Wor(l)d(l)y: Irish Culture through Accents, Theatre, and Rhetoric

By Michaela Vitagliano [Visiting Student Blogger]

“When you go back for Christmas you’ll have to tell people you shook hands with Taoiseach Enda Kenny (Ireland’s Prime Minister),” my host family advises me.

“Ah, but I only saw him at the Gingerman Bar” I try to explain, until I’m cut off with a laugh and a knowing, “but they won’t know. The Irish way is to embellish a story!”

I’ve always been drawn to stories – not just what they say, but how. When traveling to a new country, I am eager to hear stories – legends, folklore, and historical events—that are part of a country’s culture. Indeed, learning a culture or another person’s identity is inextricably tied to narratives. Just think of the question, “So, what’s your story?”, prompting one to forge a coherent narrative in order to ultimately connect and communicate with others.


Above: Bailegangaire 2016 production

/Tom Murphy’s play Bailegangaire at the Pavillion/

Such was the theme of Tom Murphy’s Bailengangaire at the Pavillion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire. I was fortunate to attend this play with Prof. Nicholas Grene and his MPhil students. During the course of the play, an old lady tries to tell the tale of how the town got its name, but apparently for years has been retelling it over and over without ever finishing it (much to the chagrin of her granddaughters). One wants her to get to the end so she won’t keep repeating herself, the other has largely disappeared from the picture.  What was interesting to me was that the narratives kept getting interrupted onstage. It took a lot of concentration to follow the story the grandmother was telling, as after a few lines, she’d stop and another scene would happen, or she would talk as the granddaughters bickered on stage. This idea of listening to a story told orally is a trope in Ireland, and so watching it, I tried to picture myself in a warm kitchen listening in the dark to an elder’s story. But to be honest, at times I felt like the granddaughters – I just wanted her to stop rambling and to get to the bloody ending! Reflecting back, however, I was impressed with how the play drew upon traditional Irish cultural themes, and included interesting narrative breakdowns and exaggerated storytelling. Moreover, I am now even more impressed by those who can tell a good story that captivates an audience.

/Rhetoric Class at Trinity/

One course I am taking at Trinity this year is Rhetoric with Prof. Martine Cuypers in the Classics Department. We sprinted our way through the ancient Greek rhetoricians including Aristotle Lysias, and Gorgias. We learned about encomium, forensic, and deliberative speeches. Interspersed throughout the course, we analysed speeches by Obama and Taoiseach Enda Kenny. From those we gathered information on how to use tone and presentation, along with logos, ethos, and pathos to persuade an audience. At the end of the semester we gave a 5-8 minute speech of our choice. I took on the challenge of writing an Encomium to Trump – something of a serious nature, and pleased to say it was convincing enough that people couldn’t believe I hadn’t voted for Trump given how I learned to twist words and ask rhetorical questions to generate sympathy and understanding. Next term I will continue this course but focusing on the famous Roman orators such as Cicero. It sure beats having to hang upside down and kiss the pee-soaked Blarney Stone for the gift of gab!

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Above: View from Abbey Theatre state looking towards audience

/Voice acting lesson at Abbey Theatre/

What also helped with my rhetoric presentation was a previous experience at the Abbey Theatre, where I did a voice acting workshop with Andrea Ainsworth. At only 25 euro, I had two hours with the knowledgeable voice director of the Abbey. She walked a group of us through a bunch of warm up exercises, before we got to step on the historic Abbey stage and deliver an excerpt from the musical Donegal written by Frank McGuinness. It was quite interesting hearing how everyone in the group stressed different words, or where people chose to pause. I especially got a kick out of hearing the different accents. I had an American one of course, while everyone else had Irish accents. Two of the lads even had proper Donegal accents and the words from their mouths sounded like butter – even their colourful language sounded divine!

/Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme and Historical Narrative/

Frank McGuiness, who had written the musical Donegal also wrote the gripping play that depicts eight men before marching towards the Somme, the infamous battle of World War One. Despite some criticism that it does not portray the Catholic side enough, I found the play to be very humanising. In fact, I think the themes went beyond the Catholic and Protestant divide, and instead focused on how eight men forged friendships and overcame their differences to unite in the end moments before their death. The one man who survived, Pyper, is the outcast of the group who at the start of the play is an old man and is forced to remember these painful memories for us. One thing that comes into question is how society remembers an event – using public or private memory. Public memory might glorify the battle, or increase the political and religious differences, while Pyper’s personal memories are of a pink sky, an apple core, and another man whom he fell in love with. One is written in historical memory, the other is left to the stories told by the survivors. From this I came to understand more about how public and private narratives and memories often intersect – when they clash, and when they complement. Given that 2016 was the 100 anniversary of the infamous GPO rising, it was interesting to see how this event was commemorated, and the various histories Ireland told.


