April 1, 2005


Seminar: Irish Studies, 535


Meeting Date: April 1, 2005


Chair: Mary McGlynn


Speaker: Dr. Elizabeth Gilmartin

                  Lecturer of English, Monmouth University


Title of Talk: The Anglo-Irish Dialect: Mediating Linguistic Conflict”


Rapporteur: Cóilín Parsons


Attendees: Frank Naughton (Kean University); Alice Naughton; Diane Menagh (Fairfield University, Connecticut); Gertrude Hamilton (Marymount College of Fordham University); Abby Bender (Princeton University); Kerri Anne Burke; Thomas W. Ihde (Lehman College, CUNY Institute for Irish-American Studies); Robert St-Cyr; Maria McGarrity (Long Island University); Susanne Forman (Pearson Publishing); Mark Carroll (Columbia University); Anna Brady (Queens College, Retd.); Rita Loughlin (American Irish Teachers Association); Peter M. Leahy (CUNY Graduate Center).


The Anglo-Irish Dialect: Mediating Linguistic Conflict”

A copy of the paper that Dr. Gilmartin gave has been deposited with University Seminars.  The following is a synopsis.


                  Seeing the dramatic decline in the number of Irish speakers in Ireland in the nineteenth century, some writers of the Irish Renaissance sought to the preserve the wealth of tales, myth, and poems in Irish through translation or adaptation into their own English-language works.  Douglas Hyde, J.M. Synge, and Lady Augusta Gregory used the hybrid Anglo-Irish dialect to “translate” the linguistic conflict between Irish and English.

                  Following the collapse of nationalist parliamentary politics in the wake of the fall of Parnell, many nationalists turned to cultural nationalism for a way to unite the country.  A common language provided one solution to division, and the Gaelic League showed its potential as a unifying force, bringing Catholic and Protestant together around an Irish cause.  The League’s president, Douglas Hyde, was particularly critical in his famous lecture of 1892, “The Necessity for de-Anglicizing Ireland,” of those Irish who attempted to mimic English customs while professing to oppose English rule.  Like many of the Ascendancy involved in the cultural nationalist movement, he associated himself with the peasant class, and identified himself directly with the native Irish.  This identification was seen earlier in his 1880 article for the Dublin University Review, in which he claimed to have spoken Irish from the cradle, a claim that was untrue.  Hyde engaged in a similar, if reverse mimicry, to those he decried—he sought to imitate the Irish-speaking peasant.  He wrote both about and in the Irish language, and collected and published Irish stories and poems.  In Love Songs of Connacht (1889)—published in order to facilitate the learning of Irish—he imitated in his facing-page English translation the language patterns of the Irish poems, and he also included songs of obvious nationalist sentiment.

                  His style of translation was the forerunner of the literary dialect known as Anglo-Irish, and his translations, according to Michael Cronin, undermined or altered the target language to subversive effect.  Hyde’s work was taken up by Lady Gregory and J.M. Synge, with Gregory bridging the gap between the cultural nationalism of Hyde and the European cosmopolitan vision of Synge.  Both claimed to have heard the dialects they wrote actually spoken, showing a lack of awareness of their language as a form or translation, or a new form of speech.

                  While Kiberd and others dismiss Gregory’s knowledge of Irish, it appears that she had quite a good knowledge of the language, as her translations of Hyde’s Irish-language plays prove.  Her interest in collecting songs and poems began when she was first exposed to the work of the eighteenth-century poet, Anthony Raftery.  Gregory’s dialect translation of Táin Bó Cuailgne as Cuchulain of Muirthemne proved both groundbreaking and inspirational—Synge called it his “daily bread.”

At the same time, Synge’s attitude towards the Gaelic League differed sharply from Gregory’s.  He never took part in the League’s propaganda or activism, and took it to task in a letter written after the Playboy riots for being chauvinistic—in the letter he called the League “gushing, cowardly and maudlin.”  He railed against what he saw as a conservative movement that prevented Ireland from becoming fully European.  His concern in his writing was not to revive the Irish language, the decline of which he thought of as inevitable, but to create a new dialect that exemplified a language of the future that had not forgotten its past.  He identified himself with language experimenters such as Hyde and Gregory, and saw the dialect that he and Gregory were creating as not merely a personal idea, but “the result of an evolution.”

