(réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 7. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1995)


Irish Poetry and Anglo-Irish

Paul Volsik (Université Paris 7)


Briefly, and by way of introduction a few clarifications are perhaps necessary. By Irish poetry is here meant twentieth century Irish poetry written in English, and by Anglo-Irish is meant those dialects of English that are spoken in Ireland, North and South – generally known by linguists as Hiberno-English, But the discussion is envisaged as part of a more general issue – the problem of "dialect poetry" – in other words any poetry that does not systematically use Standard English as its major linguistic resource, an area which needs, one feels, much more cross-genre and historical study.

It has been calculated that only 3-5% of the population of the British Isles uses Standard English (and Received Pronunciation) in all circumstances. Yet Standard English dominates written twentieth century canonical poetry. If the voice of the poet were simply the voice of the poet one would expect a greater incidence of poetry using non-Standard dialects than is actually the case – particularly in post-colonial contexts like Ireland, where the political pressure not to use what is perceived as the language of the conqueror is great and where there has been a great deal of debate about the specificity of Irish poetry, what justifies its autonomy, wherein lies its Irishness – a general if sometimes diffuse desire, in Douglas Hyde's words. to "de-Anglicize" the culture.

But it is important to remember that analogous problems of dialect occur on mainland Great Britain (crossed, as always, by problems of class) – as we shall show in the case of the English poet William Barnes. And the Irish experience is interestingly different from that of, for example, the Caribbean where poets have recently been radically experimental in their use of creoles, pidgins and dialects, Nevertheless Hiberno-English is a useful test case in that there has been considerable – though incomplete – study of its grammar, lexicon, and phonetics.

I will proceed as follows: I will first briefly mention a few characteristics of dialects generally and Hiberno-English more particularly. I will then look at three poets and poems: William Barnes, the Dorset poet whom I take as a representative of 19th century, late-


Romantic use of dialect; then J.M. Synge, and then finally Patrick Kavanagh. We will look in each case at one aspect of their respective uses of dialect: phonetics with Barnes, syntax with Synge and lexis with Kavanagh.

Hiberno-English, then, is a dialect of English. The word dialect (itself difficult to define in relation to other categories such as language or acrolect etc.) is triple-edged and it is aesthetically important that it should be triple-edged. It can be taken to mean the variants of a language group {Polish, Czech, Slovak etc. are “dialects” within the family of Slav languages). Or it can mean a “subordinate" (OED) form of a particular language (say "Picard" for French) - a form which is governed by par1icular rules of pronunciation, lexis and syntax (all three being necessary for the word dialect to be totally appropriate). At this level, and from a linguistic point of view, a dialect should not be the object of value judgments. As linguists say, structural differences between varieties of language are neutral and arbitrary (no language, no variety of language is “superior” to another, more “aesthetic” , more apt to produce literature or high art etc.).

On the other hand dialects are endemically stigmatized. that is to say they are the object both within and especially without the community of value judgments that are often extreme and frequently – especially perhaps among the educated – markedly prejudiced. For many users of standard varieties – teachers are, alas, often a good example of this – dialects are perceived as careless versions of standard ("literary" says the 1961 OED) forms, the mark of an absence of intellectual finesse. They are, at worst, “ugly” or laughable or both. They have to be taught out of schoolchildren.

From a linguistic point of view it is possible to dismiss these judgments out of hand but poets who use dialects have to negotiate a stigmatization that has important aesthetic consequences. This is not in itself an impossible task, the transformation of the stigmatized (the non-aesthetic} into the aesthetically admirable is a constant of. the modern period notably in the twentieth century. Moreover a poet can be encouraged to use dialect because there also is a possible positive evaluation. Dialect can be seen to be the voice of a particular community to which the poet belongs and to which he or she is attached. whose world he works within – it becomes in some sense a bonding device. This is the case of most popular poetry from the ballad down to contemporary Dub and Rapp poetry. Thus dialect can be –- and generally is – used at the same time tactically against the outside world (this is often the case of comic dialect poetry). Dialects, like slang, are used against those who belong to what is perceived as the threatening dominant group. In this sense the use of dialect takes on a “political” dimension. Every dialect, like so-called “minority” languages, is an ambivalent space – as Rachel Ertel writes of Yiddish in her excellent introduction to Yiddish poetry, Dans la langue de personne: “Langue instrumentale, dominée, minorée,



