Irishisms in City of Bohane

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’.

Divil is such a frequent feature of traditional Irish English that P.W. Joyce, in English As We Speak It In Ireland, dedicated an entire chapter to ‘the devil and his territory’.

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.



6 Responses to Irishisms in City of Bohane

  1. ” In Barry’s example ‘a fado lament’ is a lament from bygone days.” In the absence of a fada over the “o” I would have assumed he was referring to a lament in the Portugese fado music style but I haven’t read the book so presumably fado meaning fadó makes more sense. (Had he said it was a “sean-nós” lament he would have made his meaning clearer.)

    • Stan Carey says:

      You know, you’re probably right. With my Gaeilge-goggles on I didn’t notice that possibility, but it seems more likely. ‘A fado lament’ would not be a typical way of using fadó, but Barry does play around a lot with syntax so I didn’t discount it on that basis.

  2. Helen says:

    Here is an explanation of the origins of quare meaning very:

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks, Helen. I didn’t know quare was used that way in Yola. The article describes the word as ‘slang’, though, which is not how I’d categorise it, and there’s no detail on the etymology. So I’ll defer judgement for now…

  3. John Cowan says:

    My eye jumped at pikey rez. Pikey is a derogatory term for gypsy that is not used in AmE. On the other hand, rez is AmE for reservation in the sense of a place where American Indians live (the Navajo Reservation, which is far and away the largest at 71000 km² or 27000 mi², is often called the Big Rez). So the phrase seems decidedly unnatural to me; what’s your take on it?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Neither word is characteristic of Irish English, or even used in it, in my experience, which is why I skipped them in the post. The language in Bohane works on its own terms but is not, I think, meant to be naturalistic: Barry freely mixes Irish slang and colloquialisms with such terms from other dialects and eras. Pikey is generally derogatory in modern usage but was not so originally and is used without apparent negative implication in the book.

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