A letter of Hopkins has led me, again, to an abiding interest of
mine: the influence of the Irish language on the English we speak. This
influence has been profound. Thomas MacDonagh, in his
valuable study, Literature in Ireland (Dublin c.1915) says,
We have now so well mastered this language of our adoption that we use it with a
freshness and power that the English of these days rarely have. (p.169)
A short list of Irish authors back him up in this: Congreve, Sheridan, Goldsmith, Swift, Maria Edgeworth, Edmund Burke, Wilde, Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, le Fanu, Moore, O'Casey, Joyce, Ledwidge, Kavanagh, Behan, Shaw, Yeats, Beckett - along with modern practitioners including Hartnett, Brian Moore, Friel, Heaney, Kinsella... And why had so many famous writers in English such strong Irish connections? The Bronte (Prunty) sisters, Edgar Allen Poe, Scott Fitzgerald (whose grandmother was Irish), Flannery O'Connor, John O'Hara, Jack London (illegitimate son of an Irishman), Eugene O'Neill, John Steinbeck (of German-Irish parentage), James T. Farrell and others. Surely there must be some explanation for this preponderance of writers of Irish ancestry among the important ones in English literature? MacDonagh does not try to give one, or to explain why Hiberno-English writers have made such a mark in a language not our own. May I suggest as explanation the impact which the Irish language has had on our use of English. This has never been sufficiently recognised (as recently as in 2010, the Leader of Fine Gael - now our beloved former Taoiseach - stated his intention to remove Irish as a compulsory subject from our Secondary School curriculum. I believe that any such downgrading is not only repugnant in itself, but would also impact on our use of English. Joe Cooley, the noted musician, once remarked that our Irish language had made its way into Irish music; it has certainly gone into our English, to the extent that Hiberno-English could be described as a dialect. (I suggested as much to Terence Dolan, editor of A Dictionary of Hiberno-English, and he agreed).
Surely one might have expected as much. The language of a people, forged over thousands of years, reflects their life-rhythm, their history, and answers their individual view of the world. It does not simply disappear into thin air when supplanted - and for less than two hundred years - by another, imposed, tongue. Irish is a Celtic language. The isolation of Ireland and our near-total independence from the Romans meant that it has survived - so, Mac Donagh emphasises the fact that Irish people speak and write in a way special to us:
The freedom of Irish writers from inversions and from kindred artificialities and the resultant colloquial naturalness...may also have to do with the newness of the English language here, with the fact that the people, ... have no literary memories in English...(so) Irish writers are more direct, more modern ...less stilted (by convention) (75)
Gerard Manley Hopkins sensed as much. Writing to his sister Kate from Dublin (Dec.1884), he offers a take-off on an uneducated Irishman trying to use 'formal' English. The letter is hilarious but also worth examining in that it shows us the poet's fine ear for some idiosyncrasies of speech peculiar to the Irish:
Me dear Miss Hopkins
Im intoirely ashamed o meself. Sure its a wonder I could lave your iligant corspondance so long onanswered. But now Im just afther conthroiving a jewl of a convaniance be way of a standhen desk and tis a moighty incurgement towards the writin of letters in toirelee. Tis whoy ye hear from me this evenin. It bates me where to comince, the way Idsay anything yed be interistud to hear of. More betoken yell be plased tintimate to me mother Im intirely obleeged to her for her genteel offers.But as titchin warm clothen tis undher a misapprehinsion shes labourin. Sure twas not the inclimunsee of the saysons I was complainin of at all at all. Twas the povertee of books and such like educational convaniences.
And now, Miss Hopkins darlin, yell chartably exkees me writin more in the rale Irish be raison I was never rared to ut and thats why I do be so slow with my pinmanship, bad luck to ut (savin your respects), but for ivery word I delineate I disremember two, and that's how ut is with me.
