One 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 English as it’s used in Ireland.
Links point to previous blog posts with more discussion on usage, origins, and so on.
1. Grand is a popular adjective/interjection in Ireland to express modest satisfaction, approval, wellbeing, or simply acknowledgement. It’s handy for understatement and not overdoing one’s enthusiasm, but in certain situations it can be a biteen (see below) ambiguous.
Last month I spent a while cat-sitting for friends in the Burren in the west of Ireland. The Burren is one of my favourite places, a thinly populated area in County Clare renowned for its botanical, geological, and archaeological richness.
The late cartographer Tim Robinson described it as ‘a vast memorial to bygone cultures’; I would extend that beyond human cultures for reasons that will become clear. Robinson’s meticulous map of the Burren was among those I took exploring from my base in Corofin village.
This post is more of a photo/geography/archaeology post than a language one, but it does include notes on place names.
The name Corofin comes from Irish Cora Finne ‘white ford’, or ‘weir of the white (water)’ as translated by Deirdre and Laurence Flanagan in their book Irish Place Names. The same root may be familiar from the fair-haired Fionn Mac Cumhaill of Irish legend.
The white water is the River Fergus, which flows past Corofin and links the two lakes that bracket the village. Its riverbank enjoys constant activity from herons, swans, and other wildlife. This arched stone bridge across it was built in 1790 and is a protected structure:
Every April the Cúirt literary festival kicks off the festival season in Galway, Ireland, where I live. This year, its 35th, events in their original format were cancelled because of the pandemic, but festival director Sasha de Buyl and team put together a terrific mini-festival entirely online.
I just caught up on the talks I didn’t see or hear live last weekend – live online, I mean – and you can do the same if you haven’t already. Nine are freely available to view on Cúirt’s YouTube channel, and two audio-only events can be listened to on Soundcloud.
It’s a feast of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Each talk is about an hour long and has one, two, or three authors speaking about literature, language, writing, and life, including short readings from their new work. If you’re not sure where to start, try Kevin Barry and Jan Carson talking with Peggy Hughes:
In A Brilliant Void, a new anthology of vintage Irish science fiction edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018), I saw some examples of a grammatical feature I’ve been meaning to write about: the Irish English suffix –een. Anglicised from Irish –ín /iːn/, it normally signifies littleness or endearment but can also disparage or serve other functions.
Look up –ín in Ó Dónaill’s Irish-English dictionary and you’ll find such diverse examples as an t-éinín bíogach ‘the chirpy little bird’, an choisín chomair ‘the neat little foot’, an bheainín ghleoite ‘the charming little woman’, an méirín púca ‘the foxglove’, and an paidrín páirteach ‘the family rosary’.
The –ín suffix is so productive in Irish, and Irish so influences the traditional dialects of English in Ireland, that it’s no surprise –een became established in vernacular Irish English, especially in the west. You probably know it if you’re at all familiar with Irish speech or culture; even if not, you may recognise some of the examples below.
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’.
A characteristic feature of English grammar in Ireland is the so-called after perfect, also known as the hot news perfect or the immediate perfective. Popular throughout Ireland yet unfamiliar to most users of English elsewhere, it’s an idiosyncratic structure that emerged by calquing Irish grammar onto English. It has also undergone some curious changes over time.
The after perfect normally expresses perfect tense, using after to indicate that something occurred in the recent or immediate past, relative to the time of speaking or reference. It uses a form of the verb be, followed by after, then usually a verb in the progressive tense. BE + AFTER + [VERB]ING.I’m after meeting them means I met them a short time ago.
So I’m after summarising the after perfect. Now for some detail.
Fooster is one of those words much loved in Hiberno-English but largely restricted to it, not having crossed to wider dialects as galore and smithereens did.* Derived from Irish fústar /’fuːst̪ər/, and alternatively spelt foosther to approximate Irish phonology, it has a meaning more easily described in general terms than precisely pinned down.
To fooster is to fiddle around or fuss with something. It’s a kind of agitated activity: busy but commonly aimless or inefficient. You can foosterwith or over something, foosteraround or about, or just fooster.
Curiously, there seems to be no associated Irish verb. Niall Ó Dónaill’s Irish-English dictionary translates fústar as ‘fuss, fidgetiness’ and fústaire as a ‘fussy, fidgety person’; fústráil is the act of fussing or fidgeting, while fústrach is the adjectival form.
Sometimes fooster has slightly pejorative connotations, implying mild disapproval: a parent or teacher might give out to a child for foostering. But the word is often emotionally neutral. It has broad appeal and is used in a wide range of ways (see below); Irish culture writer John Byrne called his blog Fústar in its honour.
Since being imported into Irish English – by Sheridan Le Fanu in 1847, says the OED –fooster has been inflected per English norms, giving rise for example to the adjective foostery. Fooster itself doubles as a noun form, but the gerund foostering is more usual in my experience. There’s a strong hint of phonaesthesia about all of these.