langue de I'opprobre, jargon, mais aussi langue d'élection" (1). Where a dialect is seen as a "langue d'élection" it can become the cement of a group that desires separation, that senses itself to be in some sense threatened (by "them" as opposed to "uz"). Thus, in one of its configurations, and at a more personal level, dialect is a type of poetry that roots in a sense of the "home," of the intensely personal; it can express and perpetuate – at a very serious level – the rhythm, the texture, and the semantic space of one's mother's tongue (2), It is worth remembering in this respect that Barnes brought out a collection in 1858 called Hwomely Rhymes. Dialect can often be – and was particularly in the late nineteenth century – a crossroads, haunted by the past, by utopias of a Romantic sort, utopias of unity and purity, the figures of childhood, the family, the clan, the tribe, the village, the community, the class, the old abolished political unit. As such, like the Regionalism or the Nationalism of which it is often – though not always (3) – a part it can be conservative in all senses (conservative of a dying language or culture, a threatened type of ceremony, conservative of personal memory and abandoned inheritance). It is thus often in the 19th century strongly elegiac (4). But like all conservatisms an interest in dialect can find itself in certain particular contexts (notably struggles for national liberation) the vector of a future that has to be constructed, It can be the cornerstone (as Gaelic and the Gaeltacht was in Ireland) of a projected utopia, the mortar of a society that remains to be built – that would be better because more authentic, because deeper rooted, because more democratically shared than the one that they (the colonizer for example ) propose.


1. Paris: Seuil. coll. « La Librairie du XXème siècle », 1993, p. 13.
2. Hardy talking of William Barnes made the sensible point: "For some reason or none, many persons suppose that when anything is penned in the tongue of the country-side, the primary intent is burlesque or ridicule .... But to a person to whom a dialect is native its sounds are as consonant with moods of sorrow as moods of mirth: there is not grotesqueness in it as such. Nor was there to Barnes. In Select Poems of William Barnes. London: Humphry Milford, 1908, p. vii.
3. The Belgian poet Jean-Pierre Verheggen writes, for example, in Artaud Rimbur (Paris: Editions de la Différence, 1990, p. 39-40): « Michaux y a son Grand Combat! / Fail de reptations de mots vernaculaires, bassement namurois! – Qu'on me croie! Qu’on me croie! – Le premier Michaux a dans son trou d'effroi, sous arpions, du macérat et bon puat de sous-langage wallon! / Comme Artaud son pochon d'sous marseillon! Et Rimbaud, ses refrains idiots d'aoûterons et chiffortons rochois! / (Mais tout ça hors religion de leur région! Et hors smala! – Hors régionalisme quel qu'il soit, étroit ou non! – Hors frontières cela va de soi! Engagés, comme qui dirait langagés, dans la seule région étrangère! - Hors relirégion, quoi !)."
4 .This is not necessarily true in the twentieth century where dialect is often used for its asperity. See for example the use of Ulster dialect words in the poetry of Torn Paulin. But even in Paulin there is an elegiac streak, perhaps in part for the past glories of the dissenting tradition to which Ulster Protestantism belongs.



Mention of the Gaeltacht brings one back to Hiberno-English. There are perhaps two or three things that it is important to stress here, Firstly Hiberno-English is a very particular dialect in that unlike, say, American or Australian or Nigerian English it is a dialect that is strongly influenced by one other language system: Irish Gaelic. Many of the syntactic particularities of Hiberno-English (though not all) come from a process of transposing directly from Irish Gaelic. Other particularities come from the type of English with which the native Irish population came into contact when they learnt English: lowland Scots or West Midlands, for example, in Ulster, But certain particularities of Hiberno-English depend – as with other dialects like Americans – on historical factors (dialects tend to preserve forms that die out in the more standard forms). Finally, from a political point of view Hiberno-English has found itself crucially (unlike, for instance, American English) in ideological competition with a pre-existent language – Gaelic – for the role of unifying national language." Before looking at a few examples of Hiberno-English it is perhaps important to recall one last particularity of dialects: their internal frontiers are often not clear or systematic. Indeed to talk, for example, of a Dorset dialect is, as the linguistic maps show, an artificial and even an ideological construct, to talk of Hiberno-English a simplification. for there are two major forms of Hiberno-English: North and South (which do not correspond to the political frontiers), "regional" variations, and innumerable individual mixes. Since the frontiers of any given dialect are irregular their grammars are difficult to stabilize, their past is hazy and often little-known (how old is cockney for example?). and their lexicon fluctuates (there is no good Anglo-Irish dictionary – the last attempt was recently abandoned for economic reasons) (7). Dialects have little in the way of written records. Consequently they have none of the "legislature" – the academies, the normative teaching, even the letters to the papers complaining about falling standards – all the policing that surrounds, protects and ennobles national languages. They are thus constitutively more variable. But, by the same occasion, they are a space of freedom and the energy of freedom. Dialects are also paradoxically infinitely resistant. Indeed one of the most fascinating subjects of study in the field of the socio-linguistics of dialect is why individuals and


5. What is known as Standard British English is here taken to be one dialect among others – a dialect which is itself stigmatized by those who do not speak it and who may feel, for example, that RP is "snobbish, affected, condescending ..."
6. This is important in that many poets feel obliged to make a choice between Gaelic and English and not between their dialect and Standard English (as is often the case in the Caribbean).
7. PAULIN Torn. "A New Look at the Language Question" in Ireland and the English Crisis. Newcastle:Bloodaxe Books, 1987, p. 186.


communities go to such lengths and over such periods of time to preserve such a universally stigmatized part of their inheritance against the manifest wishes of, for example, the almost entire educational system.

