Cross-Talk and Mermaid-Speak


Galway bay. Photograph by Bhalash.

by Patricia Palmer

Anyone familiar with the story of language in Elizabethan Ireland can only feel impatience – if not despair – at the latter-day triumphalism of works like Melvyn Bragg’s best-selling The Adventure of English.


One late-September night, I was having a glass of wine with a friend in Galway. From her balcony, we were watching the harvest moon turn the bay silvery blue; Aran Mór basked just out of sight, in the mind’s eye. I’d sent off the manuscript of my book, Language and Conquest in Early Modern Ireland1, that morning and now the conversation swung back and forth between those two potent symbols, the Celtic-Tiger, waterfront apartment (we never use the word ‘flat’ any more; it reminds us of thatched cottages and bedsits in Kilburn High Road) and Synge’s Aran Islands finally slipping out of national consciousness. Eventually, my friend turned to me, her smile teasing in the moonlight: ‘So, is that what your book is about? All research is autobiographical, didn’t you know that?’ I didn’t know that, or didn’t until then.


Two days later, I drove eastwards across Ireland, against the drift of Joyce’s great songline that tracks the snow’s westward journey at the end of The Dead: past ‘the dark mutinous Shannon waves’, past the Bog of Allen, the treeless hills and the dark central plain. I was leaving Ireland to take up a teaching post in the University of York. That longer journey would throw my friend’s observation into even sharper relief. Language and Conquest is, essentially, a story of linguistic colonisation. Its focus is the clash of languages set in motion by the Elizabethan (re)conquest of Ireland and the plantations associated with it. But, strangely, I hadn’t set out to write a historical work. I was addressing – or so I imagined – an entirely contemporary predicament. The work was rooted in a desire to understand Irish people’s ambivalent relationship with English, an ambivalence that, I believe, runs deep in the national psyche. Always dazzled by words (and all my most fluent words were English), I felt, nonetheless, at a remove from English. Its words had an oddly hand-me-down feel and they didn’t always fit. Breathy aspirants softened the edges of English words in my mouth; the phonetics of the Irish language (on which Irish speakers of English draw, even if they know no Irish) had no place for the lisping ceceo of the English /th/; and the rise-and-fall inflections of south Munster carried my words far away from the norms of my English cousins. Every summer, they came ‘home’ for the holidays from their smart London schools, speaking – as all their Irish aunts and uncles declared in admiration – ‘beautifully’. No wonder they felt the need to teach us how to pronounce ‘theatre’ properly – ‘For Heaven’s sake: it’s not ‘teatre’ – look, just put your tongue where I’m putting mine’. They sought to save us from drinking ‘minerals’ and putting Tings2 in ‘presses’, and struggled to stop us from ‘giving out stink’ and calling them ‘eejits’ and ‘looderamauns’. After all, they pointed out (unanswerably, we had to concede), ‘we are the ones that speak proper English’.

But it wasn’t simply a question of accent. (Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians might all have similar stories to tell.) We lived in a landscape of strange and obdurate names. My grandmother came from Cumeenduassig, my grandfather from Tureenafersh. Years later, I would be bewitched by the transparency of English placenames: Juniper Hill, Milton-under-Wychwood, Woodstock; you knew, at one level at least, where you were. But to grow up in Kerry was to be at play in a landscape where names guarded their secrets closely. We swam in Coumeenoole, climbed Beenkeragh and sailed out to Ilauntannig from Scraggane Pier in the Maharees. In one sense, these places meant everything. But in another, they drew a veil over our world, locating us in a landscape of sound effects rather than sense. Of course, if we picked away at the Ordinance Surveyors’ haphazard nineteenth century anglicisations and reconstructed the original Irish name, we could lift the veil for a moment. My grandmother would come not from mesmeric but meaningless ‘Cumeenduassig’, but from Coimín dú easaigh, ‘the dark little coomb of the waterfalls’.

