What’s with the Accent?

Having lived in England for several years if I had a pound for every time someone on hearing my accent asked me “what part of Scotland are you from?” I’d certainly have a few extra quid in the bank. Now I’d understand this if I spoke with a strong north Antrim accent which clearly has a strong Scottish influence due to both geographical proximity and centuries (if not millennia) of inter-mingling – but I don’t.

I then usually try to wind them up by saying I’m from an island off the west coast of Scotland. When they finally establish where I’m actually from, the next question is inevitably “are you from the north or the south?”

This must be a nightmare for Donegal people in trying to explain that they’re from a part of the “south” which is actually in the “north”.

To the untrained ear however, the Northern Irish accent – or more precisely the Ulster accent – does sound vaguely Scottish.

Ironically, when I briefly lived in Dublin, people there often assumed that I came from Donegal. And this actually came in useful once. When on a summer bank holiday weekend in Galway with a bunch of mates we attempted to enter a night and club where we ran into a spot of difficulty at the door.

The burly doorman looked me up and down and asked me for ID. I showed him my Queen’s University student card. This clearly wasn’t quite sufficient, as he then asked me where I was from. Assuming (rightly or wrongly) that he had an anti-Northern agenda given that the city was always thronged with young nordies on this particular weekend and for some locals this spelt trouble – and therefore the question of which side of the border I came from would determine whether or not I would gain entry – I decided to lie and told him I was from Donegal. Still not quite satisfied of my credentials he decided to probe further and asked what part of Donegal I came from. “Letterkenny” I replied – as this was simply the first place which sprang to mind. He waved me through. Conveniently I didn’t have to make any attempt to put on an accent.

Although there is a general Ulster brogue which occurs In at least eight of the nine counties (Cavan being the exception), there is also a wide variety of local accents within the province – even within individual counties.

The non-homogeneous nature of Tyrone and its distinct east-west divide for example means that people from opposite ends of the county can have communication problems. All-Ireland winning gaelic footballer Sean Cavanagh in his autobiography recalls his first meeting with his then team-mate Brian Dooher (now joint manager of the senior team). Cavanagh from Moy in the far east of the county right on the Armagh border claims to have hardly understood a word Dooher (from Aughabrack in the far north-west just down the road from Derry) was saying, adding that his colleague might as well have been speaking in Mandarin.

Before I came to London, I wouldn’t have known the difference between an Australian and a New Zealand accent. But now having come across many Antipodeans over several years, I came to realise there is a noticeable difference, particularly in the vowels, as characterised by the stereotypical (but not completely inaccurate) “fish and chips” test – where an Australian will say something along the lines of “feesh and cheeps”, whereas a New Zealander will pronounce it more like “fush and chups”.

In our own unique part of the world we tend to get all superior and derive a sense of schadenfreude when an English or American actor attempts to do an Irish accent and gets it badly wrong . Richard Gere in The Jackal and Tom Cruise in Far And Away spring to mind here.

But to give us our dues, we praise them when they get it right – like Miranda Richardson in The Crying Game, Daniel Day-Lewis in In The Name of the Father or Cate Blanchett as Veronica Guerin.

Judi Dench does a decent southern accent in Philomena, but bizarrely she seems to stick to that accent when playing a Belfast woman in Ken Branagh’s film of the same name.

Sean Connery of course never had this problem when playing a Chicago Irish cop in The Untouchables – nor for that matter a Russian submarine commander in The Hunt for Red October, a Spanish swordsman in Highlander or a medieval Italian monk in Name of the Rose – yet he would always manage to carry it off.

Many of us have grown up (either actively or passively) watching the likes of Coronation Street, Eastenders, Brookside, Emmerdale, Last of the Summer Wine or Auf Weidersehen Pet and could therefore easily identify a Manc, Scouser, Cockney, Yorkshireman/woman or Geordie by their accent. Conversely and to be fair, few English people will have had the same exposure to regional Irish accents and many would even struggle to differentiate between the Belfast and Dublin accents. And this would probably go some way as to explaining why so many of them mistake us for Scots.

Now I wonder if many Scottish people in England get mistaken for being Northern Irish. I’m sure there’s a research bursary for that sort of thing somewhere out there…

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