Basically, however – and this is equally important – despite preconceptions, dialects, if they are not policed, are nevertheless rule-governed. We will consider phonetics and lexicon later. Here I would like to take three examples of syntactic characteristics of Hiberno-English that distinguish it from Standard English.

Firstly there is the pronoun system. In Hiberno-English there is a categorial opposition of the tu/vous kind which is purely an opposition of singular and plural (unlike the tu/vous opposition in French). This is the opposition one finds strikingly illustrated in: "So I said to our Trish and our Sandra: ‘Yous wash the dishes,’ I might as well have said: ‘You wash the dishes,’ for our Trish just got up and put her coat on and went out," (8) (Source: recording of a woman from Belfast.)

Secondly Hiberno-English, like other dialects, makes a distinction between punctual and habitual by using the auxiliary "to be" differently: "She's very well at the minute" (punctual/actualized), / "She biz middlin' in the evenings" (habitual) (9).

Thirdly there is the construction that is literally translated from Irish Gaelic: ‘I’m after spending seven hours in Dublin airport.’ This form has been much studied and it seems to express the idea that the process has recently been completed, My examples are extremely simple but could be extended into more delicate areas such as the stylistic (10).  These and many other syntactic features give that peculiar flavour that marks off Anglo-Irish texts as "strange" for speakers used to Standard English, But as Milroy remarks in his excellent study Authority in Language, non-native speakers of dialects (for example poets like Kipling when he uses cockney personae or even a novelist like Joyce when he uses English dialects) plainly frequently have no notion of the fact that there is a grammar at work in the dialects they use (11). These writers constantly make mistakes. Native dialect speakers may not know that a grammar exists nor how exactly it functions but they do not make mistakes – and they recognize problematic utterances in


8. MILROY James and MILROY Lesley, Authority in Language, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985, p.25.
9. TODD Loreto, The Language of Irish Literature, London: Macmillan Educational, 1989, p. 42.
10. For example the reticence (as in Irish Gaelic) over using "no" or "yes" in a reply as in (examples from Patrick Kavanagh's The Green Fool): "But will every man stick out?" I asked. "Indeed they won't," he said. “I’ll give ye the facts, and you'll make the ballad," he said. "I’ll make the ballad," I assured him / or the statistically abnormal use (from the point of view of Standard English) of cleft constructions like "No, no," he said, "it's too dacent ye are."

11. Op. cit., p. 85.


people (or characters in a novel) trying to use their mother tongue. One final remark before we move on to look at poems. Few people speak only one dialect; most have access to a series of contiguous dialects and can move in and out of them depending on context (they will use dialect forms in situations of intimacy like talking to their own children and use more standard forms in situations of formality like university symposia). And since the frontiers between dialects within a system are relatively small, any speaker can selectively downplay or foreground aspects of any one dialect (the double negative or the glottal stop for a cockney for example). Given this fact, there is one interesting consequence: that people lower down the social scale have access – even if only limited – to more standard dialects while those at the top of the social scale (and thus by implication middle-class poets or writers) have an extremely impoverished access to dialects further "down," I would now like to turn my attention to a corpus of poems, beginning outside of Ireland with the poet William Barnes.

William Barnes (1801-1886) is an extremely touching poet – if little known in France. Indeed I personally had the awesome privilege of cutting the pages of the original edition of a collection of his poems in the Bibliothèque Nationale, He has always been highly regarded by fellow poets from contemporaries like Tennyson, Hardy or Gerard Manley Hopkins (who was very influenced by his linguistic theories) down to W.H. Auden. Valuations of him vary. E.M, Forster said of him: "He is truly, sweetly, affectionately, a Yes-Man," (12)

Larkin, on the other hand – altogether a tougher character (a No-man) and a poet who excluded all dialect poetry from his Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse, a politically startling move – said that: “the imaginative delicacy of his conception (‘Woak Hill’) at times was superior to Hardy's, though if his work has a deficiency, it is in lacking Hardy's bitter and ironical despair: Barnes is almost too gentle, too submissive and forgiving," (13)

It is in some ways difficult for us to read him now as we tend to see him through the ironic, urban, internationalist dark glass of modernism, to classify him as an example – to express it with current prejudice – of an abolished parsonage pastoralism. Christopher Ricks, however, in his New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse (1987) – gives him more pages than either Arnold or Meredith (23 poems and 18 pages) staking quite rightly, one feels, his central place in Victorian sensibility.