The poet John Montague speaks of a similar disorientation growing up in South Tyrone: ‘The whole landscape a manuscript / we had lost the skill to read’3. What is lost when a placename becomes detached from meaning, and becomes just a sound, is the connection between a place and its history: space is set adrift from time. Irish history and mythology are written onto the face of Ireland to a degree that is unusual elsewhere in Europe. (You have to read the journals of Captain Vancouver, splattering the names of midshipmen and misadventures – Puget Sound, Deception Pass – all over the intimately named haunts of the Salish and Kwakiutl people on the Canadian Pacific to get a similar sense of place sacralised through naming – and a similar sense of loss.) Slieve Mish, which I look out on as I write, is not only a mist-covered hill, but a repository of memory. It was there, the nineth-century Book of Invasions tells us, that the Milesian invaders met Banba, a queen of the Tuatha De Danann, and her druids. And when the Milesians braved the magic mist of her tribe and wrested the land of Ireland from them, it was in that epic battle that Mis, a Milesian princess, fell, on the bare mountainside that still bears her name. To live in a landscape where rich, time-layered meanings swim in and out of view, at the mercy of placenames that block access and sound like melodic nonsense words, is to be made acutely aware of language. You learn that English alone cannot fully explain your world; and you are left haunted by the sense of a missing language.

For those growing up now, the predicament must feel very different. As I drove across Ireland towards the Irish Sea and York, I was struck by how very new the country I was leaving looked. ‘A time lag’, Elizabeth Bowen wrote in 1947, ‘separates Ireland from England more effectively than any sea.’4 It still does, but the valence of the lag has shifted: to go to England now can seem like travelling not forward but back in time. Still-medieval York feels, at its most vibrant, like 1950s England. The pulse slows; the Hot-Pot Café on the street I was moving into would serve weak tea with the milk already in. The Ireland I was leaving looked as though a second Columbus had discovered it about 20 years previously and intense colonisation, à la vingt-et-unième-siècle, was hitting its stride. One-third of the housing stock of the Republic was built in the past 15 years: this may be an ancient landscape, but you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for an island-wide building site. Ireland has left Cumeenduassig far behind. The giant reflectorised billboards for ‘Chelmsford Manor Drive’ and ‘Tudor Heights’ that I was driving past are markers of displacement. The new names offer the illusion of sense (we know what the words mean), but their aspirational geography (Home Counties-sur-Portlaoise) maps out the rootlessness of our new commuter-belt diaspora.

As the architectural bricolage of Concrete-Tiger Ireland suggests – neocolonial porticos, mock-Georgian frontages, faux-Victorian gateposts – the disorientation that a language change brings affects time as well as place. The past is half-lost in translation and must be reinvented. My grandfather used to recall playing on summer evenings while his own father sat on a mossy outcrop of rocks behind their farm, talking to an elderly neighbour in a language my grandfather – a boy in 1900 – did not understand. (He learnt his own – bookish – Irish only in 1923, in Caherdaniel, when the fledgling state sent its teachers back to summer school to learn the new First Language). The voices of the men on the rock, rising and falling with the rhythms of a dying language, and the puzzlement of a small boy hearing their bursts of inexplicable laughter, capture the moment when Túirín na fuirste, ‘the turret of the harrowing’, turns into the sonorous blank of ‘Tureenafersh’. A screen comes down, cutting the present off from the past. This rupture, this rend in the narrative, is the untold – perhaps untellable – story of nineteenth century Ireland. What was happening in my grand-father’s Ivreagh – 90 per cent Irish-speaking on the eve of the Famine (and the Famine is, of course, central to this story and its silences); 70 per cent English-speaking by 1926, and soon after almost exclusively so – was repeated all over Ireland.

But just how translatable is a culture? Can its chipped and battered Lares and Penates set up shop in another language? We can translate everything, we are told, except the poetry. ‘It’s good that everything’s gone, except their language, / which is everything’, says Derek Walcott, with rich ambivalence, in his meditation on English colonisation in the Caribbean and in his own native Saint Lucia5. Everything and nothing: herein lies the paradox of translation; it can carry over everything – except the essence. We know that part of what gets lost, especially for an oral culture (as Irish largely was by the nineteenth century), is an irreplaceable cache of stories, poems, oral history and proverbial wisdom. ‘Mairean lorg an phinn, ach ní mhaireann an beál a chan’: the trace of the pen endures, but not the mouth that sang. But, most irreparably, a language itself is lost. The way a language conjugates time through its tense system, the patterns of metaphor and word association it encourages, the way it adjudicates between concrete and abstract expression, the particular cast it gives to beauty and loneliness and anger – all these are unique. ‘Mo bhrón ar an bhfarraige / Is í atá mór’: nothing can replicate the exact curlew-call of loneliness in those words. I still remember the cold shiver of awe I felt in an airy, wainscoted Leaving-Cert. classroom when I realised that no other language could deliver precisely the arrogant, steely heartbreak of Aodhagán Ó Rathaille’s closing lines:

