He was back among the city’s voices, and it was the rhythm of them that slowed the rush of his thoughts. —Kevin Barry, City of Bohane
Kevin Barry’s award-winning first novel City of Bohane (Jonathan Cape, 2011) is an extravagant experiment in language, rich in Irish English slang and vernacular. It may take non-Irish readers a little while to tune in to its sounds and rhythms, but the rewards are considerable.
This post annotates a few items of linguistic interest in the book.
Divil a bit stirred in the Trace that he didn’t know about, nor across the Smoketown footbridge.
Divil (rhymes with civil) is a common pronunciation of devil in colloquial Irish English. The idiom divil a bit has various emphatic negative meanings: ‘not at all’, ‘none at all’, and in Barry’s line, ‘nothing at all’.
Bleached light on the plain of Nothin’ and a fado lament wailed distant from somewhere on the pikey rez.
Fadó /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’. In Barry’s example ‘a fado lament’ is a lament from bygone days.
The lads jogged in a staggered line around the irregular perimeter of the field and in sequence one of them would break off from the stagger, take a sprint for the field’s gate and have a lep at it.
Lep is a colloquial Irish English way of saying leap. It can cause momentary confusion when horses in show jumping, for instance, are referred to as leppers.
‘there’d be as much herb as you can lung an’ ale to folly.’
‘Looks like we’s gettin’ a folly awrigh’,’ …
Follow becoming folly is another pronunciation characteristic of some speakers of informal Irish English. Barry shows it in verb and noun forms.
The pills that landed on her tongue – and she had a tongue like sandpaper today, whatever was after going skaw-ways in that department – she washed down with a swallow of John Jameson taken direct from the neck of the bottle.
‘Sufferin’ Baba above on the cross,’ he said. ‘The heart would be skaw-ways in you, Balt?’
The fine phrase skaw-ways is anglicised in various ways: skaw-ways, skew-ways, scew-ways, skeow-ways, skow-ways. It means ‘side-ways’, ‘slanted’, or ‘crooked’, and comes from Irish sceabha ‘slant’, though the tie to English skew is also manifest. (Baba here means Baby Jesus, by the way.)
Skaw-ways is used figuratively both times in Bohane, and the first example also shows the grammatical feature known as the after perfect or hot news perfect in Irish English: ‘whatever was after going skaw-ways’ means ‘whatever had (just) gone skaw-ways’.
‘Was it Dick had the daughter married the fella of the Delaceys?’
In standard English this line would be: ‘Was it Dick who had the daughter who married…’ Omitting the relative pronoun results in a contact clause, in this case a subject contact clause, and not just one but two in recursive succession. See my earlier post for more on this nonstandard grammatical syntax.
‘I’m sorry for yere troubles,’ he said.
Yere is your (plural) in vernacular Irish English, where ye (plural ‘you’) is in widespread use alongside youse, yiz, and other forms.
‘McGroartys are born latchiko.’
Latchiko (also latchico) is a pejorative noun applied to someone unpleasant or lazy. Many possible etymologies have been proposed, including from Irish and Old French, but the word’s origin remains uncertain.
‘The Gypo’ Lenihan thought he had seen quareness in his time but nowt so quare as the pairing at the bar.
Quare is an interesting case. It derives from queer and sometimes (as above) simply means ‘strange’. But ‘the two phonetic forms … have diverged semantically’, Séamas Moylan writes in Southern Irish English, and quare is used in multiple other ways, many of them idiomatic and positive.
Quare can mean ‘good’ or ‘remarkable’. Quare and can mean ‘very’ (‘You’re quare and good on the guitar!’ – Pat McCabe, Emerald Germs of Ireland). The quare place means hell; the quare stuff is poitín. I’ll return to the Irish English pronunciation of ‘-ee-’ and ‘-ea-’ in a future post.
For a fuller flavour of The City of Bohane, you can see Kevin Barry reading from the book in the video below, while The Millions has a good interview with him about Bohane and writing in general.