He was born in a poor farmling in Dorset (not far from Eliot's East Coker) and became by dint of immense hard work, school-teaching and rectoring all the while. a great


12. In BARNES William, One Hundred Poems, Blandford Former: The Dorset Bookshop Ltd, 1971 . p. xi.
13. “The Poetry of William Barnes” in Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955- 1982, London: Faber & Faber, 1983, p. 151.



example of the 19th century polymath scholar, acquiring an acquaintance with 70 odd languages ranging from Fidjian to Farsi, from Friesian to Hindustani. He wrote his diary in Italian and learnt French from an ex-Napoleonic prisoner of war called Martin (pure Hardy !) – though he fought all his life against the "invasion" of French words, which he saw as corrupting the pure Saxon stock.

Here I would like to concentrate on only one aspect of his work, and one aesthetic problem, and that is phonetics – the phonetics of dialects, Barnes did not have the international phonetic alphabet at his disposal so had to improvise his own transcription and his type of transcription is notoriously problematic (14), I would like to look at the last stanza of the poem "The Vaïces that be gone":

Vor all the maïdens an ' the bwoys
But I be married off all woys,
Or dead an' gone; but I do bide
At hwom, alwone, at mother's zide,
An often, at the evenèn-tide,
I still do saunter out, wi' tears,
Down drough the orcha'd, where my ears
Do miss the vaïces gone. (15)

 The first thing that strikes most non-Dorset readers is a sense of exclusion. Most readers find themselves stumbling at each word. In this respect reading dialect poetry is a little like reading poetry in a language one is only just beginning to learn. One is constantly uncertain of crucial structures and frontiers – one is forced to a certain linguistic modesty. However, we do understand quickly that, unlike in Standard English, in Dorset dialect "boys" and "ways" ["woys"] are homophones – for they are in a rhyme position. The distribution of vowels is thus different in Dorset dialect from that of Standard English. This is an important aesthetic parameter, To take another example this time from Anglo-Irish: whereas in Standard English the words hit:/hot/hat are in phonetic opposition in Hiberno-English they can be homophones (and thus potentially rhyme-words) (16).


14. It is interesting to note, however, that, to my knowledge, no poet has ever tried to write systematically in the International Phonetic Alphabet.
15 Select Poems of William Barnes, op. cit., p 122.
16. Indeed Anglo-Irish has fewer vowel sounds (fifteen compared to RP's 20) but more consonants (28 compared to RP's 24) than Standard English.


 In Barnes' poem, though we pick out the rhyme quickly, we remain uncertain about the exact nature of the vowel sound and whether it is the same as in hwome, and alwone as Barnes' transcription would seem to suggest. This is crucial in that constellations of sound in a stanza and poem are major structuring devices, articulating elements not simply acoustically but also – crucially – semantically. Repetition of sound creates the possibility (though only the possibility) of the articulation of meaning. Rhyme is an obvious example of this phenomenon but in this particular example it is semantically important to know in addition whether hwome and alwone are also articulated to mother or to "bwoys" and perhaps even to ''I'' – or to all three. A contrario this example of dialect poetry raises interesting more general problems about standard spelling and standard written English. Spelling, as we know, does not reflect any particular pronunciation-system. The text is a phonetically indeterminate space, a no man 's land, that is filled by the reader with his or her own phonetic system. A woman from Alabama can read a Shakespeare sonnet but the sound pattern she will generate is radically different from that of a Welshman. And it is statistically probable if not certain that the system the reader imposes (the "voice" he or she actually hears – if he or she chooses to hear) will not correspond to that of the poet (Did Shakespeare have a 16th century Warwickshire accent, for example, and what sort of Warwickshire accent?). Thus the reader is permanently in a situation of misreading. He or she is constantly constellating sounds that should not (from the author's point of view) be constellated and not constellating sounds that should so be constellated (17), missing semantic links or creating them. This is perhaps particularly significant in types of poetry such as contemporary Irish poetry which often uses assonantal devices, This is true not only of individual sounds but also of word stress, which is important in poetry in that it modifies metre. For example, in Hiberno-English the stress on the word "lamentable" is on the second syllable where in Standard English it is on the first This could alter a foot boundary, itself an important structuring element in poetry (18) and also a sort of minimal semantic boundary.

I say this not to regret a situation which could theoretically be remedied. One day, who knows, we may have a virtual Shakespeare reading his own poetry in his own dialect.


