An American in Dublin
It’s Bloomsday. I am strolling the streets of Dublin just as the celebration’s namesake, Leopold Bloom, did on this date nearly 100 years ago in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Like him, I am taking in the many sights and sounds of Ireland’s storied old capital. As a word nerd and language writer, I’m especially listening out for the rich textures of the city’s language. But there are a few problems. One, I’m no James Joyce. Two, I’m an American who’s just moved here. A lot of what I’m hearing is right over my head. But as Joyce writes in Ulysses, ‘To learn one must be humble. But life is the great teacher.’
I cross over the Ha’penny Bridge and wander into Temple Bar, where the footpaths are jammers. Er, the sidewalks are crowded, as I’d say back in the States. Good thing I wore my runners – I mean, sneakers – to make my way around the city centre, or downtown, today. ‘It’s close’, a fellow celebrant strikes up a conversation with me at a pedestrian crossing, or crosswalk.
‘Yeah, it’s very jammers today’, I chance my arm, an idiom for giving it a shot. I am met with laughter. ‘That’s gas’, he says. I’m ready to excuse myself when he sees my embarrassed countenance. ‘That’s funny. I mean it’s very humid outside.’
‘So, where in Dublin do you live?’ I ask.
‘Actually, I just came in for Bloomsday. I haven’t been to Dublin in yonks.’ In ages or, more colloquially, in a minute, I translate in my head. ‘I’m just a culchie, as some of these scangers would say’, he continues. A culchie, I learn, is a pejorative term for a person from the country, possibly formed from agricultural. Back home, we’re guilty of calling such folks hicks. Many consider a scanger, meanwhile, is its young, rough-and-tumble city-dwelling equivalent, which might derive from scange, a dialect verb meaning ‘to roam about’. But only an oul’ eejit – a knucklehead – would ever cast such aspersions.
‘Do you have relations here, then?’ he asks after we chat about my recent move from America. I am about to tell off this lad, this dude – or Gerrup outta dat! as I’ve already heard joked on the streets – when I realize he’s not slagging me: He’s just wondering if I have any relatives here.
We begin discussing ancestry when a Garda comes speeding over the ramps down a street. Where I’m from, ramps take cars on or off the highway, help strollers and wheelchairs circumvent stairs, or add a delicious pungency to a meal. Here, they are speed bumps.
‘Whew! I definitely amn’t in the country anymore!’ he remarks. It dawns on me, like the bells, or sirens, of a police car sounding off, that being Dublin isn’t just a vocabulary lesson. It’s also a lesson in a whole other language – for instance, the Irish Gardaí (literally ‘guardians’) – as well distinct Hiberno-English constructions such as amn’t, a contraction for am not.
‘Well, I’m after some lunch’, I tell my new friend.
‘Oh, where did you eat?’
Our confusion is due to the immediate perfective, a unique construction that grafts a bit of native Irish grammar, which lacks English’s auxiliary have, onto English. I’m just after getting lunch is a way of saying ‘I have just eaten lunch’.
He recommends a pub that serves up some delicious bap for just a few bob. ‘Make sure to gargle a few scoops, too. For Leopold!’ I need a menu decoder for this one: bap is a bit of bread, bob a few quid. And to gargle is to wash down a few scoops, or pints. Of Guinness, of course. For some Dubliners, a pint is synonymous with the city’s famous beer.
‘Mighty craic there! Bye bye! Bye bye bye!’ No, he’s not pushing drugs. He’s letting me know this pub is a fun, sociable place, to approximate this word.
‘Howya’, I greet the bartender, putting aside my usual “How’s it going?” ‘I’m grand’, he answers. By now I know he’s not boasting any magnificence. He’s just saying he’s good. Maybe I should just stick with some minerals and a rasher sambo, some soda and bacon sandwich, as I do have some writing to do later. ‘Feck it’, I conclude, employing an Irish minced oath and order a pint. Of course, I have to hit the jacks, or bathrooms, on the first floor, which, across the pond, requires stairs.
I skip on afters, or dessert, and decide to take a long way to St. Stephen’s Green, ambling over to Trinity College and then past the Dáil. Irish for ‘assembly’ and shorthand for Ireland’s House of Representatives, as my American mind calques it, the Dáil appoints the Taoiseach, or ‘leader’ of Éire’s government. Dublin is no Gaeltacht, or region where Irish is the vernacular, but my American English has been absorbing a number of Gaeilge words. Of course there’s Slainte, ‘Cheers!’ which word functions as ‘Thanks’ these parts. But the etymology geek in me can’t help but spot all sorts of Irish-English cognates in the city’s bilingual signage. Like uisce, or ‘water’, and source of the English whiskey. I’ll let you make the connection.
At St. Stephen’s, which is thick or bustling with people, I find a spot on the grass right next to a group of three enjoying a nice picnic. I can’t help but eavesdrop, yet all I can make out is talk of turds. It’s a park, to be sure, but this not exactly appetizing conversation – until I notice they are splitting up some of their food into thirds. Differences between Irish-English and American-English are also phonological. These picnickers’ accents have replaced interdental fricatives with dental stops, making thanks sound like tanks or three like tree.
I wind my way back to my gaff, or house. ‘What’s the story?’ I greet my wife.
‘What do you mean, “What’s the story?” Where you’ve been all this time?’
‘“Longest way round is the shortest way home”’, I quote a proverb in Ulysses. ‘Besides, I’m just saying “What’s up?” as a Dubliner would.’
She rolls her eyes.
‘I’m banjaxed.’ I’m beat. ‘Hand me that yoke there’. No, I wasn’t making a snarky comment on marriage. I was pointing to the television remote, using this catch-all for any sort of a whatchamacallit or thingamajig. Ireland produced the great James Joyce, whose Modern masterpiece of Ulysses we honor on Bloomsday, but the Emerald Isle also gave us Father Ted. Flick.