(Further Letters of Gerard Manley
Hopkins, Ed. Abbott, Oxford, 1938 p.46; emphases mine)
For all the fun of this, there are some Irish peculiarities which Hopkins - superb linguist that he was - has hit-upon. He fastens, for example, on the way that Irish begins with the verb rather than with the subject: 'Tá náire mór orm..'. He also catches our idiosyncratic use of 'entirely' as interjection rather than adverb. (That usage of 'surely' reminds me of an old friend's similar habit - he was a native Irish speaker from Ballyvourney, Co. Cork). English is well known as the language of commerce, detached and cool where Irish, marked by its Celtic origins, is more given to feeling. So, such emotional interjections are commonplace in Irish, often at the beginning of a sentence - corresponding to that 'Sure'. (I once met some Blasket Islanders one of whom began every other sentence with the exclamation, 'Báist!'' which I discovered was an abbreviation of 'Ar mo bháiste', 'by my Baptism'). Hopkins is on the same track in reporting with glee what he heard an Irish cricketer say after scoring a boundary,Arrah, sweet meself!
And he amused a colleague, Fr. Tom Finlay SJ, by remarking, I'm after being down in Westmoreland Street, begob. (White, op. cit. p. 383)
The use of 'after' both here and in the letter, to form the Past Perfect tense is directly Irish in origin; and Hopkins also picks up on the tendency of an uneducated native to produce comically-sonorous words and phrases that had been heard rather than read and are therefore mispronounced and not correctly used: 'Im intirely obleeged to her for her genteel offers'; 'the poverty of books', 'for every word I delineate','disremember' etc.
'Do be' is still not uncommon; it derives from an Irish Present Continuous tense for which there is no English equivalent. The series of mispronunciations of someone picking up English phonetically only, is echoed here too in the 'ut' for 'it'. In short, the language in Hopkins's letter - caricatured though it be for fun - is hardly that of a native English speaker. He sensed, then, that the English which we Irish speak and write is coloured by our own language. His letter prompts a brief consideration of some of the ways in which Hiberno-English is unique - and often in ways contributory to a livelier use of English.
The most obvious impact lies in the actual vocabulary - in words like craic, boreen, leprechaun, sleeveen , a lug (awkward, slow fellow - always masculine!), gomdoodle, buachallán (ragworth), a dander (walk), a dunt (dent), a boyo ... an arsenal of anglicised Irish words. A random selection could also include all those with the the -ín/-een diminutive suffix: girleen, colleen, boreen, Kathleen, Noreen... Then there are words such as potrochs (for portachs 'bogs'); a scéal (story, usually an insalubrious one); 'to peg' meaning to throw. Recently in Dáil Éireann a TD referred to the Taoiseach as 'an amadhán' - a complete fool. (There are innumerable other such Irishisms include: leprechaun; boxty (a potato cake); gurrier; to grig (to annoy); fooster; liúdramán (loafer); a lug; scráib (scratch); gosson; cleg ( a horsefly); a puck in the gob; buachalláin (ragworth); bard; haggard (yard); to hoosh (push up/ on); currach...) Once I used the word 'dinge' of a dent on my car, to an English insurance company who wrote back, asking me to explain what it was. Then there are peculiarities such as 'a horrid nice fellow' and 'mighty' as an expression of approval. Dolan in his Dictionary lists approximately 3,000 such words, acknowledging that there are many many more in what he calls 'the linguistic wealth of Hiberno-English speakers'. Vocabulary, then - but there are other, perhaps more profound, ways in which Irish also changes our use of English.