17. Inversely one's experience of listening to a poet reading in a “dialect” that is not one's own is a usefully disconcerting experience. Listening to the Irish poet Desmond Egan reading a poem about Mandelstam, the text and its possible meaning opened up disconcertingly when my ignorance of Hiberno-English made me unsure of whether he had said "field" or "failed.' at a crucial moment of the poem.
18. In "Valediction" Louis Macneice called Northern Ireland a "Country of callous lava cooled to stone,/Of minute sodden haycocks, of ship-sirens' moan,/Of falling intonations" in Collected Poems. London: Faber & Faber, 1966, p. 52



What is more important is that this indetermination, is, to my mind, one of the aspects of language that makes aesthetic reading an ever-renewable activity, that means that a text can transcend particular historical (19) and geographical contexts, that the poet's is not the only reading, that Irish poetry can not only be read by Irish readers – all things reader-response theoreticians have long claimed. Readers rework the meaning of the text by reworking it phonetically, by ignoring the phonetic specificities of its source, by working against the horizon of their own speech habits. A contrario, dialect reminds the reader constantly that there is potentially a privileged reading (a unique space, a Paradise Lost) to which he or she can have no or only problematic access, Before we leave Barnes, I would like to insist on the fact – though I do not have space to develop the idea here – that his linguistic, aesthetic and political culture is very similar to that of the contemporary Nationalists in Ireland, Barnes belonged, I feel, to a European movement of ideas and aesthetic priorities, a form of cultural nationalism where Anglo-Saxon purists and Gaelic leaguers shared much with, for example, pan-Slavists in the East of Europe (one thinks of Janacek's philological work in Moravia, for example), One must never, I feel, ghettoize the phenomenon which is being analyzed here (20)), A writer who was deeply rooted in an analoguous linguistic culture was, of course, J.M, Synge who, as we know, had studied in Paris under the great Celtic linguist de Jubainville and who moved in the same circles as Douglas Hyde. If one replaced the word Celtic with the word Anglo-Saxon, and made the language less violent, we could hear Barnes in Hyde's famous appeal for the de-Anglicisation of Irish culture: "In a word, we must strive to cultivate everything that is most racial, most smacking of the soil, most Gaelic, most Irish, because in spite of the little admixture of Saxon blood in the north-east corner, this island is and will ever remain Celtic to the core." (21)


19. It is a well-known fact that in the eighteenth century tea rhymed with "say," that the word was pronounced, as it is in contemporary Hiberno-English, as “lay."
20. The publishing history of Barnes is itself fascinating. Macmillan, for example, was very reticent about dialect. In the 2nd edition of his Poems in the Dorset Dialect however (mdcccxlviii) there is (in the Bibliothèque Nationale) a publisher's flyer that lists a series of publications in what constitutes a field: philology and Early English Literature (the publisher also offered The Anglo.Saxon version of the Life of St Guthlac) and dialect texts like Exmoor Scolding and Courtship in the Propriety and Decency of Exmoor, Jan Cladpole's Trip to Merricur in Search for Dollar Trees written in Sussex Doggerell & John Noakes and May Styles, a Poem, exhibiting some of the most striking lingual localisms peculiar to Essex.
21. HYDE Douglas, Language. Lore and Lyrics Essays and Lectures, Blackrock: Irish Academic Press, 1986, p. 169.



It was, however, the same Hyde who in 1891 learnt Anglo-Saxon and in his journal noted: "that was the best thing I did," (22)

Barnes, Synge and Hyde belong to the same nineteenth century philological tradition, a tradition strongly articulated to nationalism (and racism). There are other things that draw Barnes close to Synge, and one is their common focalisation on "that which smacks most of the soil": on the peasantry (23), The first use of Anglo-Irish as a literary medium, however, is later than in England. It is generally thought that what instituted the tradition was Douglas Hyde's translation of Gaelic tales: Beside the Fire ( 1890). As an emblematic example of the literary use of Hiberno-English in poetry one could perhaps best look at the first two stanzas of Synge's translation of a part of Villon's "Les regrets de la belle Heaulmière”:


                  LI                                                        An Old Woman's Lamentations
Or il est mort, passe trente ans,                  The man I had a love for – great rascal would
Et je remains vieille, chenue.                      kick me in the gutter - is dead thirty years and
Quand je pense, lasse! au bon temps,        over it, and it is I am left behind, grey and aged.
Quel fus, quelle devenue;                           When I do be minding the good days I had,
Quand je me regarde toute nue,                 minding what I was one time, and what it is I'm
Et je me vois si très changée,                     come to, and when I do look on my own self,
Pauvre, sèche, mègre, menue,                    poor and dry, and pinched together, it wouldn't
Je suis presque toute enragée.                    be much would set me raging in the streets.

