Irish English dialect in The Stinging Fly

I have an essay on Irish English dialect in the latest Stinging Fly (winter 2020–21). The issue, just out, centres on Galway – the city, the county, the state of mind – to tie in with its status as European Capital of Culture this year.

The Stinging Fly is an Irish literary magazine on the go since 1997 and a book publisher since 2005. You can order its publications from the website or, depending on where you are, from your local bookshop.

My essay looks at Galway dialect, though its features are not that different (or different mainly in degree) from southern Irish English in general. The grammar, vocabulary, idiom, and phonology of Irish English are all considered from my vantage point on the Atlantic coast.

I also discuss dialect more broadly, because people new to language studies are often unsure just what it means – linguistically, politically, performatively.

Cover of the magazine. Title across the top in red sans serif all caps: "The Stinging Fly". Below in, in black: "New writers · New writing". Below that, dominating the cover, is a circular watercolour painting by Maeve Curtis, with black, grey, and red swirls on a pale pink rough oval, yellow in its centre. The colours are pastel and flow into each other. Below that are the publication details and the text "The Galway 2020 edition".

cover art by Maeve Curtis; design by Catherine Gaffney

An excerpt:

Language won’t develop in a social vacuum. It emerges in a group and comes to signal our identity as part of that group. In childhood we learn to talk like those around us – family, carers, peers – but in a unique way: an idiolect. Families may have a familect. Zoom out and we find a dialect – the variety of language spoken by a community, generally defined geographically or socially. Dialect includes grammar, vocabulary, accent, and usage.

Picture a line across Ireland from Sligo through Leitrim and Cavan over to Louth. Below it, for most people, scone rhymes with phone; above it, with gone. Near the line, usage is more mixed. The line is an isogloss, like a weather-map isobar but showing where a linguistic feature stops or changes. There’s one along the old Iron Curtain: in what was West Germany a pancake is a Pfannkuchen; east, it’s an Eierkuchen (‘egg cake’). A bundle of isoglosses together marks a rough dialect boundary, but it’s seldom tidy. Dialects bleed into one another, complicated by geography, politics, and human interaction.

I grew up in Mayo with a Galway address. It was an early lesson in natural borders: my local post office was over the bridge. As an island Ireland has never been especially isolated, though, and many trademark features of our dialect show up in Scotland, England, Australia, Canada, America, and elsewhere. Some came from Irish before being exported; some we borrowed from Scots or regional or archaic English. ‘Faith, and I’ll send him packing,’ Shakespeare wrote in Henry IV, Part 1, ‘Myself, he and my sister’ in The Comedy of Errors. Irish English is a complicated mosaic of influences, not all of them obvious.

Here’s the scone map, by the way.

‘“Wasn’t It Herself Told Me?” Irish English Dialect in Galway’ is the title. The phrase in quotes is from Galway author Eilís Dillon (1920–1994), whose centenary is this year. I also draw on works by, among others, Eavan Boland and Tim Robinson, both of whom we lost this year.

The essay is about 3,500 words long, eight and a bit pages among 240 offering short fiction, poetry, essays, and some arresting hybrids, the issue guest-edited by Lisa McInerney and Elaine Feeney. This short thread on Twitter includes a few quotes from other pieces:


An abridged version of the essay can now be read on the Irish Times website.

One Response to Irish English dialect in The Stinging Fly

  1. […] month I mentioned my new essay on Irish English dialect, ‘Wasn’t It Herself Told Me?’, commissioned for the winter 2020 edition of the […]

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