for ever.

    Much as I love the Cork city accent, this is the sort of voice I remember ll from my childhood holidays in Millstreet, which you could tell was near to Kerry as football was more popular than the hurling!

  7. Stan says:

    Jams: It’s great, isn’t it! Makes me think about how fond of storytelling we are. The whole country is at it in one way or another. And I love how there’s such diversity in the accents of our different county tribes.

  8. annie says:

    Reading this before my morning cup of tea is a delight!
    So interesting those extra letters in between consonants like in FILIM. I noticed that extra “i” alot on my trip last month. My housemate, who is Jamaican, and used to live in Galway (imagine the great accent she has!)and I have adopted it as a sweet means to honor the quirky,a little “inside baseball” house term.

    2 questions: How did you decide to write about storytelling and Eamon Kelly?
    Do you know if there a name for that small intake of breath that I have noticed some Irish people make and also Danish people make when they are listening and agree and want you to continue talking? At first it sounds like the person is surprised, but it is an affirmation that might be called a “completion probe” like a nod or “ah ha “.
    Thanks .

  9. Claudia says:

    What amazed me is that I could catch a few words! I truly enjoyed listening. It’s so musical, with a up-and-down tone and a perfect rhythm. Each sentence always seems to end with a question mark.

    The idioms list is so interesting. We have similar rich variations in French Canada. With my nose thumbed up to the Parisian French so-called connoisseurs!

  10. Stan says:

    Annie: I’ve heard Jamaican–Galway accents and can confirm their appeal! I don’t remember how I decided to write about Eamon Kelly. I saw the videos quite a while ago and made a note to blog about them eventually. When I watched the clips again, I decided that the accent and Irish idioms deserved particular attention. As for the “completion probe” inhalation: I don’t know if there’s a name for this! But I’ll look into it and will let you know if I learn something.

    Claudia: If I had the time, I’d transcribe Kelly’s talks for you. I imagine it’s a difficult accent for a non-native speaker to decipher – though its musicality is, I hope, a consolation. Idioms lend great flair and imagery to a dialect, and Kerryese is no exception!

  11. Sometimes, when I lived in the UK, I met strangers and said “hello” and they said “ah, you’re Irish”. Our l is softer, apparently, than the English l. I was impressed.

  12. Stan says:

    Mise: As am I. There were probably a few subtle signals that gave you away.

  13. Michele says:

    Love the stories, Stan, and although I’m American, I had no problem understanding the videos, perhaps because the pubs of New York are so well populated with new arrivals from Ireland. Alas, I have met no one there as enchanting as Mr. Kelly.

  14. Stan says:

    Thanks for your visit, Michele. Kelly’s accent isn’t very thick, but (optional) subtitles would make the video more accessible.

  15. language hat says:

    Wonderful stuff! There is actually an English word shanachie; it’s not in the OED (and I see spellcheck doesn’t recognize it), but it’s in Webster’s Third International (and of course there’s Shanachie Records).

  16. Stan says:

    Glad you enjoyed it! Shanachie appears in the Shorter OED (6th ed.), but the entry points back to sennachie (“also shena- & other variants”). The American Heritage Dictionary includes it too.

  17. Hanna says:

    Hey I like this website i recently had t do an essay on this person and also Edmund Lenihan and Margaret Bennet it would be nice for some of their research here but that ok this gave me alot of good research on Eamonn Kelly and Seanchai.

  18. […] by the seanchaí who live among us; believing the fables of that person […]

  19. […] a nice passage from Éamon Kelly‘s autobiography The Apprentice […]

  20. […] written before about Éamon Kelly in his seanchaí (storyteller) guise, after coming across a couple of clips of him on YouTube. That post has […]

  21. […] old Irish storytelling seannachai in fine form. Traditionally the 'seannachai' in Ireland is the bearer of old lore. Both a historean […]

  22. […] /fɑ’d̪oː/ is an Irish word meaning ‘long ago’. It often appears at the start of a seanchaí’s story, where it’s sometimes repeated: Fadó fadó ‘Long, long ago’. […]

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