The most important of such influences is also a subtle one. It
from the Irish preference for the concrete, the precise, as against the
abstracting tendency of English: if you like, the difference between
'hurry!' and 'leg it! 'Hopkins was onto this too, and uses one such
metaphor in a letter: ' More power
to your elbow', clearly, struck by
the mix of the concrete and the metaphorical. Other expressions he must
have heard include 'I haven't a
clue' rather than 'I don't know'; some student 'not paying his way',
'He saw you coming' (and took advantage of your naivety); 'There's no telling when he'll get back' and so on... We still refer to a 'cut' of bread and to 'wetting' the
tea - everyday examples of Irish preference for the detail. We use
abstract nouns - of course we do - but there is an Irish wariness of
the abstract; an impulse towards the concrete. I saw an
advertisement on an English TV channel recently advocating '
property': the Irish way of putting it would avoid the
abstractions, including the word 'property' altogether: it is not a
popular word in Ireland: we prefer 'house' or 'land' or 'place'.
Poetry springs from such detail: a thing has to be itself before it can take on any wider implication - and Hiberno-Irish has a metaphorical/ imagistic/ lyrical quality. Everyday examples come flooding-in: as tight as tuppence; I haven't one red penny to rub against another; the crows in the field know that; that won't butter any parsnips; he's for the birds; he's himself (fear ann féin) and so on.
Humour, which tends towards the particular, would have to be part of this.' As tight as a duck's arse in water'. Irish people are generally humorous; this may be due in large part to the influence of our language. Irish humor is often whimsical, with easy exaggeration, and the presumption, at the heart of its characteristic irony, that the listener is attuned to the tone of voice and the concreteness of its imagery. 'I'll be there in two shakes of a lamb's tail'; 'It's not off the ground she took it'. A neighbour told me that after a bad shower the snails on the road were so big you had to jump over them. I heard my own sister-in-law memorably say of someone that he had 'a nose on him like a turkey in snow'. Only recently, I asked a Dublin friend what, in his opinion, was the worst thing that could happen that day. His answer: 'A flat pint and it gone tepid'. Pure Irish, I think, in its humour, its particularity and also in its syntax, directly matching the Irish qualifier led in by the conjunction ('and it', 'agus é...). (The speaker was a relation of Brendan Behan).
I have highlighted some of the peculiarities which Hopkins parodies; of course there are many more: in grammar, syntax and idiom. In Irish, for example, we have two forms of the verb 'to be' - and yet, like Chinese, no direct equivalent of the English: 'Tá sé fear' for 'He is a man' is an abomination; the correct idiom would go verb 'tá' and often use instead the copula 'is' which simply points out an equation between the two nouns. It also highlights another peculiarity, already glanced-at: the tendency to lead with a verb followed by the subject - so, 'Is mná atá ag an doras' transliterates, 'It is a woman is at the door' - throwing more emphasis on the subject and highlighting the main fact or detail; that impulse to be precise. (Perhaps this also leads to the frequent omission in Irish of the relative pronoun: 'It's next week I'm going to Dublin').
The language of one nomadic Australian tribe employs no nouns as such: the need is subsumed into a sense of movement: in Irish we have no verb 'to have'. So 'I have a car' translates, 'Tá gluaistean agam' or "There is a car to me'. I wonder if this highlights our Celtic awareness that there is here no lasting city - nor anything else permanent. Language always has metaphysical overtones.
We also use the verb 'to be' to express Tense. The Present Perfect 'I have just seen a ghost' in English, would translate 'I am after seeing a ghost', with the Irish using 'taréis' meaning 'after'. (Hopkins, as we saw, was onto this: 'I 'm just after conthroivin...'). Further, if you examine the construction you will see that it puts the verb 'to be' first, followed by what is predicated, with the verbal form last, laying the emphasis clearly and differently from the Anglo Saxon, on the subject, then on the object and finally on the verb in question: Tá mé taréis litir a fháil. Hopkins notices several such among his contributions to Joseph Wright's English Dialect Dictionary: 'I had it read'; 'She has my heart broke'. (C.f. N. White, Hopkins, A Literary Biography, Oxford, 1992, p. 438).