 Qu'est devenu ce front poli,                             Where is the round forehead I had, and the
Ces cheveux blonds, sourcils voutis,          fine hair, and the two eyebrows, and the eyes
Grand entroeil, le regard joli,                     with a big gay look out of them would bring
Dont prenoie les plus soutis;                      folly from a great scholar ? Where is my straight
Ce beau nez droit, grand ne petis,              shapely nose, and two ears, and my chin with a
Ces petites jointes oreilles,                         valley in it, and my lips were red and open ? (25)
Menton fourchu, clair vis traitis,
Et ces belles lèvres vermeilles? (24)


22. Ibid., p.44, Barnes wrote one of the first school primers of Anglo-Saxon.
23. But here one begins to see differences grow, for where Barnes' peasantry – if sprightly – is innocent, childlike, Wordsworthian and submissive, Synge's is vigorous, stoical and artistic (just as Kavanagh's will be stumbling, victimised but also cunning and often humorous). I do not have time to develop this here but of course the overlapping between dialect and stereotype is important and complex.
24. OEuvres, Paris: Garnier, 1962, p.40-41.
25, Synge edited the poem at the beginning introducing material from the preceding stanza, Collected Works. vol. 1, Poems, Oxford: OUP, 1962, p. 80.


Here we see both an example of the aesthetic use of Hiberno-English and a number of the characteristics of the language that have already been mentioned (the particular use of the auxiliary "do" in ''I do be,” the cleft construction "it is I am left behind," the absence of relative pronouns for example). This text shows that Hiberno-English can indisputably be used to great artistic effect, that it is not reduced to expressing the quaint, the picturesque, and the rural. Here indeed there is an echo of the great ninth century Gaelic text "The Old Woman of Beare" (26). However, despite its generous use of Hiberno-English syntax and lexis, from the linguistic point of view Synge's language is interesting above all because it is not simply an attempt to reconstitute an existing dialect. It is in fact an artificial construct. That this construct should be deeply rooted in the actual syntax and speech-rhythms of the Irish peasantry is a fact, that it should be produced in a situation of translation emblematic, for much of Synge's thinking about language, as Declan Kiberd has shown, comes out of reading and practising translation (27) just as much of Hiberno-English itself was generated by the "translation" of structures and lexemes from the Gaelic. Nevertheless "great scholars" have shown that much of Synge's Hiberno-English is inexact or invented. For one thing the density of occurrence of certain forms is "unnatural" and the lexis is uncertain, Alan Bliss remarks for example: "The word 'honey' is used as a form of address in many English dialects but it is rare in Ireland, and the combination 'Mister honey,' which recurs again and again in The Playboy is incredible." (28) Perhaps the simplest litmus test of its "foreignness" was that the Irish actors of the Abbey Theatre found it difficult to learn and speak, which they would not have done, had it been a "natural" Anglo-Irish. But critics like Bliss have remarked – quite rightly to my mind – that the problem of the "realism" of Synge's Hiberno-English is trivial, Synge was creating something. As Yeats rightly says, as always centering on the essential,

Whenever [Synge] tried to write drama without dialect* he wrote badly, and he made several attempts, because only through dialect could he escape self-expression, see all



26. “I loved the wine / That thrilled me to my fingertips; Now the mean wind / Stitches salt into my lips./ The coward sea / Slouches away from me. / Fear brings back the tide / That made me stretch at the side / Of him who'd take me briefly for his bride. / The sea grows smaller, smaller now / Farther, farther it goes / leaving me here where the foam dries / On the deserted land, / Dry as my shrunken thighs, / As the tongue that presses my lips, / As the veins that break through my hands " (Extract from the text translated by Brendan Kennelly in The Penguin Book of Irish Verse, B. Kennelly ed., 2nd edition, London: Penguin Books. 1981, p.64.
27. KIBERD Declan, Synge and the Irish Language, London: Macmillan, 1979.
28. "The Language of Synge" in J.M. Synge: Centenary Papers, M. Harmon ed., 1971 , p. 436.
* [and I would add poetry]


that he did from without, allow his intellect to judge the images of his mind as if they had been created by some other mind, His objectivity was, however, technical only, for in those images paraded all the desires of his heart. (29)

 It is here that seems to lie the mastery of Synge. His use of dialect resembles in some ways Milton 's use of Latinate diction or, closer to home, Gerard Manley Hopkins' use of English, In this both Synge and Hopkins, like Janacek, were a gateway to a potential of modernism – access to a medium that was neither "pure" self-expression nor the outward "realistic" trappings of a particular community – but gave access to both, Certainly what Synge does I think produce, is a language that is distilled, condensed, massed and refracted to achieve that state of incandescent density – the fire i' the flint – that ordinary language rarely achieves over any length of time. Moreover, by using Hiberno-English, Synge is using a formal device in some ways not unlike the choice of a rhyme scheme or a particular stanzaic pattern (say the sonnet).

