What makes Hiberno English different is a mixture of works taken from the Irish language together with words that went out of general use in Great Britain many years ago, but persisted in common use in Ireland.
Back in the 1970’s in the concrete jungle that was University College Dublin, we scruffy students always looked forward to lectures by the late Terry Dolan. His talks on the Irish use of the English language (Hiberno) were passionate, entertaining, informative – far better than anything on RTE (Irish television). One week he gave us an assignment – to write down three examples of Hiberno, and explain them.
A large group gathered in emergency meeting in the cafeteria, brainstorming without success. This was Ireland before cable TV, before the internet. We were extraordinarily sheltered from ‘foreign’ influence, so how could we know which of our words/phrases were unique to us, if we had nothing to match it to? We could compare Ulysses to Sons and Lovers and have an endless lists of words found in one, but not the other. But how to know if this was because Lawrence ‘couldn’t’ as opposed to ‘wouldn’t’ use the same language as Joyce?
That evening at dinner, Colm put the conundrum to his family. They were equally perplexed. Into the silence, the grandfather spoke ‘I have one’. Surprise, anticipation, interest, admiration – the man had not had as good an audience since before his grasp of the everyday world had begun to slip. With great dramatic effect he announced ‘Cows’. ‘Cows’ repeated Colm more than a tad bewildered. ‘Cows’ repeated the grandfather. ‘You see, Irish cows are different from English cows’ and this former lifelong official from the Department of Agriculture began a lengthy monologue on the different breeds of cows found on the two islands. He was enjoying his moment in the sun so much, no-one had the heart to stop him.
It was to be another 20 years before Terry Dolan wrote The Dictionary of Hiberno – English, a fascinating book on how the Irish speak english which has deservedly kept reprinting ever since. It is an honour and a privilege to make this my first book of the month, a thank you to a wonderful academic and teacher.