Northern Irish people! It's time to reclaim our god-awful accent

Suzie McCracken feels like her vocal chords are haunted by the booming projections of past politicians and preachers. Surely now it's time to stop being an incessant apologist and be proud of our vowels?

The comedian Hal Cruttenden tells a joke about his Northern Irish wife’s proclamations of love being undermined by the brashness of her accent. He suggests that no matter how sweet her "I love you" truly is, it is rendered murderous by her regional intonation. Undoubtedly it’s true – to perform a good impression of me it is essential to stretch your mouth into a grimace and pepper your rendition with nasally colloquialisms.

The Northern Irish tend to be mortified by their accent. Apart from a few that boldly bellow into terrified tourists' faces, there is a general awareness that not only are we harsh but just plain old difficult to understand. I have seen people turn off the TV if someone from the province makes an appearance. I have a friend who watched The Voice UK religiously, supporting the two local girls with vigor, but then found herself muting her set each time they stopped singing.

This is by no means a unique response to hearing provincial voices on the airwaves, but the Northern Irish cringe reflex is so immediate that it makes me wonder if it’s purely an auditory issue.

I feel that my vocal chords are haunted by the booming projections of past politicians and preachers. I am truly of the first generation of peace in Northern Ireland, and yet Paisley’s shouts were so deafening that they’re still echoing through my existence. My harsh tone links me with a past I don’t remember; the relative lack of NI voices in the media ensures that its strangeness is amplified.

With so much attention being forced onto this idiosyncratic place of late, with Derry-Londonderry being UK City of Culture and the world’s eight most important people in suits playing golf on our green lands, isn’t it about time that the national media give a few more speaking parts to the NI extras? Not only would this normalise the brogue but it may encourage those who speak it not to spurn it. Perhaps if we work on associating the tone with overpaid people in the media instead of overpaid people in politics then we’ll be able to carve out an oral identity to be proud of. The accent could connote "incubator for excellent music" or "creative place" rather than "home to the small minded and threatening".

It might also help stop us all being incessant apologists. We seem to be constantly saying sorry for our accent, our past, our eccentricities and our talents. You’ll often hear of people from the region being described as "humble". That’s because we feel, as a nation/community/whatever doesn’t offend you, that we’re too brash to be allowed. And so we say sorry, we don’t get in the way and we curb our dialect. Two Door Cinema Club frontman Alex Trimble astounded me during his Glastonbury set by speaking in a tone so unlike what I heard come out of his mouth when I was 15 that I was ashamed of my own diluted, Londonified lilt.

I realised that over the past few years I haven’t simply been trying to be understood – I’ve been apologising for being where I’m from. I have resolved to start taking my lead from the resoundingly brash Phil Taggart, a recent addition to the BBC Radio 1 team. Born and raised in Omagh, he’s normalising his less-than-soothing inflection for teenagers across the land, just like Colin Murray did when I was an early teen. Hopefully, in another generation's time, the Northern Irish intonation will be truly reclaimed from the province's past. Still think the timbre is intense? Nah mate - it's impassioned. 

Now read about the death of the Cromerty fisherfolk dialect.

 

The Peace Bridge in Derry-Londonderry, UK City of Culture. Photograph: Getty Images

Suzie McCracken is a freelance journalist, occasional walking tour guide and complete novice.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.