Wasn’t It Herself Told Me?

Last month I mentioned my new essay on Irish English dialect, ‘Wasn’t It Herself Told Me?’, commissioned for the winter 2020 edition of the literary magazine The Stinging Fly.

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'.If you didn’t get a copy of the Stinging Fly and want to read more of this material, you can now do so at the Irish Times website, which has published an abridged version of the essay. (I did the abridging myself, but some of the italics got lost in transit.)

Because the new Stinging Fly is a Galway special, the essay looks in particular at the Galway dialect, though this does not differ hugely from Irish English more broadly. The excerpt below elaborates on that point, using geography as an analogy:

Different regions of Ireland have distinctive landscapes, yet it makes sense sometimes to refer to ‘the Irish landscape’: it has unifying traits. Similarly there is merit to the idea of Irish English as a dialect. Any local dialect on the island will have properties that mark it as Irish English, though their frequency and proportion will vary from one place or speaker to the next.

So it is with Galway. Its dialects are close to those spoken anywhere west of the Shannon, where Irish lingered longer and had more effect on the English that largely, and violently, supplanted it. But the county’s size and topographical range mean there are considerable differences in local speech as we travel from the towns and farmlands of the east – virtually the midlands – through the city and westward to Connemara and the islands, where in many households Irish prevails.

Contact between languages is a driving force in language change. From the early 17th century ‘many Irish speakers began to communicate with English speakers by grafting English words and structures onto the stem of their Celtic language’, Loreto Todd writes in Green English. In this way there emerged ‘a form of English that reflected Irish influence at every linguistic level’ – sound, syntax, rhythm, idiom, vocabulary. Galway’s Gaeltacht and distance from Dublin and Ulster meant that influence was relatively strong here.

Irish is the source, for example, of the after-perfect, which uses after to form the perfect tense, usually in reporting something recent and of high informational value – hence its other name, the hot news perfect. Since Irish lacks a verb for have, a literal translation of the perfect tense (‘I have eaten’) was not possible, so we transposed Irish phrases like tar éıs and ı ndıaıdh to form ‘I’m after eating’.

You can read the rest here. The essay’s title is from a line in The Bitter Glass (1958) by Galway writer Eilís Dillon. 2020 is the centenary of her birth. The year has been a horror show, but it has its good points.


9 Responses to Wasn’t It Herself Told Me?

  1. […] abridged version of the essay can now be read on the Irish Times website. […]

  2. MB says:

    I thought this abridged article in the Irish Times was powerful – good on you! I’m only after asking for a copy of Stinging Fly as a Christmas present on the strength of it. There’s plenty articles and publications on similar topics less cleanly written and researched… more power to you. Go raibh maith agat, Stan.

  3. Hi Stan.

    On a minor geographical point, do you consider Donegal west of the Shannon? Irish lingered longer there too, and still does.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I do, for the point at hand – particularly the preservation of its Gaeltacht – though strictly speaking much of it isn’t west of the Shannon. Donegal of course would also have features of Ulster dialect not found, or not common, further south.

  4. Edward Barrett says:

    Great stuff, as always!

    Re ‘after’ – is it ever used to denote something in the more distant past, or is it exclusively used to refer to the recent past? Might someone say ‘I’m an age after [doing something]’, for example?

    (Even as I’m after typing this, I’m not convinced myself!).

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks very much, Edward. I can’t say categorically that after is not used this way, but I’ve never heard it. If something is long past, another idiom is used, e.g., ‘It’s ages since I [did something]’.

  5. […] Eilís Dillon wrote a phrase (‘Wasn’t it herself told me’) that inspired my long essay on Irish English dialect. Kindred is one I read recently and liked a lot; this short Twitter thread includes an excerpt on […]

  6. […] of my pet linguistic topics is Irish English dialect, which I explored at length in an essay a while back. Here are 10 words, usages, and grammatical features characteristic of […]

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