Synge saw the English language in Ireland as something that had been appropriated by the Irish, and changed.  Without the linguistic conflict of the nineteenth century, Gregory and Synge would not have felt compelled to write an “English that is Irish in essence.”  The Anglo-Irish dialects became both a solution and symptom of colonial translation.  Synge and Gregory offer an alternative to the Gaelic League’s essentialist model of Irish nationalism—their dialects present an alternative to the past as the most significant repository of Irish culture.




Q. You mentioned Declan Kiberd’s argument that the Anglo-Irish dialect is not an imitation, rather a translation.  Could you explain that some more?

A. Yes—in Synge and the Irish Language, which was his dissertation, he argues that the dialect is English that was originally Irish.  According to him Synge is not attempting to capture what he hears, but translate it.

Q. So the Hyde translations are very similar?

A. Yes, except for the fact that Synge is trying to represent spoken language.  He has been criticised for being a “faker” of peasant speech, but Kiberd disagrees with this characterisation.

Q. Why does Kiberd use the term Anglo-Irish and not Hiberno-English?

A. There has been a major linguistic argument over this.  Kiberd says that Anglo-Irish emphasises the Irish roots more.  The same argument, however, has been used in favour of Hiberno-English.  I have chosen to use Kiberd’s term for linguistic consistency.

Q. One of my favourite plays is Riders to the Sea, which is seen as very spare.  Is this because of the language?

A. Yes it is.  The spareness of the language also emphasises the spareness of the theme of the play.

Q. From a linguistic perspective one would expect a population to move from Irish to a form of creolisation to English, such as happened in Haiti.  Are there examples in the literature of peasants writing as they speak?

A. Markku Filppula goes through the dialect and how it is actually spoken.  I don’t think there are literary representations, except maybe in Carleton.  Carleton was lower-class and Irish speaking, and he uses Anglo-Irish to depict the speech of peasants, but they think in standard in English!

Q. Is there any definition of what we call “brogue”?

A. “Brogue” comes from the Irish word for shoe.  It developed as an insult, which may have meant, “you talk like you have a shoe in your mouth.”

Q. The first quotation from Hyde uses the language of naturalism, and the idea of the distant past.  Is there anyone who does not naturalise the language, and who would admit that it is not natural?

A. I think Gregory does admit it to a certain extent—she admits that she learned her Irish from her nurse.  But her class position is strange—she is concerned with being of the people, but then there was a hoopla when Seán O’Casey turned up to her house without a tie.

Q. The founding Vice President of the Gaelic League, Eugene O’Growney, said he had never heard of Irish before he was seventeen years old.

Q. Do you know whether Hyde’s name was Irish?

A. It is not—it is English.

Q. It is hard to know provenance from a name—in Ulster there were whole districts of people who became Protestant and dropped and forgot their Irish names.

Q. What was the outcome of the Anglo-Irish dialect for language teaching in the 1920s and 1930s?

A. Irish was mandatory for all pupils in schools.

Q. It continues to be compulsory.

A. Yes, and there is an increasing popularity of the language—TG4 is popular, and indeed the PBS station in Philadelphia carries the soap opera Ros na Rún.

Q. A lot of the Anglo-Irish syntax still lives on.

A. Yes—many of my relatives in Sligo retain elements of it.

Q. What does the word “spavindy” in the quote from The Playboy of the Western World mean?

A. It means recalcitrant.  I don’t think it is Irish—I think it is probably archaic English.  I really want to write about the history of representations of the dialect from the earliest times.

Q. Did Kuno Meyer’s translations also represent the dialect?

A. Yes.

Q. I want to go back to the term Anglo-Irish.  When I hear that I think of Richard Brinsley Sheridan and others as Anglo-Irish.  It seems to me to be associated with that movement.

Q. Many linguists have taken to using the term Irish-English instead.