Contemporary Irish Literature: Development, Similarities and its particular nature

Exemplary Research on the discussed works

Term Paper, 2009

19 Pages, Grade: 2,0



Table of contents

I. Introduction

II. Characteristics of Irish
1. Hiberno English
a) Unique Vocabulary
b) Unusual Grammar
2. Common Idioms and Habits
3. Typical Subjects

III. Analysis
1. „The Commitments“ by Roddy Doyle
2. „Angela‘s Ashes“ by Frank McCourt
3. „My left foot“ by Christie Brown

IV. Summary

V. Bibliography

I. Introduction

The English did many terrible things to the Irish but one of the great things they did was give us this wonderful language. We are a completely story-based society. We do love a story“1

This quotation was taken from John Banville in 2005. To be more exactly, he said this in an interview after winning the first booker prize after Roddy Doyle. While this quotation sounds very informal, it leaves the reader with the impression that Banville spoke for his fellow Irish people and not just for himself and additionally to that, he did this in a very personal way. It seems that the Irish are very close to each other and that their history bound them even more together. In my paper I‘m going to do some research on Hiberno- English and it‘s use in Irish Literature. I will try to point out what makes Irish Literature so special and what English has to do with it. Considering that English was not their mother tongue, it will be interesting to see why the Irish adopted this language in their daily life anyway and why literature coming from Ireland is still so different from British literature. It will be my task to take a closer look at common topics in Irish books and if some aspects of Irish literature occur more often in their books as it actually seems. Furthermore I will figure out how many new words the Irish created over the decent years and why an English person won‘t understand these words without looking them up in a hiberno dictionary. Finding the answer to some common questions about Irish behavior and habits will be another task I have to deal with. To sum up, you could say that my paper will be about a lot of Irish oddities, especially in their written tasks. And furthermore finding the cause for those peculiarities. At the end of my paper I want to see if Banville‘s quote is just his opinion, or if the whole Irish society would agree with one of their greatest writers.

II. Characteristics of Irish literature

1. Hiberno English

Hiberno-English usually means the regional varieties of English language spoken by the Irish. However, Hiberno-English does not mean „Anglo-Irish“, which is often be misunderstood. The English language was introduced twice to Ireland. The first time it came up in the late twelfth century, when soldiers and even some settlers came to Ireland. These people mostly came from England and spoke pure English when they arrived. The dialects which arose from them are familiar to Middle-English today. The problem at that time was that their culture was not very complex and so their language was not preserved in any way. Since these people had very less contact to their English neighbors, and their will to preserve their roots was very weak, they decided to adopt the Irish language as well as Irish habits and traditions. Today you can find some very little remains of those dialects in some areas around the east-coast of Ireland. Therefore only two medieval dialects can be found in Ireland today. One of them is still spoken in northern Dublin and the other one is spoken in Wexford, Forth and Bargy.

The second attempt of the English language adopted by the Irish happened a few hundred years later. The so-called „plantations“ are responsible for almost all forms of Hiberno nowadays. „Plantations“ were installed by English families who settled to Ireland, not caring about changing their own lives. Even though, Plantations were one of the main causes for the northern-ireland conflicts, the bigger ones (e.g. Ulster) also influenced the lives of many Irish people and their language.

Another huge aspect of Hiberno-English obviously was the Gaelic language. Gaelic, is seen as a substrate of Hiberno. This means, that the Irish had to adopt the English language as their own in order to survive. Contrary to the fact that not every Gaelic word was compatible for translation, a great pool of Hiberno vocabulary was born at that time.2

Gaelic itself is a so called „Goidelic language“, which means that it derives from the same roots as Scottish does. Gaelic and Irish are rarely spoken as a native language. It is interesting to see, that every single employee, working in an official bureau - like the post- office or the police since 1922 - must understand and even speak Irish as soon as he answers the phone or gets otherwise in contact with Irish people during work. Not spoken in Northern Ireland, up to three percent in the Republic of Ireland are able to speak Gaelic as day-to-day language. You must see, that Gaelic is the national and first official language of the Republic of Ireland. Even students who wish to embark on a degree course in the NUI federal system (National University of Ireland), must pass the subject Irish. Although more than 4.5 million people are capable to speak or understand Gaelic, this language was accredited not until 2007 by the EU.

Hiberno-English covers a lot more people than Gaelic, but its‘ roots are still in there. This can be proved when you take a look at the special grammar of Hiberno, which will be done later.

