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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

All Irish to Us

Aggiornamento: 12 apr 2023

“It’s all Irish to me,” is English for, “I don’t understand”. But the tables turned in 2022 when the Irish-language movie, An Cailín Ciúin eclipsed the celebrated English-language novella, Foster, from which it was adapted. The movie, subtitled in English The Quiet Girl, won awards including the Grand Prix at the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival. Director Colm Bairéad’s film has since been released in Europe and the USA to lyrical reviews.

The success of the Irish-language movie balance the bad news that a couple of dozen languages died in the world again last year. The Quiet Girl is set in Ireland’s County Waterford where a pocket of speakers still use Irish on a daily basis. Though an official national language, Irish has long been pushed to the thinnest of margins by all conquering English. Colm Bairéad, a Dubliner, only acquired Irish because of his stubborn father who insisted on speaking it to his children in the thoroughly English-speaking capital city.

photo by Florian Giorgio on Unsplash

There is a paradox. English in Ireland bears a strong mark of the bullied and retreating native tongue. Claire Keegan, born in County Wicklow, wrote Foster in English in 2010. (To foster someone is to take them in care.) Her narrator is an older girl recounting her experience as a nine-year-old. She does so in English we have to call standard though the word does no justice to Keegan’s limpid prose. The talk of her characters, however, is English as it is spoken by many in Ireland. It’s peculiarities are worth underlining for learners of English they may perplex.

1. Often a verb will seem to ask a question when none is intended.

didn’t he go off and forget all about your bobs….

(He went off and forgot….)

Ah, don’t we all eat in spurts….

…but didn’t our Michael pass away….

(We all eat in spurts….Our Michael has died….)

2. A verb is often placed eccentrically.

It’s like the wind, you are.

It’s ahead, I am….And it’s ahead I’ll be when it’s over.

It’s only missing her I’ll be when she is gone.

(The sense of the last: I shall miss her much when she’s gone.)

3. The position of sure and surely isn’t standard English.

Sure isn’t it what you always do.

Sure isn’t she clean and tidy?

Sure, if you’re sleeping in his room you must surely know.

Tis hot, surely.

I will, surely.

Ah you’d know if there was, surely.

4. There is an irregular choice of pronouns.

No sign of himself?

(No sign of him?)

Go out there and give himself a shout.

(Go out there and call him.)

Well, hasn’t he a head like a sieve, the same man.

(Well, this man has a head like a sieve.)

The same child could crow at any hour.

(That child could crow at any hour.)

Good as gold, she was, the same girl.

(That girl was as good as gold.)

5. UnEnglish expressions occur.

What hurry is on you?

(Why are you in such a hurry?)

Well may you wear, the assistant says.

(You will enjoy wearing it, says the assistant.)

He’s making strange, the mother says.

(He’s acting strangely, the mother says.)

What way are you?

And what way is Mary?

(What way is used for the standard, How are you, how is Mary?)

6. Familiar English words are used unfamiliarly.

Could ye leave me back this evening?

(Could you take me or bring me back this evening?)

You couldn’t mind them.

(You couldn’t avoid them.)

What happened at all?

(What did happen?)

7. Oddments.

There are only a couple words from Irish. Leanbh is baby. Dote means a darling, a cutie.

Petal, as on a flower, is an English word used here as a term of endearment.

Da is, of course, dad, and girleen, girl.

Ye, sounding biblical, is simply you, singular and plural.

8. Euphemism.

Well, I might as well tell you: there will be a dead man here in a coffin and lots of people and some of them might have a little too much taken.

(…and some of them might have drunk too much stout and whisky.)

9. Vocal emphasis.

She did not.

(How amazing that she did!)


Foster merits more than a perusal of its words. Without ever raising its voice, the novella has a remarkable emotional power. A child’s life is being determined by a summer away from home. We are reminded by the girl not given to talk that a pre-adolescent has feelings that rival those of the heroes and heroines we are moved by in great novels.

The assertion has been made that brief and direct literary work offers better raw material for film adaptations than rich and complex novels. There are classic examples. Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) is based on a short story of the same title by Graham Greene. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) has its origin in Cornell Woolrich’s short It Had to Be Murder. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was taken from The Sentinel, an Arthur C. Clarke story whose brevity surprises considering the scope of the film. Claire Keegan’s exquisite Foster fills only eighty-eight well-spaced pages in the current Faber & Faber edition. Colm Bairéad’s movie, An Cailín Ciúin/The Quiet Girl takes the argument a step further for making adaptations from shorter novellas and stories.

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