Stadfadsa feasta ’s is gar dom éag gan mhoill,
Ó treascradh dragain Leamhain, Léin is Laoi, Rachadsa a haithle searc na laoch don chill
Na flatha fá raibh mo shean roimh éag do Chríost.6

Its untranslatability is apposite: it speaks of the death of a culture. Ó Rathaille had lived to see the Gaelic world that he served collapse and fall silent. In 1726, on his deathbed, he vows to follow to the grave the lords his people have served since before the time of Christ.

For speakers of a world language to imagine that other people’s languages can become obsolete and discarded without loss is to assume an extraordinary complacency about one of the least spoken-of human and ecological tragedies of our time. Some linguists expect 90 per cent of the world’s estimated 6900 languages to be extinct or close to extinction by the end of this century. The most optimistic put the figure at 50 per cent: one human language dying every month. In Australia alone there were 51 Aboriginal languages with just one speaker in 1999; some of those have since slipped away. These are not primitive languages; there is no such thing. Each has a suppleness of form, a line in beauty, a residue of wisdom whose loss should appal and galvanise us.

South range of Killagh Priory. Photograph by Andreas F. Borchert.


Irish and the fragility of its place in the world fundamentally shaped the way I encountered other cultures. In the end it was, as much as anything else, an old man in San Pedro de La Laguna, in Guatemala, that propelled me into writing about English linguistic colonisation. I was staying on the shore of the volcanic Lake Atitlán, in a little reed-thatched choza which the old man rented out for a few quetzales. He spoke a variety of Tzutojíl used only in that village. His language passed out of range even when he went the small distance by boat to the neighbouring village of Santiago de Atitlán. His son was home from the city. I’d hear them talking as they chopped wood in the evenings, the father in the urgent, glottal-stopped sounds of Tzutojíl, the son, insistently, in fractured Spanish. ‘He never talks to us any more in Tzutojíl’, the father told me with a kind of sad pride; ‘you see, he’s getting on in the city.’ Some afternoons, touched by my odd interest in a language used only by the shrinking pool of older villagers, the old man would gesture to my notebook and, intent on conveying something of the complex beauty of his receding mother tongue, start a shy, impassioned language lesson.

Travel with an open notebook and an interest in language and you can have such moments all over Latin America. Four per cent of the world’s languages – the giants being Mandarin, English, Spanish, Bengali, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian and Japanese – are spoken by 96 per cent of the world’s population. At the other end of the scale, one quarter of the world’s languages have fewer than 1000 speakers each. English is spoken, as a first language, by almost 400 million people – and rising. Travelling through Central America, I became preoccupied by glottophagy: by the way a language, almost any random language, once it is backed by power and empire, can gobble up other human tongues. ‘Language’, the Spanish grammarian Nebrija7 wrote in the climacteric year of 1492, ‘was ever the compañera – the handmaid – of empire’. But what did that really mean in practice? I’d witnessed the consequences of Spanish colonisation in the New World. But to follow up this question, I knew I was going to have to bring my exploration back to Ireland. Not to nineteenth century Ireland, the century of silence, as Thomas Kinsella calls it, but to the sixteenth century and the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland. There, I had a hunch, our predicament began.

The defeat at Kinsale and the subsequent Flight of the Earls in 1607 is often seen as the nail in the coffin of an autonomous Gaelic Ireland. Although a simplification, there is no doubt that, as far as language goes, remarkable things were afoot during the reign of Elizabeth I. English had been a vibrant community language in parts of Ireland since the thirteenth century. But it was very much a minority language; even in the Pale, the leading Old English families were comfortably bilingual. It’s now automatically assumed that the language of Shakespeare’s England was boisterously self-assured and poised for expansion. In fact it was, as the poet Samuel Daniel put it, almost a ‘speech unknown’. Edmund Spenser’s schoolmaster, Richard Mulcaster, lamented that English was ‘of small reach, it stretcheth no further than this Island of ours, nay not there over all’. But it would have its first experience of ‘reach’ and ‘stretch’ in Ireland. I wanted to see what would happen then.

