Accent and voice in oral history narratives of migrants from Northern Ireland.

By Fearghus Roulston and Jack Crangle

Accent has always been a thorny issue for emigrants. It can be a marker of difference, as when you struggle to make yourself understood in conversation; it can be a marker of assimilation or of settlement, if you erase the traces of the past in your voice, soften your vowels or rejig your consonants. It is understandable, then, that for many of the interviewees we have spoken to as part of our AHRC-funded oral history project about Northern Irish migration to mainland Britain, accent was a site where questions of subjectivity, identity and belonging came clearly into view. During three decades of the ‘Troubles’, when Northern Ireland was characterised by the British media as a ‘place apart’, defined by violence and terror, the Ulster accent served as an embodiment of the conflict, to which the English public reacted with a mixture of disdain, fear and suspicion.

For some interviewees, patronising English responses to the Northern Irish accent continued to rankle many years later; Samantha Lawlor recalled being interviewed for a teaching job by a headmaster who asked: “Do you think you’ll manage in an English college coming from Northern Ireland? Why? Well your accent, we had a guy last year and he had to have elocution lessons, and he said also we’re a much more liberal society, do you think you’ll be able to manage living in a liberal atmosphere.” The swift juxtaposition of the two questions here suggests a connection between a disdain for the Northern Irish accent and a perception of the province as backwards or atavistic. For others, maintenance of the accent signified a desire to maintain a connection with their place of origin; Eugene McLaughlin said: “I mean I’ve still got an Irish accent, I’ve been here forty years and, you know, sometimes I think you decide to keep an accent because, you know, it’s important to you.”

One interviewee, Sinéad Creggan, who moved from west Belfast to London in the mid-80s, was struck by the way in which the Northern Irish accent in England acted as a solvent, dissolving the distinction between Protestant and Catholic migrants. She said:

I remember talking to a couple of people I knew who were Protestants and fairly staunch unionists actually, and they really struggled more so than a Catholic coming to England, because they expected to be treated as ah here comes the unionists, here comes the royalists, the royalist, god bl- you know fantastic you’ve come here, you’ve come home, you’re part of the UK, and all people hear was you’ve got a Belfast accent, you’ve got a Northern Ireland accent, you’re a bad bastard, you’ve been blowing up bombs, exploding bombs here, killing our soldiers

This is especially striking given the role of accent in what the anthropologist Frank Burton calls ‘telling’. Telling refers to the reading of various verbal and non-verbal cues to ascertain the religious identity of another person. This is not necessarily ‘correctly’ – indeed, there aren’t concrete differences between Protestants and Catholics that can be identified in this way.[1] Instead, telling involves the application of a coherent and replicable system of signification; for example, people who say ‘haitch’ instead of ‘aitch’ might be consistently read as Catholic. The coherence of this system (and the material structures of power and discrimination that underlie it) break down after migration, in Sinéad’s account.

Another example came in an interview with Gareth Russell, a man from east Belfast who moved to London in the 1980s to work as an actor. He explained that, when moving to his current flat in south London, a friend had told him he could use his accent to fend off potential aggressors. “She said you know, of course, you can do this anywhere in London but particularly here because this is sort of a rough estate and, you know, there’s a lot of knife crime and stuff like that, she said if anybody looks dodgy at you or, or you’re, you just feel this could escalate badly, she says just do a loud Belfast accent. But the funny thing is I’d worked that out already.”

In the period when the ‘Troubles’ was more visible in England, Gareth suggests, the performance of a Northern Irish identity could work to his advantage. He explained:

GR: Yeah, cos it, there was an image in people’s head, as soon as they heard that they linked it immediately to bombing or something like that and they thought you were a scary person, you know.

FR: That’s really interesting.

GR: Yeah I remember, like I wasn’t in a lot of dodgy situations but I remember once when I was and somebody was saying you wanna fucking watch yourself, something like that, and I said, god I can’t remember, it was something stupid and it, but it sounds more stupid now because we’re not in that period where we were supposed to be scary and he, he said something else, he’d said something about, you don’t know what it’s like being in fucking London, and I just went nah you’re right mate, I fucking grew up in Belfast, I know what it’s like to be there, and just kept the look, and obviously ‘cos you’re an actor you can, yeah and in your head you’re thinking I hope he doesn’t swi-, take a swing at me [both laugh], but, but yeah.