But this artefact – Synge's Hiberno-English – was really the last hesitant flowering of an attempt to create in poetry that worked out of Hiberno-English. From then on poets have been extremely hesitant and even critical of Synge himself. Bliss ended his article in 1971 by quoting Boyd: "The language of his plays, the most tangible of his debts to the peasantry, has awakened no important echoes in the work of those who came after him" and then Bliss himself concluded: "Perhaps Synge's talent was unique; but perhaps some Irish dramatist or poet may yet come who will build upon the foundation he laid so well a structure of poetic prose finer than anything that has yet been seen." (30) What Boyd said is still true: Hiberno-English has still in 1994 "awakened no important echoes." To show this I would like to look at one last poem before concluding the sonnet "Epic" by Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967),


I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man's land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting 'Damn your soul'
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –


29. "The Tragic Generation" in Autobiographies, London: Macmillan, 1955, p.345.
30. Op. cit., p. 55.


'Here is the march along these iron stones’
That was the year of the Munich bother, Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance. (31)

Kavanagh probably knew Hiberno-English better than Synge, indeed had spoken it in County Monaghan in a background not unlike that of Barnes' beloved Dorset, and uses it to fine effect in his prose. He nevertheless maintained that Synge's emphasis on tangy rural speech retarded his own appreciation of the actual flavour of ordinary country talk. (32) Thus when one looks at Kavanagh 's poetry there is little trace of Hiberno-English –even though he claimed that it was out of the parochial (of which dialect is a part) that great poetry grew and was certainly aware of the poetic potential of Anglo-Irish, writing: "From the lips of simple women I heard phrases of whimsical prophecy and exciting twists of language that would delight the heart of a wheelbarrow or a modernist poet. (33) If this poem is representative, it is representative I feel both of Kavanagh's production and the extreme limits of the use of Hiberno-English in Irish poetry generally since the War. Here we see – typically I think – that Irish poetry, though manifestly Irish in theme and intertext (Yeats here perhaps), opens only small vestigial windows onto the majority language of the country. (34) If Hiberno-English delights the heart of modernist Irish poets it does not seem


31. Collected Poems. London: Martin Brian & 0' Keefe. 1972. p. 136.
32. QUINN Antoinette. Patrick Kavanagh: Born-Again Romantic, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1991, p.64.
33. The Green Fool, London: Penguin Books 197 I , p. 10.
34 It is interesting that Seamus Heaney should express his uncertainty about Synge in an article called .'The Sense of Place" in which he insists on the subtlety of Kavanagh's use of dialect. He says of the first line of Kavanagh's "Inniskeen Road, July Evening" ("The bicycles go by in twos and threes”): "They do not 'pass by' or 'go past,' as they would in a more standard English voice or place, and in that little touch Kavanagh touches what I am circling. He is letting the very life blood of the place in that one minute incision." (Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968- 1978, London: Faber & Faber, 1980, p. 138.) The very use of the word ‘little’ and ‘minute’ suggests the quality of this type of poetry’s use of Hiberno-English. Indeed one could argue that to ‘go by’ is not at all particular to Ireland – it is frequent in many mainland British dialects – to the point where I feel it is standard. One senses nevertheless here the extremely conflictual nature of Heaney's attitude on the one hand to what he calls the "programmatic" use of Hiberno-English by the Revival writers and on the other to Standard English.


much to influence their linguistic practice (in the way that it has been used by a novelist like Roddy Doyle or the way that Lallans has been and still is used by Scottish poets (35)). Indeed I think it is possible to read this sonnet without any knowledge of Hiberno-English or not much more knowledge of Hiberno-English than it takes to recognize Beckett's idiom (36). In "Epic" there are subtle traces of dialect in words like "bother" or ''I inclined." And these traces are important because they establish (like the use of the "our" in line four) a subtle relationship of proximity-with-distance between the "I" of the poem and the Duffys and the McCabes. But the clearest case of the aesthetic potential of dialect, and I would suggest this is no accident, is in the direct speech of the central line: "Here is the march along these iron stones."

The poem in some ways pivots around the word "march." The word resonates of course outward to the verb "to march" (the war in Europe and war generally); to the expression "to steal a march on someone," to the noble Norman use of march, as in "The Welsh Marches" – or, for an English reader, to the older Anglo-Saxon Mercia. More subtly – and I think people underestimate Kavanagh's great intelligence, as they underestimate Barnes' – the reference to "iron stones" links – despite the explicit denegation – this boundary dispute with "the Munich bother," for at the heart of Munich, and thus a source of the epic European conflagration, were the disputed marches of the Reich, the Northern frontier of Czechoslovakia, a territory that included the iron mountains to the North West, mountains that are known in German as the Erzgebirge and in Czech the Krusno Hori ("les monts metallifères"). But march is here a perfect word because it is at root a dialect word. In Ulster dialect the word – probably of Scottish origin – is used ordinarily to mean a boundary between two farms and has a verbal form: "His land marches with mine." March here is used as the locus of a typical knotting together of the text. The word unites past and present, Ireland and Europe, high and low, the comic and the tragic. It is also the space where ambivalence can surface – ambivalence, perhaps, about Ireland's neutrality during the Second World War and the Republic's own experience of the endemically violent Ulster Border, only a few miles to the north of Ballyrush. Clearly the word "march" is not used for mere local colour or picturesqueness or "un effet de reel," a guarantor of authenticity – though at some superficial level it does this as well – the dialect word gives access to the world of the dialect. It is an essential and it is essentially an aesthetic nexus. Poets, as Homer tells us in the poem, make their own importance, not merely of events but also of any lexical element – including dialect ones.


