Yeats, my Irish accent, and “what had you…?!” brain

When was the last time you scolded someone in an Irish accent? Not recently, hey? Never, you say! Pity. It’s rather enjoyable. I’ve been doing it on a regular basis these past few weeks during rehearsals for a production of William Butler Yeats’s play Cathleen Ni Houlihan that a friend of mine is putting off for her Directing class at the end of the month. Initially I thought, “Uh oh, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to pull off a convincing Irish accent! Eeep!”, but after giving it a go a few times, I’ve developed a real fondness for it.

Anyone who grew up in Newfoundland and Labrador (Newfoundland specifically) will know that it’s not too much of a leap from a Newfoundland accent to an Irish accent. The accents found along the southern shore of Newfoundland sound incredibly similar to certain Irish accents (I wouldn’t be able to specifically place the regional similarities, but I’m sure there are friends of mine who could), and while I’m not from the southern shore, it seems I can hold my own and sound plenty Irish when I put my mind to it.

There’s a reason I ask ‘when was the last time you scolded someone in an Irish accent?’: I find that my accent gets much more pronounced when I’m delivering the lines in which I’m supposed be excited, annoyed, or angry. When I first noticed that correlation, I chuckled a little and thought, “Gee, that’s interesting!”, but I didn’t think much more of it. After a few more days of rehearsal at home and with the cast, I started to put together a few theories on why sounding annoyed made my accent seem more accurate (at least to my own ear).

Theory #1: Composition

If you’re at all familiar with the play Cathleen Ni Houlihan, you’ll know that its composition is organic and lyrical. Delivering the lines with an Irish lilt isn’t that difficult because of the way the sentences are written — there’s a rhythm to the words that’s unmistakable. I’m playing Bridget, so I have to deliver the line, “What had you the day I married you but a flock of hens and you feeding them, and a few lambs and you driving them toward the market at Ballina?” I swear that delivering that line is when the accent comes on so strong I couldn’t resist it if I tried. I’m trying to deliver it in my own accent right now, and it actually feels awkward.

Theory #2: Attitude.

The character I play is an Irish woman who has come from hardship and who strikes me as a very earthy sort. Rightly or wrongly, I seem to have an image of her that dictates that she’d have some serious attitude and strength of character having come from a place where if she had no fortune, she ‘worked it out in [her] bones’. Delivering her “I’m clearly annoyed with you” lines is impossible to do slowly, and the speed at which they come out carries the accent with it. There are examples of this phenomenon that I can think of in my own life, with my own accent: when I am in St. John’s (my adopted home) I speak one way, but my accent changes almost instantly when I go home to Clarenville. To me, this is also indicative of a shift in attitude and comfort level, which makes me think (now more than I ever did before) that accents come with a place and a character for a reason.

Theory #3: Emotions

Delivering lines that carry anger or annoyance in them dictates that you have to know your lines well enough to almost forget that you’re delivering them because you’re actually angry. It’s like going on auto-pilot in your head and letting your anger do the talking. My director did an exercise with me last night during which she yelled lines at me and I was to yell my lines back at her. I almost scared myself when I yelled my lines back at her because not only did I deliver them well, but my accent didn’t waver at all. I honestly felt like a very angry Irish woman (or at least how I imagine she would feel). I was so overcome with the emotions I was supposed to be feeling, and the attitude those emotions carried, that my lines came out just as they were written, and with the perfect accent.

Of course, all of these things come together to result in my being able to deliver at least a passable Irish accent. At least when I’m delivering lines written as an Irish man imagines they would be delivered by an Irish woman. The trickier part is delivering your own words in that same accent.

A funny thing happens when I attempt to speak in the same accent using my own thoughts and words: my sentences come out composed a little differently than they normally would — at least in some cases. Since I seem to do my best thinking while in the shower, it follows that rehearsing lines comes easier there as well. This morning, I hopped in the shower and decided just to talk to myself in my adopted Irish accent. I’ve noticed though that I do unconsciously slip into saying words like “grand” and “lovely” quite a bit. I imagine this is partially because of a stereotype I have embedded in my mind that all Irish people use those words a lot, but it’s also definitely because those words are quite fun to say with that accent. I never consciously think, “This is where an Irish speaker would say this word”, but my brain seems to want to slide these words (and others) into my everyday speech if I’ve accented it.

Years ago, while I was learning to speak french in high school, I was told that learning to speak the language also meant learning to think in that language, and I suppose that’s true. I am beginning to think that it may also be true when it comes to accents as well. There seems to me to be quite a difference in a mind that composes “what had you” as opposed to “what did you have”. Perhaps there’s someone out there who would be able to enlighten me a little on that. Linguists, I’m looking at you!

Speaking from my limited experience in learning accents, what I can say is that it’s a good bit of fun. Particularly when you’re in a situation where you’re watching other people learn along with you. I’ve been speaking in my accent all day as an exercise and when I came out of it to talk to my mother on the phone earlier, I found it difficult to let go. I find myself wanting to speak louder than I normally would as well, and getting excited about things just to hear the way the words come out when I do. This might strike you as foolish, but it’s like I said at the beginning: when was the last time you scolded someone in an Irish accent? Not recently, hey? Never, you say! Pity. It’s rather enjoyable!


3 thoughts on “Yeats, my Irish accent, and “what had you…?!” brain

  1. Janet says:

    I totally understand what you’re saying. I’m recording a Molly Murphy mystery with the AZ Braille & Talking Book Library and as I am reading the character Molly Murphy’s dialogue (she is straight from Ireland through Ellis Island, to NYC in 1901), I can hear her accent in my head ( I hear Southern Shore dialects as well). I try my best to replicate it. I would be willing to bet that a native from the Emerald Isle would have a good laugh at my expense, but…I try my best and hope that listeners enjoy the effort.

    Best of luck with your presentation! I bet you’ll be brilliant!!

  2. johnwcowan says:

    The Irish accent is one thing, the Irish dialect (which is spoken in the Irish accent) is another. So there are people in Ireland who speak Standard English, people who speak Irish dialect, and people who speak something between, all using an Irish accent.

    So in your mind the Irish accent is associated with an old-fashioned variety of Irish dialect (which Yeats himself, for example, did not speak).

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