Hopkins also, in his 'do be so slow' notices that Irish employs a continuous form of the Present tense and this can make its way into our use of English - which lacks a Present Continuous. 'Do you be here often?' or even, 'He be's here during the week'. Irish-English also includes, as Hopkins notices, idioms like 'What are you after doing?' from taréis in Irish, to express the simple, immediate, Past as against the Past Perfect in English: 'What have you done?'
English people use 'will' and 'shall' correctly. In Ireland, we never say 'shall'. This may be due, as Terence Dolan suggests, 'possibly because Irish has only one form for the future', not distinguishing between shall and will. (Properly used, 'shall' in the first person is a simple future; in the second and third, it can suggest a command, threat or promise 'We shall go to the beach shortly'; but 'He shall die the death' etc.). Hopkins noticed this, of course, remarking on a North Country Englishwoman's bad English: ...nay, worse, (she says) and "will" for " should" and "shall" like any Irishwoman (White, op. cit. p.391)
For indirect questions we often avoid the use of the conjunctions 'if' or 'whether', reversing the word-order instead: 'Let me know are you coming'. This different sense of the conjunction derives from Irish; it can also be noticed in subordinate adverbial clauses where the use of 'agus' has percolated into English: 'He stopped me and I at the gate': the conjunction 'and' subbing for the adverb 'when'. There is no indefinite article ('a' or 'an') in the Irish language, only the definite one. This may account for our idiosyncratic use of the definite article: ' I'm going to see the mother', ' Home for the Christmas'. Flann O'Brien published a series of humorous articles involving The Brother.
Some people use a singular verb for a plural subject 'There was 70 people there'. This must derive from Irish where the verb does not change from singular to plural: 'Bhí seachtar ann má bhí duine amháin': 'There was/ were seven there if there was one'.The verb does not change to indicate number - but Irish, on the other hand has singular and plural forms for the pronoun 'you'. This has led to an idiosyncratic English 'yous' for the plural form, sometimes modifying into 'ye's' or 'yiz'. Such usage has still not died out: The Boss on the Irish version of ' The Apprentice' constantly used it: 'Off with yis now!'.
Other Hiberno characteristics - distinguishing if not unique - could include our Irish fondness for assonance and alliteration - a tendency, arguably, acquired from the Irish language. Irish poetry, in particular, centrally employs musical effects such as internal rhyme, assonance and alliteration - so: 'hard as the hob of hell'; 'mealy mouthed'; 'as tight as tuppence'; 'like the hammers of hell'...Such effects, mostly dependent on sound, owe more to a language spoken rather than written. Irish people characteristically pay marked attention to words as words. This means that word-play, alliteration and assonance are never too far away. 'I'm not good' 'The best of us is only middling' ('Good - bad - middling'. I asked someone recently how he was: good? His reply: 'There's many a better man worse'. (The ballad Follow Me Up to Carlow provides a good example of this word-play: 'White is sick; Grey has fled/ Now for black Fitzwilliam's head/ We'll send it over dripping red/ To Liza and her ladies'). Such linguistic attention often involves sonority, alongside metaphor and humour as in such common expressions as: 'Hard as the hob of hell'; 'sick to the teeth'; I don't like the gimp of him (partly sonority; partly Irish root: this came up in a court case recently, when a Guard was asked to explain what he meant by the term as applied to the accused, whose 'gimp' he said he did not like); 'A cute hoor'; A chimney gone 'mankey with soot' (said to me lately); 'Not a sinner in the place (sibilance) etc.etc. In such expressions, of which there are countless more, assonance and alliteration are central - and even convey meaning, as in such expressions as,' like a shot off a shovel'; 'tough turnips'. Many such expressions are almost purely onomatopoeic, depending on sound to convey meaning: 'He's banjaxed'; 'that puts the kibosh on it'; 'a right gomdoodle'; 'a sleeveen'; a 'koshapooka' (inedible mushroom)... At root, such sonority is a musical effect. Many humorously exaggerative similes and metaphors (of the sort exploited by Synge) are still used: 'Coffee you could trot a mouse on'. (taken up by Laurie Lee) 'She'd talk the hind legs off an ass'. .. 'That soup will put hair on your chest'. 'Like water off a duck's back'...
