This is a post I did that originally appeared on the fantastic Swirl and Thread website as part of Mairead’s wonderful #IrishWritersWed initiative which I was delighted to kick off.
Here is a true confession. I have an Uncle Brendan who is an absolute delight; he is gloriously entertaining company and if I’m entirely honest, I can understand about two-thirds of what he says. My English wife gets about a third of what Brendan says – unfortunately it is not the third that I invariably miss out on. His strong Cork accent and fax-machinesque delivery would turn Siri into a blubbering wreck in about thirty seconds flat.
At a wedding, not understanding Uncle Brendan isn’t that big of a problem. Between the gesticulations, tone of voice and the facial expressions, I can comfortably get the gist and laugh in the right places. As I discovered last year though, a funeral is considerably trickier. I spent the afternoon trying to keep my face in neutral, hoping to quickly adapt to wherever the story seemed to be heading. It felt like conversational Russian roulette, one smile in the wrong place and I would forever be the psycho in the family.
All this is by way of saying, accents and colloquial language are a minefield – both in general, and particular in writing. Every author has to make that decision with their characters, how ‘real’ do you go?
Personally, I don’t like the idea of losing somebody at any point in my work. My ‘target reader’ is me back when I had what my mother referred to as ‘a proper job’. I’m thinking of somebody standing on a train, trundling towards a job they hate, basked in the warm glow of someone else’s body odour. I want to make their journey as enjoyable as possible. In fact, I want them to miss their stop. To achieve that, I don’t want them getting pulled back to reality because they don’t understand what somebody just said. That means I’ve got to find the right balance of ‘bollixes’, ‘auld ones’ and ‘get up that gardens’ so that I don’t bamboozle my beloved reader.
Some authors of course manage to have their colloquial cake and eat it. Having just watched the brilliant Trainspotting 2 in the cinema, I was reminded that Irvine Welsh’s equally brilliant book is written in uncompromising full-on Edinburgh Ned-ese. My memory of the reading experience is that it took me a little while to fall into it but by the end, I was thinking in the voice of the characters even while I wasn’t reading the book. Having a little Begbie running around in your head is an alarming state of affairs. Similarly, when I started to re-read Roddy Doyle’s wonderful Barrytown Trilogy recently, I was stunned by how dense the language is. Even as a native Dubliner, it did take me a while to get into it.
Still though, as a relatively new author myself, I’m loath to present the reader with such a linguistic challenge right off the bat. To hurl them into the choppy water of full Dublin brogue and hope they’ll hang in there until they learn how to go with the flow seems a fairly big ask. I might be doing the rest of mankind a great disservice but in the age of overwhelming choice, from Netflix to YouTube to Sky boxes brimming with series-linked goodies, it feels like someone committing to read your book is a big leap of faith to begin with, I don’t want to give them any reason to reconsider.
I think having worked as a stand-up comic for 15 years really does help me judging what I can and can’t get away with. As someone who often speaks at an frantic pace, I’m all too familiar with that special kind of silence that means a room full of people have not understood what I’ve just said. It used be a horrible sinking sensation in my earlier gigs but these days I’m a lot less flap-prone, and I know I can make hay out of their confusion by pointing it out and then translating myself into international English.
I will say though, there is one compromise that I made in my books that really does bother me. The Gardaí have inspectors but through my research, I discovered they’re never referred to as such. The Irish for inspector is cigire and in casual conversation amongst themselves, Gardaí refer to an inspector as a ‘cig’.
Try as I might, I couldn’t figure out how to use that and then have it explained to the reader what was meant. For the tenth anniversary edition of my first novel, I may re-write it with a bonus couple of scenes – where an English prisoner is passing and asks for a cig – and they’ll all have a great laugh about it. It’s a terrible idea but it would add a wonderful touch of authenticity to proceedings.
Until then, inspectors are inspectors and there’s nothing I can do about it. I did also receive an irate email from an American reader who assured me that Irish people did not swear as much as they do in my books. That letter of response really did write itself.