Twenty Years A-Growing is the English title of the famous autobiography by Maurice O’Sullivan (Muiris Ó Súilleabháin), the Irish writer, who in this book recounts the story of his childhood on the Blasket Islands off the west coast of Kerry. I purchased a copy of this book in Dublin some twenty years ago, when I started collecting material for my doctoral thesis, eventually presented to the National University of Ireland some nine years later. I remember the language of O’Sullivan’s book making a profound impression on me, so much so that a year or so later I ventured to tackle the Irish original, entitled Fiche Blian ag Fás (lit. ‘twenty years at growing’). Even the tiny knowledge of Irish that I had sufficed to reveal what lay behind the curious sentence structures used by the translator. Many of these features were to emerge over and over again in my reading of works by other Irish writers and, what was particularly intriguing, also in the speech of Irish people. Little did I know at the time that this fascination I had for the English of the Irish - ‘Hiberno-English’ (HE) in linguistic jargon - would not wear away over the years but would keep me travelling back and forth between Finland and Ireland. Now, after some twenty years, my project, which began as an attempt to interpret certain distinctive features of the information structure of present-day HE speech (reported in my 1986 dissertation), has grown in all directions and evolved into a synchronic and historical-comparative study embracing not only the Irish dialects of English but their relationships with other English dialects and the history of English in general. A similar expansion has taken place in my overall theoretical approach: although my work falls squarely within the ‘non-generative’ linguistic paradigm, certain ideas and concepts expounded in generative or ‘universalist’ theories have turned out to be useful, and I have not hesitated to exploit them despite the risk of being accused of eclecticism.
The writing of this book has been financially supported by the Humanities and Social Sciences Section of the Academy of Finland, which provided me with a one-year Senior Research Fellowship enabling me to work full-time on this project in Dublin in the academic year 1996-97. The Irish Government, the Department of Education, and the Irish Embassy in Finland (in association with the Finnish Ministry of Education) have also significantly contributed to my project by granting two short-term Grants for Visiting Scholars in 1994 and 1995. My own university and Department in Joensuu have provided me with a secure base without which I could not have embarked on this lengthy project.