We go back to origins in search of explanation. We sift through the past for an understanding of the present. The language encounter of 16th century Ireland set down patterns of conversation and misunderstanding that are still with us. Henry VIII’s assumption of the title ‘King of Ireland’ in 1541 marked a new stage in relations between Ireland and England. As the century progressed, London grew ever less inclined to leave its nominal sister island to its own devices. Reform gradually gave way to increasing military intervention, to plantation, in Munster and Leix, and eventually to outright war. By the end of the Nine Years’ War in 1603, the great lordships that sustained Gaelic cultural life were no more. A famine-ravaged, depopulated land was left, as Lord Mountjoy announced with satisfaction, ‘as a payre of cleane tables, wherein the state might write lawes at pleasure’. Ireland was ripe for translation. A silence was beginning to fall, and the bardic poet Eóghan Ruadh mac an Bhaird picks up an intimation of it in his poem, ‘Anocht as uaigneach Éire’, ‘Ireland is lonely tonight’. No word, he says is heard from Ireland: ‘labhra uaidhe ní héistior’.

There had been nothing silent about the Ireland which the Elizabethans came to ‘reform’. The State Papers are, in many ways, reports from a noisy island. ‘These rebellious People’, Lord Mountjoy’s secretary wrote in vexation, ‘are by Nature clamorous’ and masters of ‘colourable evasions’. The poet Edmund Spenser, who worked as a colonial administrator in Munster from 1579–98, deplored the ‘subtleties and sly shifts’ of the ‘sharpe witted’ natives. Exasperated by the protestations of affably insincere chieftains; mistrustful of duplicitous interpreters and propagandising bards, the English came to equate Irish with dissidence. Mathew de Renzy, one of the few planters to learn Irish (but then, he was German), fretted that Irish speakers ‘will ever be shrewder and more suttler than the English that comes out of England’ as long as they speak Irish because it could prove ‘the black crow to be white’.

The English saw Irish as a rebel tongue and a popish one. The consequences for policy were obvious. Already, in 1537, the ‘Act for the English Order, Habite, and Language’ had decreed:

that the said English tongue, habite and order, may be from henceforth continually … used by all men that will knowledge themselves … to be his Highness true and faithfull subjects.

As the century progressed, the aspirations of the 1537 Act began to acquire real force. When Gaelic lords submitted – either under the policy of ‘Surrender and Regrant’ or in the wake of defeat – the terms of their indentures almost invariably required them ‘to bring up their children in the use of the English tongue’. To make sure this happened, the eldest sons of the leading Gaelic families were fostered – or raised as hostages – in the English-speaking Pale or in England. Hugh O’Neill, surrendering at Mellifont in English, captures the profound shift in language use by the end of Elizabeth’s reign.

Silencing Irish was, of course, inseparable from promoting English. Late sixteenth century Ireland brings us to a turning point in the fortunes of the English language. Mulcaster, who had bemoaned the narrow geographical range of English, mused that ‘it would stretch to the furthest … if we were conquerors’8. It is remarkable how many of the leading poets and translators of Elizabethan England did a tour of duty in Ireland. Edmund Spenser, Sir John Davies, Sir John Harington, Barnabe Googe and a score of minor luminaries argued tirelessly that conquest would ‘augment our tongue’. ‘Matters of war’, argued Mulcaster trenchantly, ‘make a tung of account’. And just as Mountjoy was stepping in to bring the Nine Years’ War to its climax, Samuel Daniel dedicated his poem, ‘Musophilus’, to him. In it, Daniel jubilantly proclaims the imperial destiny of English:

And who in time knowes whither we may vent
The treasure of our tongue, to what strange shores This gaine of our best glorie shall be sent,
T’inrich unknowing Nations with our stores?
What worlds in th’ yet unformed Occident
May come refin’d with th’accents that are ours?

Men like Walter Ralegh and Humphrey Gilbert, who had cut their teeth in the savage repression of the Munster Rebellion, were on hand to make that happen when they moved on to North America, carrying with them a pattern of linguistic imperialism honed in Ireland. Anyone familiar with the story of language in Elizabethan Ireland can only feel impatience – if not despair – at the latter-day triumphalism of works like Melvyn Bragg’s best-selling The Adventure of English. It retells an old tale about the unique fitness of ‘Shakespeare’s English’ to become a world language – a story which ignores the bitter fact that it is military might, not linguistic merit, that makes ‘a tongue of account’. Daniel, poet of empire that he was, had no time for such romanticising: all empires, he acknowledged robustly, ‘may thanke their sword that made their tongues … famous and universall’.

