LOUISE O'NEILL: It makes me wonder if it’s not my accent that’s annoying, but my voice

There have been a few charges levied at me recently, writes Louise O’Neill.

That I am the ‘most repulsive’ person in Ireland, for one, which seems grossly unfair to all the rapists and murderers out there, doing their worst to claim that illustrious title. That I used the Ulster Rugby rape trial as a way of publicising my own book, which is also unfair.

It would have been strange not to reference Asking For It given the peculiar similarities between the two, and to be frank, that book feels like a separate entity to me in a way that none of my other novels too. It has been co-opted and appropriated by readers; they have made it their own, and that has little with me at this stage. I also read a comment on an online article that said something along the lines of “we had no rape culture in this country until Louise O’Neill came along and gave people ideas.”

But the most ridiculous thing that I have been accused of is having a ‘fake accent’ while doing radio and TV interviews. Yes, apparently I speak in a mid Atlantic twang in a desperate attempt to cover up my natural Cork brogue and as a result, I should be put to death. (Funny how internet trolls always think that liberals are over sensitive and yet they think execution is a reasonable solution to finding someone’s voice annoying.)

I will own up to years of elocution classes as a kid (This, That, These, and Those with Eileen Nolan of The Monforts fame, like thousands of other Cork children), and a certain vocal malleability that means I sometimes unconsciously emulate the person whom I’m speaking with. I’m willing to admit that perhaps living away from Cork for a number of years has rubbed the edges off, although whenever I Skype my best friend from New York, she laughs that I’m sounding more like the Country Mouse every time we talk and another friend recently pointed out that I pronounce ‘column’ as ‘col-yoom’ rather than ‘col-umm’, which is very West Cork. (Can I live?!)

What annoys me the most about the implication I’m trying to alter my natural accent is that it implies that I am, in some way, ashamed of who I am or where I come from.

While I try not to live up to the stereotypes that Cork people are obsessed with being from Cork... well, I’m still very proud of being from Cork, and even more proud of being from West Cork. Whenever I do interviews, I try my best to promote the area. I give shout-outs to local business, I talk about how beautiful it is here, how incredible the food is, how strong the sense of community is, how helpful it has been for my creativity.

Ireland is infamous of its sense of begrudgery when one of our own is doing well and I’ve often been asked if I’ve encountered that in my hometown of Clonakilty, particularly when one of my novels was such a damning indictment of small town life.

But I have found nothing but kindness and goodwill, with people telling me how proud they are of me when a book is published or an a particular column causes some conversation. More importantly – I am always going to be ‘Haulie O’ Neill’s daughter’ in this town and there is a great stability in that. It is a set point when things begin to feel a little chaotic around me, a fixed identity when everything else seems to be shifting. 

It’s funny how comforting I find it given I craved the anonymity of cities for years; I wanted to be just one more face in a crowd. But I learned that when people don’t know you, they don’t care about you either. For better or for worse, I am deeply rooted in Clonakilty: my family has owned O’Neill’s butcher shop on Pearse street for over a hundred years. To suggest that I am ashamed of where I am from is to suggest that I am ashamed of the people from whom I came too, and nothing could be further from the truth. 

I did not try to change myself or my accent in order to seem ‘better’, because I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me in the first place. 

It does make me wonder if perhaps it’s not my accent that is annoying these people, but my voice. Perhaps they don’t like the fact that I am a strong woman with strong opinions and I am not afraid of expressing those opinions. 

There has been much discussion around the lack of female voices in Irish media, particularly in radio, with the oft repeated apocryphal wisdom that people turn the station when they hear a woman speaking. Women are criticised for speaking too quickly, for indulging in vocal fry, that our voices are too high pitched and ‘girly’ and annoying. Is it our voices that are annoying? Or the fact that we are actually using them? People used to say that the secret to Kate Moss’s success was that she never spoke. Is that what people want from women? Do they want us to be seen and not heard.

To be observed, and to be admired as long as we remain silent? I don’t know and I’m not sure that I care anymore either. The time for silence is long gone. I will continue to speak up and speak out, and I will continue to use my perfectly acceptable Cork accent while I do so. Corcaigh abú, etc. (Sorry. But I’m from Cork, like. I can’t help it.)

Louise says...

READ: The Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman. A friend of mine sent me this memoir about the AIDS years in New York, and it’s a brilliantly insightful look at gentrification and gay rights.

LISTEN: Eoin Brennan, a researcher with The Pat Kenny Show, made a podcast series for Newstalk about the Tuskar Rock plane crash. It’s a very moving account of loss, grief, and family.

- Louise O’ Neill is the author of Only Ever Yours, Asking For It, and Almost in Love.


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