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.