Sir John Davies, sonneteer turned Solicitor General, came to Ireland in 1603 to prepare the legal ground for the Plantation of Ulster. His hope was:

that the next generation will in tongue & heart, and every way else becom English; so as there will bee no difference or distinction but the Irish Sea between us.

But the notion that a shared language would lead to shared understandings would prove illusory. Even by the end of the Elizabethan period, a remarkable difference was opening up between the way Irish and English speakers used their ostensibly common language. The English defined themselves as measured and verbally continent. Mountjoy, his secretary tells us approvingly, disliked ‘a free Speaker’ and was himself ‘sparing in Speech’; he ‘will never discourse at table; eates in silence’. The Irish, on the other hand, were ‘wily’, ‘dissembling’, ‘hyperbolical’ and – plus ça change – contested English definitions vigorously: ‘these outlawes are not by them termed Rebels, but men in Action’.9 Out-manoeuvred by the ‘guileful eloquence’ of Hugh O’Neill and his ilk, English negotiators felt the smart of having their language turned against them. Late-Elizabethan playhouses fill up with ludicrously loquacious stage-Irishmen; but it is Caliban who actually seems to speak with an Irish accent:

‘You taught me language and my profit on’t Is, I know how to curse’.


Paradoxically, the English ascribe eloquence to the Irish – while the Irish are haunted by a sense of inarticulacy. (The two often amount to the same thing: the English equation of reticence with rationality relegates eloquence to the margins, to the banlieue of art – and blarney.)

John Montague’s The Rough Field, first published in 1972 in the dark early days of the Troubles, captures the Hiberno-English speaker’s sense of being tongue-tied by English: Dumb,/ bloodied, the severed head now chokes to speak another tongue. Montague travels back imaginatively to the late 16th century and the ‘disappearance and death / of a world’ to gain a purchase on the pain of losing a language and having its replacement imposed through violence. He takes as his starting point an old rhyme that states the predicament starkly:

 And who ever heard /Such a sight unsung /As a severed head /With a grafted tongue?

The sense that one is speaking with a grafted tongue runs deep in the Irish sensibility. Stephen Dedalus, arguing with the English Dean of Studies in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, gives the predicament its classic expression:

The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.

An ‘acquired speech’ always has a self-conscious feel to it. We are aware of its materiality; the grafted tongue moves jerkily in the mouth. This, it seems to me, is the great difference in the way English and Irish people use their shared language. A national language slides effortlessly into seeming like a natural language. Its words are the right words; they fit.. I’m always struck by my York students’ unquestioning confidence in the solidity of their language. For them, it is a safe home, secure in its meanings and incontrovertibly theirs. I often teach W. S. Merwin’s poem ‘Losing a Language’. It is – patently – about the loss of Native American languages:

A breath leaves the sentence and does not come back …

Many of the things the words were about no longer exist

the noun for standing in mist by a haunted tree the verb for I.

But I’ve never yet had an English student, intense and smart as they certainly are, recognise that that is what the poem is primarily about. They engage with it as an abstraction, imagining it to be about communication barriers, about misunderstandings between generations. Though they have all studied another language, they cannot fully imagine themselves outside the native element of their own. When I taught the same poem in Ireland, my students immediately identified – and identified with – its evocation of being linguistically unhoused.

The estrangement that comes when one’s mother tongue doesn’t have the natural inevitability of a ‘national’ language pushed Joyce, Flann O’Brien and Beckett towards modernist experimentation; English writers still feel more at home with the realist novel – a genre, after all, for those who are at home. It is precisely that feeling of continuity and groundedness that is snapped by a language shift. The postcolonial condition is always marked by discontinuity and a sense of living along the fault lines of a fractured tradition.

