Stories and sounds of a seanchaí

August 13, 2010

Eamon Kelly (1914–2001) was an actor and seanchaí* from the south-west of Ireland. Below are two video clips that showcase not only his skill at spinning yarns, but also some memorable Hiberno-English idioms and idiosyncrasies, delivered in Kelly’s colourful Kerry accent.

You’ll hear examples of how differently vowels can be pronounced in colloquial Irish English: either as /’eːd̪ ər/ (‘ay-dhr’), one as /wɑn/ (‘wan’), boy as /baɪ/ (‘by’).**

Note too the frequent, characteristically Irish insertion of h: train as ‘thrain’, sleep ‘shleep’, just ‘jusht’, tracks ‘thracks’, sleeper ‘shleeper’, dry ‘dhry’, first ‘firsht’, pony and trap ‘pony an’ thrap’, nostrils ‘nosthrils’ (or even ‘noshthrils’). Incidentally, in Ireland the consonant h is widely pronounced ‘haitch’, not ‘aitch’.

Some syllables are split. In English As We Speak It In Ireland (1910), P. W. Joyce wrote:

There are some consonants of the Irish language which when they come together do not coalesce in sound, as they would in an English word, so that when they are uttered a very short obscure vowel sound is heard between them: and a native Irish speaker cannot avoid this. By a sort of hereditary custom this peculiarity finds its way into our pronunciation of English.

This phenomenon is known in linguistic jargon as anaptyxis, a form of epenthesis whereby a sound intrudes between two consonants. I hear it regularly all around me (e.g. film as /’fɪləm/ ‘fillem’ or ‘fillum’). In the videos, Kelly pronounces storm and farm with two distinct syllables – the latter in ‘faarum o’ land’. (Dropping the f from of is also common; the remaining vowel is sounded as a schwa /ə/.)

Some long vowels are lengthened further: goat almost rhymes with poet; bone and even too are similarly elongated. Elsewhere, certain syllables are merged: th’other, th’oven. There are modest instances of rhetorical redundancy and repetition, both of which have a grand tradition in Ireland. Which reminds me: lots of rolling r’s, too.

In the front garden, Peig she had ridges of flowers
I’ll have you up before the judge the man in the white wig
I have he said I have a donkey chained there

And some striking idioms and turns of phrase:

She was a dinger on the box (very good on the concertina)
Peig complained the goat to the farmer (complained about…)
His teeth were swimming inside in his mouth for a bite of it. (A vivid suggestion of salivation!)
Is it any woman as a small child before she was able to talk could go up to the high note in Danny Boy? (Is there any woman who, as a small child…)
Shedding the tear for Parnell (a remarkable euphemism for urination, or to be interpreted literally?)

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Here is a lovely short essay about Eamon’s life and career, written by Mattie Lennon, who tells us that “Eamon didn’t lick his storytelling ability off the ground”. The Princess Grace Irish Library has further biographical details.

Update: More discussion at Clusterflock.

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* Traditional Irish storyteller. Pronounced /’ʃænəxiː/ or /’ʃænəkiː/, i.e. “shan-uh-kee” but with a soft k like the ‘ch’ in loch.

** My knowledge of IPA is limited, and these renditions are not meant to be definitive. Suggestions, corrections and observations are welcome.