Wild Mountain Thyme: Why Hollywood hasn’t a bull’s notion about Irish accents
27th Nov 2020
This week’s comments from Wild Mountain Thyme’s director that real Irish accents are too difficult to understand has made us realise how detached Hollywood really is from reality.
Wild Mountain Thyme – the three words that strike despair into the heart of any Irish person. From the first time the trailer for this cursed Hollywood story dropped on Twitter a few weeks ago, Irish people the world over have let their feelings be known on this latest attempt at depicting Irish life – and that is, in short, that it’s b*llicks.
“A hate crime”. “Is this a spoof?” The ever-effective “Jaysus Christ”. All used to describe the dismal attempts at Irish accents attempted by Emily Blunt, Christopher Walken (I know) and our own Jamie Dornan (that one stung the most). The trailer seems to veer from slapstick comedy to swooning romance, with plenty of bizarre references and mismatched time periods – the fact that Emily Blunt is dressed like Peig but then references freezing her eggs gave the entire country a collective headache.
We went about our good-natured ribbing on Twitter with glee, until this week, the film’s director John Patrick Shanley defended his actors, saying that a normal Irish accent would be “too difficult” for an international audience to understand, and he had to make them more “accessible”.
This time, it’s personal.
And so, the issue of the Irish accent reared its head again. I mean, that sentence in and of itself is a misnomer – there are more so-called ‘Irish accents’ in a 100-mile radius than there are Aran sweaters and tartan cloaks (a very common outfit in 2020 Ireland, I’m sure you’ll agree).
But for some reason, out of the hundreds of accents around our small island, there seem to be none that foreign folk can truly get to grips with. Even the softest brogue is lapped up as a frivolous novelty, laughed and pointed at without really giving much thought to understanding what us Paddies actually said.
I myself have witnessed this ‘accent-blindness’ first hand. For context, I have, what some might call, a fairly strong Dublin accent, and I’ve experienced every reaction from laughter to incredulity to plain blank stares. Depending on my mood, I either laugh it off, sigh impatiently or pretend to have as little understanding of my companion’s accent as they do mine, which is always fun.
But it is always pretending on my part – I don’t think I’ve ever had the same issue of understanding a thick accent as people outside of Ireland seem to have with mine. I don’t know whether that’s down to Irish folks’ superior understanding, or my own talented ear, but I suspect a bigger reason.
Our little bubble
Ireland, although geographically small, has a great cultural impact around the world – everyone wants to be Irish, even with the loosest of connections to our little island. But while everyone loves the abstract idea of being Irish – the Guinness, the craic, the Galway girls, all that good stuff – nobody has a breeze about what being Irish is actually like. And why would they, when they never see a realistic depiction of it?
Let’s face it – we can be mad at our British and American cousins all we like for their little-to-no understanding of Irish accents, but God love them, they’ve nothing to go on. The last time an English person actually watched something about Ireland was probably Father Ted in the 1990s, and for the Yanks, it was probably Ryan’s Daughter – not exactly an accurate picture. With that material, it’s no wonder they think we’re all either drunken priests or sheltered villagers in stone cottages. To borrow a phrase from my mother here, they haven’t a bull’s notion of what this country really is.
We in Ireland live in a funny little bubble of media consumption. While we love watching our own productions, they rarely enjoy huge international success, and as we consume them, we also consume American and English media in huge quantities, with these TV shows and music videos shaping much of our culture. The same can’t be said for our neighbours on either side though – their understanding of Irish accents comes from stuff like Julia Roberts’ Kitty Kiernan and Tom Cruise in Far and Away.
This is the reason that we have no trouble understanding both a Tennessee accent and a Bronx one. It’s why we can chat comfortably to someone from Bolton, before turning to an east end Londoner. We’ve seen it all, watched countless movies and episodes specific to tiny corners of our neighbour’s lands. We’ve picked up the lingo, we’ve become comfortable with the inflections, and we understand it all without a second thought. But God forbid you ask that east Londoner to chat with a Kerry man or a Cavan woman – an international upset is sure to follow.
Now, I’m not suggesting that the deep-seeded problems of Anglo-American-Irish relations be solved with a romantic comedy, but considering the international damage of P.S I Love You, I definitely have some suggestions of how it could help.
- If you must hire A-listers who are not Irish, please hire those that can grasp the accent. There are few, but they are out there. Daisy Edgar Jones may be a relative newbie to stardom, but her soft Sligo accent had me fooled from the opening scene of Normal People.
- Speaking of the phenomenon that is Normal People, if you can hire Irish actors, DO. This is a no-brainer, and as the astronomic success of this Irish series shows, people will engage with real accents. Subtitles are a there for a reason.
- When you pick your Irish actors, make sure they can switch up their regional accents before filming. Good example: Paul Mescal, who is from Maynooth, doing a great Sligo accent. Bad example: Jamie Dornan whose Belfast lilt absolutely did not travel to the wesht. Sorry Jamie.
- Do some research on how Irish people, or just humans for that matter, speak in 2020. “Twas he that kissed me!” is burned into my mind for eternity.
And finally, when the folks from the country you’re portraying criticise your efforts, don’t double-down and tell them their real accents are too hard to understand anyway. That is, how you say, pretty ‘anti-craic’ of you.
Read more: Wild Mountain Thyme: ‘Begorra begosh Americans! Good luck and goodbye’
Read more: Tattoos, fame and Normal People drinking games: what we learned from Paul Mescal’s GQ interview
Read more: Long read: the pull of West Cork and the realities of relocating from Dublin
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