A recurring theme across many of the interviews conducted so far is the attempts of narrators to negotiate, challenge or avoid the preconceptions held about Northern Ireland among the English population. What is striking about Gareth’s example here is how he inverts the usual form of these negotiations – rather than performing the role of a good citizen in order to deflect potential hostility, for instance, he leans into the stereotype of the unpredictable or violent Northern Irish person. He also draws on a different but adjacent imaginary here, the hypermasculine figure of the ‘hardman’, described by Allen Feldman and Sean O’Connell as a central part of working-class memory culture in Belfast; in that sense, Gareth’s was obviously a gendered performance that would not have been available to women from the north.[2]

Gareth re-enacted this role with relish, deepening his voice, broadening his accent and fixing me with an intense stare while re-enacting the encounter, before offering a bathetic deflation of the performance – “in your head you’re thinking I hope he doesn’t swi-, take a swing at me”. The idea of reprisal points to the temporal aspects to the way in which accent functions in this narrative; Gareth suggests that “it sounds more stupid now because we’re not in that period where we were supposed to be scary”, suggesting a re-positioning of Northern Ireland’s place in British culture.

This brief analysis of a handful of interviews suggests that one of the ways in which Northern Irish migrants to Britain remember their experiences of moving is through voice and accent. Depending on the context, the Northern Irish accent was interpreted to paint migrants as either parochial, disloyal or intimidating. What united these reactions was a perception of the Ulster dialect as unfamiliar, positioning migrants as outsiders and epitomising England’s collective fear and suspicion of Northern Ireland. Accent obviously has a particular salience for Northern Irish migrants as the most noticeable signifier of their difference from the host population.

There might be more to say, though, about how these narratives (and others like them) attest to a kind of auditory regime where voices have a resonance beyond the words that they’re speaking. In considering the experience of moving from Northern Ireland to Britain during the ‘Troubles’, we are interested in how it felt to be associated with a province often represented as a space of atavistic and inexplicable violence; we’re also interested in how it felt to be in Britain while the conflict was going on. Focusing on stories about accent is one way to think about this affective and embodied experience, and also about the impact of the ‘Troubles’ in mainland Britain, a topic that has generally been occluded in mainstream narratives of the conflict.

More broadly, a granular analysis of the oral history narratives of migrants can illuminate new aspects of the relationship between Britain and Northern Ireland during the ‘Troubles’, and on the memory cultures (and cultures of forgetting) that continue to surround this relationship. In terms of the social history of contemporary Britain, Northern Ireland has often been seen as a ‘place apart’. This has served to conceal the importance of its relationship with England and Scotland, particularly since partition in 1922. And in terms of  twentieth century UK migration histories, Northern Irish migration has often been dismissed as ‘not really’ migration or incorporated into narratives of departure from the whole island of Ireland.[3] We hope to draw out the distinctiveness of the Northern Irish experience and consider the historical interconnectedness of the two spaces via the rich oral histories we collect over the remainder of the project.

(Image: “Bomar Moon and Stenaline Ferry, Belfast Lough, Northern Ireland” by BangorArt)

Dr Fearghus Roulston is a research fellow at the University of Brighton. His first book, an oral history of the punk scene in Belfast, is due to be published by Manchester University Press in 2021.

Dr Jack Crangle is a Research Associate at the University of Manchester. He has published in Immigrants & Minorities, as well as commentating on refugee crises in The Conversation. Now working as a Research Associate on Conflict Memory and Migration, he is applying his oral history experience to the topic of Northern Irish emigration.

[1] Burton, Frank, The Politics of Legitimacy: Struggles in a Belfast Community (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978), especially chapter one.

[2] Feldman, Allen, Formations of Violence: The Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); Sean O’Connell, ‘Violence and Social Memory in Twentieth-Century Belfast: Stories of Buck Alec Robinson’, Journal of British Studies 53, no. 3 (2014), pp 734–56.

[3] This disavowal of the relationship between Britain’s colonial past and migration is a feature of discourse on immigration more widely – for a recent account see Nadine El-Enany, (B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020).

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