At the Kirwan murder trial ('the quare fellow' in Behan's play) after
the Judge had condemned the accused to be hanged by the neck, someone
in court shouted "It's not half good enough for him - he wants a
kick in the bleddy arse!'. I pass over various other scatological
expressions, nor will I delay on the English four-letter word which is
used in Ireland as: verb, noun, adjective, adverb, interjection, and
even conjunction - but it does point to an Irish playfulness with
In general, we tend to write with a speaking voice rather than with a more formal, written, one; more intimately, therefore. (Hopkins, in his letter, again hits on this). Formality in speaking is not something our history has allowed us to develop, no more than it has, Architecture! Perhaps the way we regularly use 'let' or 'may' as a gentler form of the imperative is also related to this and derivative of the Gaelic 'Tig leat -' So, 'You may go to that funeral'. You will never meet this usage in 'proper' English. (There is a similar reticence in our tendency to use a negative form in a question: You wouldn't know the time, would you? You wouldn't have a match?).
Grammar apart, there are other idiosyncrasies worth mentioning briefly. It seems that Mexican has some 27 words for 'moustache'; we have many more than that - alas - for different stages of being drunk and, as expected, our descriptions are concrete, metaphorical and often humorous: jarred or half-jarred; fluthered; in the jigs (a favourite of my father's); in the horrors; footless; half-shot; blind; in the rats; paralytic; locked... and so on. Contrast them with their purely English equivalents such as 'drunk','under the influence', 'inebriated' etc. Mac Donagh suggests that,
Whimsicality is an Irish characteristic as definite as any - that drollery so different from wit proper, so different from humour proper, going waywardly with an inconsequence that one knows to be natural. (13)
It is a quality which characterises the writing of Oliver Goldsmith and is still around: Where are you going with no bell on your bike? Who's he when he's at home? Hopkins was well aware of this as evidenced in the 89 dialect-words and phrases which Norman White tells us he contributed to Joseph Wright's English Dialect Dictionary. These include, He hasn't enough sense to drive a pig down a boreen. ... I'm powerful weak but cruel easy.
Joyce's Ulysses's and Finnegans Wake, are peppered with examples of such drollery and word-play, much of it derived from things his father used to say - to use a Hibernoism to express the past continuous tense.
Terence Dolan offers in summary:
... Hiberno-English has a grammar of its own, which comprises a mixture of Standard English grammar, non-literary usage, and patterns derived from Irish grammar. (p. xxvi)
Grammar apart, one should not overlook the persistence of Irish roots in placenames. I live in Clownings i.e. Na Cluanáin, The Meadows; down the road is Kill i.e. An Chill, The Church. I come from Athlone i.e. Áth Luain, The Ford of Luan, not far from Mullingar i.e. Muileann gCearr, Carr's Mill. The Curragh itself takes its name from the Irish for a wide open space. The evocativeness, the sunken history, of such placenames make them palimpsests of a sort, redolent with a sense of time and place; the stuff of poetry. Many Irish writers, most, have exploited this; none more than W.B.Yeats (e.g. in his The Fiddler of Dooney), Thomas Kinsella, and Patrick Kavanagh, whose delight in Irish proper names is one of the distinguishing marks of his poetry, as in 'Shancoduff':
Mullahinsha, Drummeril, Black Shanco -
Wherever I turn I see
In the stony grey soil of Monaghan
Dead loves that were born for me.
The poetry of Irish placenames surrounds us; a persistent intrusion of our own language and a reminder of its pervasiveness.
