I heard of a man whose party piece was to take guests on an accent tour of Ireland. He started with a high Belfast tone, then went down to a county he called Caavan, with his distinct drawl, then to Dublin, speaking like Ronnie Drew.
From there he went to the town of Wexford where he said people said dem and dose instead of them and those. Then he moved to the city of Waterford where he claimed tourists had become tewrists.
This man then gave his versions of Cork, Kerry and Galway accents, ending with a Donegal style a la Daniel O’Donnell.
The reality is that there are many variations of each accent in every county and city. I know there are several Belfast accents that can be identified especially by natives who have an ear for auditory nuance. Some are not easy to understand, especially when a boxer from Belfast wins a big fight and gives a thrilling interview on television.
I am told that in Cavan there is an audible difference in accent between the people of Kingscourt in the east of the county and those of Belcoo in the far west. The same is true in County Wexford where, for example, the New Ross accent merges with that of South Kilkenny and East Waterford.
Accents everywhere blend into each other and it can be hard to tell where one accent begins to fade and another begins. Slight differences in inflections and pronunciation between accents can be difficult to detect.
My first personal experience was in Tipperary, where I grew up. Two parishes formed the Holycross/Ballycahill hurling team. It had famous players like John Doyle and Pat Stakelum. Its captain was a strong player named Francis Bannon. People from both parishes pronounced it Baannon. Yet I heard a man say, “Wouldn’t you know that man is from Ballycahill by the way he pronounces his name?” It must have been a very minute cadence of the word because I certainly couldn’t tell the difference.
In cities like Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway there are areas where the strong accent of the city prevails. He is dear to those who are proud of who they are and where they come from. Invariably, it declines in certain suburbs, shaped by where people live, their educational and social backgrounds, and sometimes by their societal aspirations.
Some exclusive boarding schools became known for the way some students’ country accents were discouraged. These boys were ashamed of adopting a so-called refined tone. An element of snobbery was involved.
It seems likely that distinctive speech sounds are declining, especially among younger generations. This could happen where people are working from home. They can be in regular contact on iPhone/Zoom with people not only from another county, but from another country with different language or cultural background. They find that they have to pronounce their words distinctly to be understood. In doing so, they may lose some small inflections of their own way of speaking.
It probably happens for the same reason when people leave their country to work abroad. They must state their words clearly. When they return to work here, some sounds from their original accent may have faded.
Fortunately, the era of Irish people returning home with a newly acquired English or American accent is over. It happened sometimes a long time ago where Irish accents were rejected out of feeling of inferiority. Today’s confident Irish youth have no such attitudes.
The influence of television and the internet has introduced new words and phrases, mostly from the United States, into ordinary Irish speech. It’s bound to have some effect on accents too.
Yes, there are places in the country where distinctive accents have been retained mainly because many people have remained there in their birthplace. A few months ago I met a schoolteacher from Achill Island in Mayo who told me that she had told me that she could actually distinguish the slight difference in accent between the people of the villages there.
A distinctive way of pronouncing certain words is part of certain accents. An example I know of is where the letter “c” merges with what looks like the letter “y” if it precedes an emphatic “a”.
The Cooley Peninsula was once a stronghold of this way of speaking. It’s still there because I heard about it recently. “He got in the cyar and went to Cyarlingford for a game of cyards.”
My guess is that the “cy” territory is north of Louth and possibly in Monaghan and Cavan and further north in Armagh. Perhaps Frank McNally of this newspaper can add to this observation.