35. See for example W.N. HERBERT's recent Forked Tongue, Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1994.
36. Of course Beckett's idiom in English is more complex and has another linguistic hinterland: French.


However, while it is clear that one's reading of the poem may be enriched by knowledge of the dialect use of "marches" it is nowhere as linguistically marked as the translation by Synge. Had I taken other poets like Heaney or more urban poets (like Mahon or Muldoon) the presence of Hiberno-English would have been even less marked. (37) This is a general tendency – as any reading of any anthology will show – and indeed is particularly striking in a poet like Paul Durcan who uses monologues and personae who should or could, by class and education, be using Hiberno-English.

In conclusion, I would like to suggest: firstly that, of course, dialect is not essentially incompatible with poetry, that it is only an accident of history that Standard English is the literary language (as the OED tells us). Secondly, there is in Ireland a manifest discrepancy between much critical discourse on the Irishness of Irish poetry and the linguistic practice of Irish poets and much uncertainty about the categories and their aesthetic implications. To take one small example, Seamus Deane, an excellent if – or and – committed critic and poet, wrote in 1985. "The linguistic virtuosity of Irish writers and the linguistic quaintness, to English ears, of the Irish mode of speech in English are the product of a long political struggle – and still audible in the poetry of John Montague and of Seamus Heaney." (38)

This text is problematic because languages do not result from political struggles in the rather simple ways that Deane seems to suggest. If they did it would indeed be possible to argue that the reverse is true: that the Irish have "abandoned" the political struggle and accepted England's cultural domination – something events in Northern Ireland (amongst other things) suggest is not true. In some ways Irish critics seem to be foregrounding a difference in an area (language) which is (relatively) marginal, in what one could perhaps analyze as an attempt to radicalize an opposition. A third point is that generalisations such as the idea that we are living in a period characterised by the disappearance of regional differences in English in favour of one central non-geographically located Ur-English are manifestly not true at the level of actual everyday language use. If poets wish to use a neutral, non-nationally or non-regionally based language it is a free choice on their part and


37. Where it does exist it is largely lexical, rarely syntactical, and it is in syntax that the most radical differences between Standard and Hiberno-English manifest themselves.
38. Deane Seamus. Celtic Revivals, London: Faber & Faber, 1985, p. 13. This is not an isolated example. In his introduction to a 1986 anthology: The Inherited Boundaries: The younger Poets of the Republic of Ireland (Mountrath: The Dolmen Press, 1986. p. 17), Sebastian Barry talks of the present situation as one where "the spoken language [is] Hiberno-English (which has a history of at least seven hundred years in the country, a respectable length of time, no matter how much it smacks of empire to speak it. After all, the French speak a sort of Franco-Latin, and they feel little shame about it at this distance to Rome. Is Hiberno-English what we will someday call more simply Irish?)." Barry's linguistic parallel is extremely doubtful and not a little voluntarist and one feels a real uncertainty about its validity in the style itself.



obviously one which I would not wish, indeed it would be absurd of me, to attempt to gainsay. But this choice is a "free choice" (in so far as any aesthetic choice is "free") and cannot be transformed into a form of aesthetic destiny.

If Irish poetry then is in some ways less linguistically autonomous than other traditions (like the Scottish, for example – a fact that Yeats complained about a hundred years ago) and indeed less linguistically autonomous in some ways than it was at the beginning of the century and despite many years of political independence, I do not feel that the explanation for this can lie in purely political factors (a lessening of the desire to de-Anglicize, a turning away from the rural space associated by Synge with Anglo-Irish) or personal factors (reticence about the dangers of exoticism – "stage Irishness" –, ignorance of the idiom, ambivalence about its value) etc., though these factors are probably real enough in individual cases. For the phenomenon to be so general in poetry but not in other genres like the short story I feel that the central answer has to lie in the internal history of poetry itself, it must lie in the poetics of Ireland's post-Modernism (a post-Modernist reticence about polyglot texts and the regular use of personae for instance). But all conclusions, I feel, have to be extremely tentative until. as I have already suggested. We have a clearer sense of the history of the use of dialect in the British Isles and a more synthetic, sophisticated, cross-genre and aesthetic sense of dialect's potential.


 (réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 7. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1995)