Another interesting aspect of Hiberno is its growing progress. Terence Dolan once said that the „Irish use of English has changed considerably in most parts of the country since the first edition of [his] dictionary, most notably in the new speech of some Dubliners, especially young people.“3 That means that although Hiberno-English is not an official language like Gaelic or German, it is very common and very up-to-date. Of course, you can say that it‘s easier for a non-official tongue to be changed and developed, than an official language, which is manifested in thousands of dictionaries. But even if Hiberno- English is not official, it is a very important aspect of the Irish way of life. Considering that the Latin name for Ireland was „Hibernia“, you can see that this language has to be a language were people can identify themselves as Irish. Since grammar and the vocabulary are absolutely unique, comparing it to other English tongues, there must be something about the fact that the Irish want to speak their own language, even if it is not their native one.

a) Unique Vocabulary

As I mentioned, there are a lot of words in Hiberno-English, which won‘t appear in a British dictionary. Taken from a book by Terence Dolan4, there are thousands of expressions and words, especially and only used by Irish people. While reading a Hiberno dictionary, you can see that there are at least three big groups of words by their origin.

First of all, there is probably the biggest group, the words which are taken from Gaelic. Words like Amadán, which means „idiot“, Dingen, which means „very good“, Gansey, which stands for „jersey“ and May Fayner, which is taken from „Mé Féin“ and means „selfish person“, appear in almost every hibernoic sentence. The reason for this big amount of words, which are just transferred into English, is obvious. As I said before, the Irish people had to adopt English as their language in order to survive in an Ireland full of Britons. But as they adopted the language, they could not translate every single word into English instantly and so they still used their common words and mixed them with their „new“ language.

The second big group of words in Hiberno vocabulary is more religious. A lot of words coming from church went into daily language. Words like „Jaysus“ and expressions like „Dear God“, which can even be ripped apart from any religious sense, are still used all the time. It seems that the Irish have a bit of a constraint to think about religious things even if the situation does not require it.

Thirdly, a very huge amount of Hiberno vocabulary is filled with very personal and onomatopoetic words and expressions like „Janey Mac“, which means nothing else but pure amazement or deep frustration - according to the situation. Interestingly, even if no one without knowledge about Irish poetry would ever understand its meaning, „Janey Mac“ is used quite often. Other words like „Eejit“ and „Deadly“ are not even close in meaning, compared to British English, but used all the time.

It seems that Hiberno-English is definitely a much more adaptable language than British English. As a result of pure mixture of different languages, the Irish do have their own vocabulary. And in addition to that, this vocabulary seems to be the most personal and informal of all English languages. Foe example, no other English dialect does have about 50 ways of naming the feeling of being drunk. This shows that Irish people always try to be very creative when it comes to create neologisms and ways of expressing very personal impressions to other people. Reflecting that, one could say, Irish is a national language, not to be used by anybody, but to be used in a close community to express solidarity. If this solidarity is detectable in Irish literature will be found out later on.

b) Unusual Grammar

Vanished from other English dialects, many phonemic differences can be found in Hiberno-English. For example the „r“ is very similar to the american „r“ and is never softspoken. That makes Hiberno a so called „rhotic dialect“. That means, that the phoneme „r“ is articulated in every word-position. Other „rhotic“ dialects are Scottish, Canadian and American. Contrary to this, the „th“ is voiceless and often spoken like an aspirated „t“, making „this“ sounding more like „dis“.

Another grammatical aspect is the use of personal pronouns. In Hiberno-English, „you“ is often replaced by „yis“ and „ye“. Amusingly, when you read a comic or see a film where pirates appear, they often do exactly the same.

Traditionally the „ai“ vowel in words like „price“ and „ride“ is often expressed totally different from other English dialects. Also the „t“ at the end of a word like „sit“ is often left out, so that you can say either „sit“ or „si“. This phonemic feature is called „lenition“.

Considering written Irish, another phenomenon can be found very often. The so-called „doubled apostrophization“ can only be found in Irish literature. Instead of „I would have done it“ one can read sentences like „I‘d‘ve done it“, which sound very informal and would never be accepted in other English written essays.


1 See

2 See Filippula, Markku, Some aspects of Hiberno-English in a functional sentence perspective - Joensuu: University Press, 1986, Page 2ff

3 See Dolan, Terence Patrick: A dictionary of Hiberno-English 2. Ed. - Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2004, Page xix.

4 A dictionary of Hiberno-English 2. Ed.

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Contemporary Irish Literature: Development, Similarities and its particular nature
Exemplary Research on the discussed works
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"  (Philosophische Fakultät)
Social Conditions in Ireland as Portrayed in Post-Colonial Literature
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ISBN (eBook)
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contemporary, irish, literature, development, similarities, exemplary, research
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Anonymous, 2009, Contemporary Irish Literature: Development, Similarities and its particular nature, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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