Auntie M is thrilled to announce the publication of her third Nora Tierney Mystery, THE SCARLET WENCH. scarletwench_cover_front
While she’s out on tour, please welcome Irish crime writer Mel Healy, author of the Moss Reid series, who will attempt to explain the vagaries of language he faces as a writer– as soon as we both murder a pint!

Another Case in Cowtown, Mel Healy

Do They Speak English in Irish Crime Fiction?

by Mel Healy

Here’s a little dilemma when writing crime fiction in English: what KIND of English should you use? The answer may seem obvious for US or British authors – simply set your spellchecker to “English (United States)” or “English (United Kingdom)” and off you go.

But it’s not quite so simple in my crime novels, which are mostly set in Ireland with mainly Irish characters. My spellchecker is set to “UK English”, the kind of spelling generally used in Ireland, which Irish readers would expect. Yet there are linguistic differences far deeper than mere spellings, or minor differences in syntax between UK English (as in “I met him on Monday, he killed her on Tuesday”) and US English (“I met him Monday, he killed her Tuesday”).

Take food. My central character, Moss Reid, is a PI and a foodie. His philosophy in life is “eat, drink and investigate – in that order.” So he uses British rather than American terms to talk about his grub – from courgettes (not zucchini) to biscuits (never cookies).

He’ll also talk about specific Irish food and drink: a “sliced pan” (as in a loaf of pre-sliced bread in rectangular prism shape), “colcannon”, “red lemonade” (I’ve an entire chapter on that), “Tayto crisps”. His food is stored in “a press” (the Hiberno-English term for a cupboard or closet) or “the fridge” (rarely “a refrigerator” in Ireland).

He never goes for “a few drinks” either. He goes “for a pint”. One pint, singular – which often descends into the plural because he “could murder another” (i.e. could do with a second one). In England, by contrast, Inspector Morse would drop into an Oxford pub (never a bar of course) for a pint of “real ale”. In Dublin, Moss Reid would have a pint or “a glass” (Irish pub term for a half pint) of “stout” rather than “ale”.

With the obvious exception of “pints”, my characters generally prefer metric to imperial units for food and drink, along with a plethora of Hiberno-English measurements such as the “rake”, “feed” or “clatter”. These mean “a lot”, “many” – as in “a rake of pints”, “a feed of drink”, “a few scoops”.

Hiberno-English uses a rake (sorry) of “British English” nouns in peculiarly Irish ways:

– “A yoke” is an all-purpose noun for objects, gadgets (particularly things whose name escapes you)
– “The jacks” are the toilets / ladies / gents (UK), bathroom / restroom (US), washroom (Canadian English)
– “The messages” refers to the shopping
– And “I’m dying for a fag” – this one always confuses my American friends – simply means someone has a craving for a cigarette.

My characters are more likely to say “grand” or “deadly” than the American “awesome”. In Hiberno-English a “deadly jumper” is a nice piece of clothing while a “deadly weapon” is not nice at all. Or take the word “crack” or “craic”: “a term for news, gossip, fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation” (Wikipedia). Hence phrases such as “mighty craic” or “the crack was ninety”.

So my characters use an English that’s quite different even to British English. They occasionally slip in an Irish word or phrase such as “slán” (“goodbye) or, more importantly, use Irish-language loan words when dealing with official state titles – the Taoiseach (head of government), the Oireachtas (parliament), and, of course, the Garda Síochána (police force) or gardaí or plain guards (cops).

Other relatively new phrases in common parlance from the Irish political and economic scene – “NAMA”, “Bertie-speak”, “the Galway tent” – are just the latest layers on top of all the older shorthand and sayings from Ireland’s largely colonial history. Hiberno-English dances at the linguistic crossroads, and does a rake of linguistic borrowing and bending in its merry dance. Hence my characters use terms such as:

– “Acting the maggot” (joking or acting the fool)
– “Culchie” (an unsophisticated rural person)
– “Eejit”, “bollix” (idiot)
– “Mitch” (play truant)
– “Bowsies”, “gurriers”, “gougers” (various nouns for rough or unruly elements)

Cultural reference-points are also quite different. Irish homes get US and British TV shows and know all about Oprah or Dr Who. But the media flow tends to be one-way: outsiders might know about U2 or “Father Ted” but wouldn’t have a clue about most Irish radio and TV, from “Love/Hate” to Mario Rosenstock, or catchphrases such as “Stop the lights” (from a 1970s gameshow).

Hiberno-English has another twist: sentence constructions that echo the Irish language. For example, in Irish you can’t say “I have written another book” – there’s no “have” in Irish. Hiberno-English mirrors this with “I’m after writing another book”. This construction (“I’m after killing him”, “She’s only after losing four stone!”) is called the “hot news perfect” or the “after perfect”.

Or take the question “Is that yourself there?” The reply might be along the lines of “It is.” Because Irish has no words for “yes” and “no”, in Hiberno-English the verb in the question gets recycled:

“Are you going for a pint?”
“I am” (instead of plain “yes”).

“Is your iPad working?”
“It isn’t” (rather than plain “no”). “Cos it’s banjaxed” (broken).

Hiberno-English likes conditionals (“She asked me would I help her” rather than “She asked me to help her”) and negatives (“This wouldn’t be the road to Skibbereen would it?”) and apparently empty words in conversations – like “like”, “know what I mean”, “so”, “sure”, “only”, “at all at all”. And, like Irish, it has both a second person singular (“you”) and second person plural (“youse”).

As the poet Ciaran Carson puts it: “I write in English, but the ghost of Irish hovers behind it.” Hiberno-English is a melting pot, with words and constructions from Irish, and archaic English words that fell out of use in British English. It even fills in certain gaps in English syntax. For example, “amn’t” (as in “am not”) is taken for granted in colloquial speech and literature (James Joyce in “Ulysses”: “Amn’t I with you? Amn’t I your girl?”), yet regarded outside Ireland as ungrammatical.

By now youse are probably wondering “Do the Irish speak English?” That’s also the title of a lecture by Terence Dolan, compiler of a Hiberno-English dictionary. Hiberno-English “is a distillation of the Irish character,” he says. “Irish people over the centuries have been oppressed, so therefore they don’t want people to know what it is they’re thinking or saying.” Hence, he says, Hiberno-English is “devious to start with, and evasive”. A real bonus when you’re writing crime fiction, particularly dialogue.

Without overdoing it, the dialogue in my books tries to give a flavour of all this. Maybe that’s breaking a textbook rule, as well as screenwriter John Yorke‘s sound advice: “Good dialogue doesn’t resemble conversation – it presents the illusion of conversation, subservient to the demands of characterisation and structure”.

But sometimes rules are there to be broken. Especially when speaking “broken English”.

Finally we can’t avoid the questions of (a) how much swearing to include (the Irish do tend to use swearwords as punctuation marks) and (b) the feckin’ weather. Apparently Ireland has more words for rain than the Inuit have for snow, and only in Ireland would a light sprinkling of rain be described as “a soft day”.

At the end of the day, though, let’s not get too hung up on the differences. Readers notice the differences standing out when something is phrased in a way that wouldn’t be heard in their locale. But the strength and beauty of the English language is that it’s both global and local. It spans borders yet enriches itself through its sheer diversity, feeding on the linguistic and cultural differences from place to rainy place.

Right. I’m off to murder a pint.

Mel Healy’s first two novels in the “Moss Reid” series are “Another Case in Cowtown” and “Black Marigolds“. For more info see his Amazon author profile at