When I was a kid, the Christian Brothers decided they should improve us.
And so they employed an appalling old snob as an elocution teacher for the brutal spawn of the hoi-polloi: namely, us.
I suspect the good brothers were a little envious of the nuns, who had for years had been imposing a bizarre and unnatural manner of speaking on the girls passing through their care. Indeed, if you listen carefully, you can detect a distinct nun-accent in a certain slice of Irish society. I notice it in one or two of the weather forecasters on telly, victims of the nunochanical speech tyranny, invented years before Stephen Hawking made it funny.
Nunelocution will have no truck with natural rhythms of speech, nor with the accent your parents grew up using. What’s more, if your parents are the wrong sort, they don’t want you speaking like they did either.
Sad, but I digress.
The Christian Brothers — a grim cadre of sexually-frustrated zealots — decided that we inner-city urchins should adopt the manner and speech of our betters, and so they employed the depressing old snob to drill sophistication into us.
Unfortunately, the miserable old snob had the sophistication and education of a toilet brush, but had one single rigid conviction: our accent was bad.
Why was our accent bad? This was never explained.
If the miserable old snob worked on our diction and delivery, we would probably all have benefited, but the boring old snob had other things in mind, and drilled into us an insane elocutionary mantra that still makes me laugh to this day. And to this day, I speak with the accent of my childhood, though with overlays from all the places I have lived.
Why would it be otherwise? There’s nothing wrong with my accent, and I’m proud of it, and I can speak as well — in public or private — as anyone else. Better than some. Certainly better than self-conscious old snobs or robotic convent girls.
In a broader sense, I think the miserable old snob was Ireland in microcosm, imposing outdated rules from Victorian reprints of etiquette books on the working-class youth of a working-class town. And I think the dreadful old snob was incapable of understanding that our working-class parents were well-read, cultured people in their own right.
That didn’t fit the profile.
Ireland of the insecurities.
The late John O Donoghue — and I do not refer to our former Ceann Comhairle — often cited the Irish penchant for denying anything that would identify us culturally. First we abandoned our language, and then, systematically over the last fifty or so years, we have actively dismantled our regional accents.
Probably the most ear-grinding example of this, to my mind, is the Roadwatch accent, a clear example of cultural insecurity. This accent, which is only about twenty years old, has its origins in Dublin, and more particularly in the children of skilled working class Dubliners. I was present in Dublin during the transition when this accent emerged and it represents an entire generation’s attempt to disguise the nice accent they got from their parents, by turning it into a gruesome melange of English and American vowels, but without success.
It hurts my brain to hear these people force their jaw into the shape that says rangd-abangt instead of roundabout, but it hurts my brain even more to realise that people all over the country speak like this even if they have never been near Dublin.
Why do kids in Kerry and Donegal speak with newly-created, and fake, accents from Dublin?
By the way, the Roadwatch rangd-abangt accent isn’t the same as the Dort accent, which has its origins in the heavily British-accented suburbs of south Dublin, and which evolved into something entirely new by its interaction with both UCD and nearby RTE.
How do you persuade an entire country to be ashamed of their accent?
I think you do it the same way that you persuade them to associate their language with poverty, lack of opportunity and outmoded ways. This is how the Irish language withered away, and how Irish missionaries persuaded their African converts to speak English.
And this was the mechanism by which we came to believe that we must speak the same as certain people who lived in certain suburbs in a certain city.
The vector was RTE, which, in a spectacular act of cronyism and corruption, employed its friends and neighbours and friends’ children and neighbours’ children. It adopted a determined policy only to employ as presenters those people who spoke in the same way as its friends and neighbours in South Dublin, until eventually, by a process of osmosis, the entire population was persuaded that a certain arbitrarily-chosen accent was preferable to all others in Ireland.
There was no rational basis for this belief, but it was self-sustaining. You didn’t get a job in the national broadcasting company unless you spoke in a certain way, and the broadcasting company was in a position to dictate to the people what was modern, exciting, glamorous, prosperous and sexy, even though Ireland in the early days of RTE didn’t know its arse from its elbow, and everyone’s idea of sophistication was a glass of sherry with your cabbage.
Why is all this?
I don’t know, but I’ll tell you what I think.
I think we never got over the shame of being us. I think we’re just as insecure and lacking in confidence as we were a hundred years ago, and perhaps we’re even worse. At least people a hundred years ago had the confidence to speak with the accents they grew up in, and communicate from the heart, unlike today, when everyone is sporting some sort of faux American-British confection that communicates nothing but embarrassment.