Nowhere is the difference between Ireland and England greater than in the way we relate to history. A language shift entails a catastrophic break in the transmission of a whole world of traditions and stories. Amnesia follows. History is a blank. But far from making us indentured to ‘history’, as the English so often imagine, the absence and loss at our backs drives us away from the past, in a break-neck rush towards the future. For the English, however, history is Heritage. The past is consecrated, memorialised and preserved. Irish visitors to England now exclaim, as Americans visiting Ireland did 20 years ago, about ‘how old it all looks’. But unlike the marvelling Americans, there’s a moue of disapproval in the comment: the Irish don’t like Old. Old gets pulled down, concreted over, driven through. I visited the state-owned Parknasilla golf club last summer with my father. He’d played there as a young man but couldn’t quite get his bearings. Looking down towards an old curtain wall by the sea, he asked the club secretary where the castle had gone. ‘Yerrah, that old castle was falling down’, the man replied, ‘and ’twas in the way of the cars, so we pulled it down altogether.’ Asphalt, white-lined for latest-reg. Lexuses and four-wheel drives, marks the spot.

Many of the now moribund Aboriginal languages make a distinction, not available in English, between ‘we’-inclusive (you and me) and ‘we’-exclusive (us but not you). To be Irish in England is to feel keenly, at times, the need for such a distinction. The Irish have a far stronger sense of being distinct from the English – of being foreign – than the English seem able to grant. The English include us in their communal ‘we’ in ways we cannot subscribe to. That is why we bristle at the English usage of the word ‘mainland’ with its amorphous but predatory notion of Britishness. The mild-mannered formula ‘these islands’ may not set the teeth on edge in quite the way that ‘British Isles’ does but it still, too often, performs the same alienating ‘act of union’.

Ironically, the blithe English assumption of communality can be sustained only by remaining essentially ignorant about Ireland. In a spirit of political right-on-ness, The Guardian can go along with the notion that ‘three of Ulster’s nine counties [are] in Éire’, all unaware that ‘Éire’ is simply the Irish for … Ireland (all four provinces of it) and not some quaint acronym for the 26 Counties. Elizabeth I’s Secretary of State confessed that he ‘understoode lesse Ireland than any other country’. History continues to provide him with bedfellows. Ireland’s radical social and economic transformation seems, at times, to have made scarcely a dint on English stereotypes of Irishness. Hermione Lee, reviewing Colm Toibín’s Blackwater Lightship on Radio 3, spoke in hushed tones about ‘how very brave’ it is for an Irish novelist to write about being gay. (I think of my gay American friend who moved from Cork to York. ‘It must have been so difficult, being gay in Ireland’, an English colleague murmurs sympathetically. His eyes widen in disbelief: ‘Compared to York, Cork is Babylon’.) The Irish Times reports on England under ‘European News’; The Guardian covers Ireland – ‘Air of Dissent as Cork Fears a Cultural Damp Squib’ – under ‘National News’. It’s the old, familiar impulse to domesticate Ireland while knowing almost nothing about it. Mark Lawson, writing in The Guardian of Robert Redford’s declared intention to leave the USA for Ireland after Bush’s election, sneers that, if he did, he would just ‘find himself in a theocracy’10. It’s a poor theocracy that manages to see just one priest ordained for the diocese of Dublin (population 1.4 million) in 2004. And it is poor journalism that does not keep abreast of that.


Joyce is stung into his epiphany about language by coming up against the English Dean of Studies. Talking to the English brings us up sharp against our language anxieties. (By ‘the English’, we almost invariably mean the English upper-middle classes. It is their accents we take off when voicing discomfort about English attitudes to ‘Ah-land’. I remember leaving a seminar room in Cork where a young English lecturer had just given a talk on working-class literature, in a glottal-stopped, adenoidal Estuary accent. The students in front of me were mimicking his accent, as they had heard it: ‘Oh, I do say … jolly good, old stock … there’s a good chap’.) An Irish voice sounds differently in the ears of its speaker when delivered into the acoustic world of ‘the English’. Our always latent sense of estrangement from English is activated when vowels and turns of phrase that sit at the core of our being suddenly sound strange even to ourselves. (I remember a dinner party in Cork, hosted to entertain a visiting English professor. ‘Could you pass the milk, please?’ asked an Irish postcolonialist. ‘Oh, do say “milk” again’, pleaded the professor excitedly, ‘I do think that Ah-rish light ‘l’ is extraordinary’.) Delivered into the echo-chamber of Received Pronunciation, our ordinary speech turns into performance and we into actors.

