Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

One Language, Two Tongues: George Fitzmaurice's Use of Hiberno-English Dialect

Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

One Language, Two Tongues: George Fitzmaurice's Use of Hiberno-English Dialect

Article excerpt

   To grow
   a second tongue, as
   harsh a humiliation
   as twice to be born.

   Decades later
   that child's grandchild's
   speech stumbles over lost
   syllables of an old order.

John Montague, "A Grafted Tongue"

GEORGE FITZMAURICE is generally regarded as a talented but neglected playwright whose personal peculiarities kept him from achieving acclaim or even recognition. Many critics lament the fact that Fitzmaurice's reserved nature, perhaps with roots in his personal history, prevented him from making much effort to promote his work or himself, and to have his plays produced.

The tenth of twelve children of a Church of Ireland clergyman and a Catholic peasant woman, Fitzmaurice was suspended between two cultures right from birth. His was a Protestant family in an overwhelmingly Catholic area near Listowel in County Kerry. The tension only increased for the family after the father's death in 1891, when George was fourteen. Although the family could be considered landed gentry, the widow and children had to leave Bedford House, the ancestral home outside Listowel, for lack of money. Having little formal education and no aptitude for farming, George Fitzmaurice found clerical work first in Cork and then in the civil service in Dublin, where he lived from 1901 until his death in 1963. He never married (nor did any of his siblings), and he had few acquaintances and almost no friends.

Critical consideration of Fitzmaurice's work often concentrates on the effect of his personality on efforts to see his plays through to production or focuses on the fact that audiences, as well as producers, were not always sure what Fitzmaurice was trying to accomplish. Some of his plays were realistic, such as The Country Dressmaker (1907), the first of his plays to be produced by the Abbey Theatre. Others were fantastic, such as The Dandy Dolls. Still others were a mixture of realism, fantasy, and folklore, such as The Ointment Blue. W.B. Yeats thought The Country Dressmaker was as inflammatory as J.M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, because of Fitzmaurice's comic depiction of rural Irish characters, and Yeats was quite surprised when Dressmaker drew applause rather than rioting (Hogan 1967:166).

One element that tends to be overlooked in the critical evaluation of Fitzmaurice's oeuvre is his use of Hiberno-English dialect reflecting the speech he would have heard in his native Kerry. Coilin Owens and Joan Radner, editors of Irish Drama 1900-1980, which includes Fitzmaurice's one-act tragicomedy The Magic Glasses, argue that Fitzmaurice's use of idiom was attested as accurate by natives of the Kerry area and that his representation of dialect was more than the "plethora of colloquialisms" that contemporary viewers perceived it to be (Owens and Radner 1990:210-11). Here I argue that the Hiberno-English dialect employed by Fitzmaurice does more than lend verisimilitude to his work: his use of idiom adds thematic depth to his plays and goes a great way toward delivering the impact of his drama. The speech of his characters is an essential part of his writing, enforcing his portrayal of the Gaelic Irish: people trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to negotiate the world in which they find themselves, one over which they have little control, if any, whether they contend with the forces of nature or man. Fitzmaurice's use of Hiberno-English is as integral to his drama as characterization, setting, or plot.

The North Kerry area in which Fitzmaurice grew up had retained the Irish language long after most of the island had been Anglicized, but during his youth it was changing from Irish-speaking to English-speaking. (1) The transition forced its inhabitants to deal with a modernized and fast-paced culture while equipped with the cultural modes and language of an older, slower one. In addition, the colonialist attitude, which viewed Irish Gaelic as a barbarous language reflecting social and economic backwardness, combined with a feeling of powerlessness and led to an "unconscious acceptance by the oppressed of the external analysis of their condition" (O Dochartaigh 1992:22-24). …

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