One might also refer to the effect on our language of the metaphysical sense of a predominantly Catholic population. Mac Donagh speaks about a 'mystic element in Anglo Irish poetry' (96). At the heart of Catholicism itself lies acknowledged mystery - something different from that of the more rationalistic, less imaginative, more pragmatic character of our Protestant neighbours. Easier to acknowledge than to define, there is such a thing as a Catholic vision of the world and it can be caught in language. 'Dia dhuit' in greeting; 'Dia linn' at a sneeze. 'God bless' in farewell was the usual valediction of Samuel Beckett .
One of Hopkins's favourite prayers was The Breastplate of St. Patrick, and one of his projects, sadly unfulfilled, to edit and publish a new version of the 'Confession'. He was becoming interested in things Irish - and in our language too. Its metaphorical character must have appealed to someone whose poetry is so metaphor-driven. Surely some of his confreres must have told him he would be ready to go 'in two shakes of a lamb's tail'; or that it was 'raining cats and dogs'. White (op. cit. p. 438) suggests that Hopkins could have heard the usage 'let on' (included in his contributions to Wright's English Dialect Dictionary) for 'pretend' in a classroom at St. Stephen's Green or read it in an exam script. Indeed, there are a few (at least) arguable Irishisms in Hopkins's poetry. Norman McKenzie suggests that 'broth of' in Harry Ploughman may be influenced by the Irish word 'bruth' meaning the nap of a cloth. Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves (Dublin 1884) has 'throughther' for 'through one another' an Irishism (?) which I have heard used. The neologism 'disseveral' in 'Heraclitean Fire' could owe something to Irish misuse of the negativing prefix - as in 'disremember' in Hopkins's letter quoted. 'Marches' as a noun derives from the Middle English word for dividing line - but survives in that sense in Northern counties to this day (and is used as such by Patrick Kavanagh:
Here is the march, along these boundary stones.).
Hopkins could have heard this usage in some of his trips up North. This is only conjecture - justified, perhaps, by the way in which some 'Irish' metaphors made their way into his poetry:
O the mind, mind has mountains, cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed
has been related to his having seen the Cliffs of Moher from a boat underneath. I have always thought, too, that the image, My cries heave, herds-long from 'No Worst, There Is None' comes from his having encountered a herd of cattle on an Irish road; and that 'age-old anvil' in the same poem could easily have been suggested by some of his forays into rural Ireland. 'Cloud puffballs' (from the Heraclitean Fire sonnet, written in Dublin in July 1888) are surely Irish clouds, and the word 'puffballs' is still in use for a blind mushroom here (though the word is not Irish). Finally, the transitive use of 'cares' in his last poem, To R.B. (April 22, 1889)
...nine years she long
Within her wears, bears, cares and combs the same:
is an Irishism as in 'to care a horse' and was contributed by Hopkins to Wright's The English Dialect Dictionary (London 1896-1905).
I also believe that 'Harry Ploughman', written in Dromore (Co. Down) in September 1887 intensely compressed word-painting, owes a good deal to his Irish sojourn, with such expressions as 'a broth of golden flue', 'shank' (as in 'shank's mare'), 'barrowy brawn', 'the wallowing o' the plough', ''S cheek', 'crossbridle'... as well as the landscape and weather: 'wind lifted, windlaced-/Wind-lilylocks-laced'. This last phrase is evocative of a windy Irish morning in a poem which has a very Irish feel. As was the case in Wales, both Ireland and her language left at least some mark on his imagination and so on his own language. White agrees:
These examples of the way Hiberno-English was used show that, far from being pedantic, Hopkins was aware of the complexity of words and their habitats. (op. cit. p.438)
If nowadays we are beginning to write like everyone else, and I think we are, it is because, in becoming more internationalised, we are losing touch with our language and with our identity - and so, arguably, with our own unique vision of the world. This may well be a contributory factor - there are others - to the fact that Irish writing is in decline: Thomas Kinsella apart (himself an admirer and student of our language), there are no great Irish writers around any more. But it's time to finish, so, as we still say, I'll hould my hoult!