‘Irish Men in England’, wrote an English planter in Ireland in 1608, ‘act as it were a part in a Play; they are never themselves but in their own Countrie’11. Elizabeth Bowen, herself half denizened in the Irish Sea, writes of the crossing from Cork to Fishguard in The House in Paris. An English woman, Karen, is joined at table by a bumptious Irish woman in a yellow hat. ‘I guess you think we’re all mad’, prompts the Irish woman expectantly. (This is one of our fondest tenets: we know how to enjoy ourselves; the English just get drunk. To consecrate this, we have recently taken to spelling ‘crack’ – an English word with the same root as ‘corncrake’ – in cod Irish orthography as craic. By such slender threads, linguistic and behavioural, does our identity hang.) Karen sizes up Yellow Hat:

She could not help acting Irish even at Karen: once in England what a time she would have! The relation between the two races remains a mixture of showing off and suspicion, nearly as bad as sex. Where would the Irish be without someone to be Irish at?

One wonders what Yellow Hat made of the English. Though they may not be ‘acting English’, their conduct can, nonetheless, seem like a performance to Irish spectators. The accents of ‘the English’, for example, seem wildly improbable. I still half-imagine them slipping into something more comfortable – softer consonants, dressed-down vowels – when they get home. English directness and a fondness for the imperative – ‘Come along now!’, ‘Oh do shut up’ – strike us as rude and eye-poppingly bossy. And even Yellow Hat could not but be struck by the shrunken domain of public chat. In Ireland, repartee – at shop counters, at bus stops, with strangers and people one only knows to see – is the great intoxicant. I rang a wrong number the other day. ‘Is that such-and- such a hairdresser’s?’ A strong Kerry accent answered me: ‘I get ashked that so often, I’m going to buy a scissors myself’. These chance glees are denied us in England. Public conversation is formulaic; transgression – by uninvited spontaneity – is embarrassing. An Irish friend visiting me in Oxford was behind two pleasant, middle-aged women in a queue at the Post Office. They were discussing one of her favourite books. ‘I can’t help overhearing you …’, she ventured enthusiastically. The two stared at her. ‘I’m terribly sorry’, one replied witheringly, ‘were we disturbing you?’ English conversations, picking fussily over unimportant details, puzzle us. The Anglo-Irish Lady Naylor, in Bowen’s The Last September, wickedly caricatures them:

if one stops talking, they tell one the most extraordinary things, about their husbands, their money affairs, their insides. They don’t seem discouraged by not being asked. Of course, they are very definite and practical but it is a pity they talk so much about what they are doing.

This dogged literal mindedness is closely related to their confidence in the solidity of language. A spade is a spade. To know, as the Irish do, that alongside the absolute clarity and cut-and-driedness of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ there is no Irish word for either yes or no is to inhabit an uncertain space. In the realm of ‘n’ fheadar’, the great indeterminate West Kerry reply to most questions – ‘there’s no knowing’ – there is far more room for irony, scepticism and a doubleness of vision than in the black-and-white world of yes and no. The dry wit and pervasive irony of English conversation mocks, but never fundamentally challenges, this propensity to believe in words. Maybe this explains the willingness of a significant proportion of the English public, so out of line with the rest of Western Europe, to believe the 45-minute warning and the Blair government’s rickety justifications for invading Iraq.

When I worked in the University of Limerick, proposals for bureaucratising departmental procedures would occasionally make their way from central administration. All that ever needed to be said at Faculty Board was ‘if we’re not careful, we’ll end up like England’. I had to move to York to realise just how potent that warning was. I found a system in thrall to literalism. The leaden hand that is squeezing the life out of all public-service institutions in England is born of an impulse to describe and make explicit. Only the word – mountains of futile acronyms and jargon – can make flesh the government’s promised ‘reforms’. In the process, excellence can turn to dust. Since coming to York, I’ve seen modules ‘redescribed’ and, by being pinned down and prescribed to vanishing point, lose their flexibility and flair. The department has just finished a year-long paper-trail audit: all that was hitherto done with inventiveness and goodwill is now reduced to hollow protocols and forms in triplicate. There is, I suspect, something deeply Protestant about this trust in accountability and willed perfectibility – as, indeed, there is about believing in the literalness of the word. The response of my English colleagues to the rolling programme of ‘reforms’ that are calcifying and demoralising the universities is instructive: they ironise, they cavil, they rail – and they implement, meticulously and to the letter.

