Gary and Paul O’Donovan may have had more to celebrate than winning the first ever silver medal for rowing for Ireland, in the Olympics. Their spontaneous and guileless interviews became what’s commonly known as an ‘Internet sensation’. Essentially, this means that they achieved what some would say is the dubious honour of trending on Twitter, featuring heavily on Facebook and being discussed on countless websites and other media.
This is a PR & Marketing executive’s dream come true, the vast amount of ‘exposure’ for their clients, leading to untold deals, sponsorships, and most of all, the mighty dollar. With the awesome ‘leverage’ this would precipitate, the lads could be in clover forever. But with their clear passion for their sport and absolute integrity and straightforwardness shining through, I doubt that this is at the top of the list of priorities of the O’Donovan brothers.
But there was richness beyond compare with what the papers, online and otherwise had to say about their accents. I had great ‘craic’ as Gary might say, reading the reactions of worldwide media to the interviews given by the brothers. The reports were mostly written in a respectful if somewhat wry style, with a heavy emphasis on the light-hearted approach! But it’s the comments of the readers that I always mine for comedy gold and on this occasion, I struck an unintentionally hilarious seam. The Huffington Post, for example (click), was a true treasure trove with readers demanding subtitles to interpret the interviews, Irish people offering up ‘translations’ and still others asking ‘what dialect are they speaking?’ So basically you could say that there were a load of eejits on that site who didn’t know their arse from their elbow, but yerra in fairness, I’d say most were there expressing their goodwill and hearty congratulations.
I have always loved accents and strangely, even though I am genuinely tone deaf when it comes to music, I can have a good shot at guessing what part of Ireland or even Dublin someone is from, based on their accent. Of course, some counties are easier to recognise than others and being from the Limerick/Kerry border region myself, the counties of Limerick, Kerry and Cork pose no bother to me. If you ever want to ‘hear’ the lilting music of a West Limerick/North Kerry accent, just read any of the works of John B. Keane, a man who lovingly and faithfully reproduced the nuances, cadences, turns of phrase and speech rhythms of his home place. After many years away from that ‘neck of the woods’, I am told that I have a very neutral accent, what used to be dismissed as a Civil Service accent or what some would call the product of a convent school education! Be that as it may, I’m frequently asked what part of the country I’m from as I’m clearly not from the capital.
Speaking of Dublin, a limitless variation can be found in the accents here. Think of Bono, before he became a bit Americanised, as the owner of a posh Northside accent and Sinead O’Connor, before she did most of her ‘talking’ on social media as having an uppity Southside accent. In between these county boundaries, is a veritable cornucopia of pronunciation and speech patterns. A student of sociolinguistics might be able to tell us why this is so but what really matters I think, is the diversity and colour that the varying accents add to the cultural mix.
And from latter-day Ireland, across the centuries and the oceans to Newfoundland, where an enclave of immigrants, mainly fisher folk from Co Waterford, settled in this corner of Canada from the late seventeenth century onwards. In their battle to retain their sense of identity they held on rigidly to their religion, culture, music and especially their accents. It is truly remarkable to watch documentaries about the Newfoundland Irish and to hear the almost unadulterated Irish brogue, and observe their step dancing routines and sean nós singing replicated from their homeland, at their social gatherings.
Which brings us back full circle to West Cork, from where many ‘slaves’ or ‘indentured servants’, depending on your point of view, were transported to the West Indies, also in the seventeenth century. It has been asserted that the entire population of the village of Baltimore were among those who were forcibly transplanted. Whatever the historical reality, it is true that the melodic West Indian accent owes much to the linguistic influence of these early, reluctant settlers, who became known by the disparaging term ‘Redlegs’ and whose history has yet to be properly documented.
So in this age of globalisation, generic blandness and assembly-line sameness, I’d like to applaud Gary and Paul O’Donovan for their talent, their authenticity and their self-belief. They could easily have succumbed to the temptation to speak in modulated and moderate accents so as not to risk the incomprehension of the mainstream media where they would inevitably be evaluated. Instead, the proud young men from West Cork gave a metaphorical finger to the mediocre. I suppose if you’re strong enough to win an Olympic medal, you’re strong enough to embrace your own culture, especially when that ancient culture has helped to shape the communication skills of a large portion of the world’s population.