Above: Dublin Castle Concert

/Dublin: Culture Night/

In September, Dublin put on its annual Culture Night, an event where reams of museums, galleries, and cultural highlights put on performances or exhibits for free. I had friends waiting to get a free whiskey and others receiving a free tour of the GAA Croke Park Stadium. I went with some friends to send a free postcard home from the GPO (General Post Office and famous for the 1916 Rising), visit an independent artists’ gallery, and attend the Dublin castle concert. The whole sense of the night was celebration – of what is special about Dublin and of what is special about Ireland. The Dublin Castle Concert had a whole programme, from opera to poetry readings. I discovered a new artist, Lisa O’Neill, who has a beautiful song called “Dreaming” out. It could not have been a better night, and I could feel the excitement of everyone in the air. The closing of the concert ended with a speech that sought to inspire change in society. One part of the speech I can remember talked of increasing awareness about mental health, and providing more resources for those in need so that people would stop turning to the drink to discuss their emotions and issues. I thought this was important not only for its message, but because often culture can become streamlined and stereotyped, and this was further proof that culture is something that can be progressive and can lead to real change.

/Pygmalion and Pinpointing Accents/

Earlier this fall, at the Smock Alley Theatre I attended Pygmalion. The plot is essentially that a Col. Pickering and Prof. Higgins bet as to whether or not the professor can train a girl with a cockney accent to speak proper English and pass for a duchess.

First of all, I was quite impressed with the acting and accents the players had acquired. In one scene, Eliza Doolittle, the young lady, gets into a heated argument, and her proper English accent dies away and is replaced by her “natural” cockney accent.

Mostly, however, I loved the concept of knowing exactly where someone was from based on how they spoke, or what phrases they used. There’s a quiz on the New York Times, I believe, that uses a similar idea to guess what part of America one is from based on a series of questions such as do you call gym shoes “trainers, sneakers, runners, etc.”

And living in Ireland, I’ve come across this phenomenon with my host dad. His job requires him to travel the Irish country many days of the week, so not only is he familiar with the different towns, but he can even guess pretty accurately where someone is from after they say a few words. What little I know is that people from out West say “weshhht” and people from North and South Dublin have slightly different accents so that /third/ can sometimes sound like “turd”. The Northern Irish accent also sounds a bit Scottish to me. For a more detailed and knowledgeable source on varying accents, I’d recommend watching this short YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ee_N3g4ORLk.

/A Way with Words/

Back at home, for the first few days my friends remarked that my intonation had changed. When I asked a question, my tone actually went up like it was supposed to. My friends thought it sounded quite Irish!

Walking around Boston, I noticed how Penny’s – a cheap and cheerful clothing store—was called Primark here, or how T.K. Maxx in Ireland is called T.J. Maxx in the States. Another fun fact? The company Pantene pronounced /Pan-teen/ in the States is pronounced /Pan-ten/ in the UK.

I even caught myself saying a few phrases not normally heard in New England such as “sure look it” or “let’s chance it” when crossing the street. When my parents asked how I felt after the flight, I just said, “Wrecked” [tired].

A Few More:

Crossroads à [intersection]

Saturated à [drenched]

Banjaxed à [broken; tired] Eejit à[idiot]

Fag à [cigarette]

Naggin à a 200 mL bottle of liquor

How’s the craic à [hello; fun]

Spud à [potato]

Culchie à a country bumpkin

Deadly/Lethal/Massive/Class à [very good; cool]

Shifting à [kissing]

How’s she cutting? à[How are things going?]

Bad form à [not good]

Pressà [cupboard]

Mates/Lads à [guys]

Grand/Brilliant à [good, fine]

Veg à [vegetables, veggies]

Loads à [a lot of]

Jaysus à [Jesus!]

Yer man à denotes a person whose name is not known or remembered, but similar to the demonstrative “that person” or the person being talked about

Perhaps I simply picked these up from my host mom, but I also said quite a few “Well I wouldn’t be saying that now” and “To be fair now…” as well as “you’ve done a lot so” [replacing “then” with “so”] while back home. Finally, after interactions with those in service professions, I ended the conversation with a quick “cheers” only to get a few blank looks. Sadly, however, after only a few weeks back in the States, my elocution and wealth of words diminished. I am sure, however, that it will return with another term studying at Trinity.

For now, I’m having the craic getting acquainted with Ireland, its many stories, its way with words, and its culture. I wonder what other stories I will bring back home with me!




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