A view over the Karst landscape from Dun Aonghasa, Inis Mór, Aran Islands


But the pitfalls of literalism cannot be taken as confirming the superiority of the Irish strategy of having things both ways, of nods and winks that cancel out the official meaning. The English commitment to transparency, though it can lead to stupefying regulation and conformity, is also the keystone of civil society, a concept that Ireland flirts with only fitfully. Public discourse in Ireland eschews literalism and transparency. Whether in the ‘cute-hoor’ obscurantism of some of our leaders or Sinn Féin’s accomplished detachment of language from meaning, direct dealing – truth-telling – is not the currency of Irish public life. Regulations give expression to our highest aspirations; the sanctioned breaching of them saves us from having to live up to our ideal selves. Planning laws forbid building between the road and the sea, but an inexorable palisade of joined-up ‘one-off’ houses is turning our sea views into one long, bungaloid ‘Sea View’. We rebrand the Emerald Isle as ‘green’ and environmentally friendly by banning plastic bags, but we drive roads through wetlands and national monuments: there are no more ragged plastic bags flapping from our ditches, but that’s because there are so few ditches left. The landscape which ‘we had lost the skill to read’ is now being read in a new way, as a privatised terrain of ‘plots’ and planning permission signs. The lost language is being replaced by the dialects of prosperity. The DART-accented speech of AA-Roadwatch threatens to become the new vernacular. As the trickle-down ‘duckspeak’12 of the business schools takes hold (one-fifth of all our third-level students are pursuing commerce degrees), prefabricated phrases – ‘proactive scenarios going forward’ – and the stentorian discourse of the market bid to drown out all other voices.

In her 1998 collection, Cead Aighnis, the poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill has a sequence entitled ‘Na Murúcha a Thriomaigh’, ‘The Mermaids who Dried Out’. The figure of mermaids who have come out of their element onto dry land, who have cast off their songs in order to prosper, allows Ní Dhomhnaill to meditate on losing a language. The mermaids have forgotten the confusion of the currents and the whale choirs of the deep; their scales dry out and flake off. One mermaid, in therapy, struggles to find words to convey the full intensity of what the word uisce – ‘water’ – means for her. But is it not just Ní Dhomhnaill’s mermaids who are on that headland: we, too, are poised between siren voices calling to us in Anglo-American and the promptings of the deep.

A view of Galway Bay from Salthill. Photograph by Peter Clarke.

Piece originally published at Open Democracy| Creative Commons License


1. Patricia Palmer, Language and Conquest in Early Modern Ireland: English Renaissance Literature and Elizabethan Imperial Expansion, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

2. The Irish sounds falls midway between /t/ and //.

3. John Montague, The Rough Field, Dublin, Dolmen Press,1972.

4. Hermione Lee, ed. , Mulberry Tree, London: Vintage, 1999, p. 101.

5. Derek Walcott, North and South, Collected Poems 1948-84, Faber 1992.

6. Aodhagán Ó Rathaille, ‘An File ar Leaba a Bháis’.

7. Quoted in Aldrete Bernardo: ‘Del origin y principio de la lengua Castellana’ Vol.2, Madrid, 1972. (Antonio de Nebrija was the author of the first grammar of a romance language: Gramática de la lengua Castellana, published in 1492, the date of Columbus’s first voyage to America.)

8. Richard Mulcaster, Elementarie, London, 1582.

9. Fynes Moryson, Shakespeare’s Europe, ed. Charles Hughes, London: Sherratt & Hughes, 1903.

10. The Guardian, ‘Red Faces at Blue Peter over Red Hand’, 22 January 2005; The Guardian, 22 January 2005, p.2; The Guardian, 6 November 2004.

11. Sir Parre Lane’s Character of the Irish’, Bodleian Ms.Tanner 458.

12. George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983, p. 265.

About the Author:

Patricia Palmer grew up in Kerry and studied English in University College Cork and Oxford. She taught in the University of Limerick before moving to the University of York in 2000, and is now a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English, King’s College, London. Her first book, Language and Conquest in Early Modern Ireland was published by Cambridge University Press in 2001. Her second, The Severed Head and the Grafted Tongue, also with Cambridge, studies the close relationship between literature and violence in the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland.