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Tuesday 5 December 2023 Dublin: 6°C

From Boston to Blanchardstown, how we speak is a part of our identity. Let's be proud of it.

The world-renowned Boston accent is in decline. Similarly, people from sections of cities or rural Ireland often moderate the way they speak. But why?

I’VE JUST RETURNED from a week back in my beloved home city of Boston, where I visited some of our students in the School of Law at NUI Galway who are undertaking prestigious internships and got together with my wonderful family and lifelong friends for the 4th of July long holiday weekend. Following are some personal and broader reflections on what was, as always, a trip to savour and remember.

The sights and sounds of home

Among the things that emigrants miss most about their places of birth are the sights and sounds of home. I concur. There is nothing like seeing the Boston skyline and the familiar landscape around the house I was raised in – just to the south of the city in East Milton.

One sound, however, that has become less prominent in the parlance of those who live in the Boston area in the years since I moved to Ireland is the “ah” in place of the dropped r of our world-renowned accent.

The decline, or even slow death, of the Boston accent has been attributed to several factors. One is that more people from outside the Boston area now stay in the region after attending the dozens of colleges and universities in Massachusetts. A second is that many Bostonians go elsewhere to study or work and no longer speak the way they did during their early years when they return. A third is that a lot of area natives deliberately endeavour to shed their accent in order to sound more like the people they work and do business with around the US.

In Ireland, the Boston accent is still revered and linked most notably to the Kennedy family. Having one certainly hasn’t hurt me here. Yet in America, it’s an accent young people tend to associate with working class Boston sports fans regularly lampooned in comedy sketches or with the central characters in a litany of Boston Irish gangster movies. And when older people hear someone drop the letter r, it can conjure up memories of the city’s politicians who took hard line stances against forced busing as a means of desegregating Boston’s public schools in the 1970s.

As such, a Boston accent can be a hindrance in advancing one’s career. There is a similar reality in Ireland where a perceived bias has led many people I know from sections of cities or from rural Ireland to moderate the way they speak. Here and there, this is a shame. How we speak is a part of our identity. It would be incredibly boring if regional accents were lost and we all spoke the same way. Maybe it’s because I am in a unique position as a Bostonian abroad, but I won’t be learning to say the letter r “properly” any time soon.

Irish young people are doing themselves – and us – proud

One of the students I visited with indicated that the Boston accent was easy to get used to after having listened to me for some time. However, it was what the supervisors of these law students, who are undergraduates unlike their American counterparts and who had almost no previous experience of the US legal system, had to say that was most satisfying. Our students were described as “extremely capable,” “courteous and friendly,” “as good as any from the Boston law schools,” and one was even called a “rock star.”

While feedback like this is admittedly anecdotal, it stands as a timely and forceful rebuttal to the dreadful article published in the New York Times in the wake of the horrendous Berkeley tragedy. The unsolicited, glowing comments from the supervisors of these NUI Galway law students suggest that the vast majority of Ireland’s young people in the US are not making examples of themselves; they are setting an example. They are doing this country proud in the capital of Irish America and, undoubtedly, everywhere else they are living and working this summer.

The closeness between Boston and Ireland

The widely expressed view that Boston may be the most Irish city outside this island was reinforced in my mind last week. From perusing the Our Boston collection of essays written subsequent to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings in which the city’s Irish connections are highlighted repeatedly, to visiting old haunts downtown and in the neighbourhoods, to reuniting with Irish emigrant friends and the Irish-born parents and relatives of the guys and girls I grew up with, the closeness is extraordinary.

Being a product of this environment definitely made it far easier for me to move to this country. Ireland has never felt foreign to me. Conversely, at least in part because Boston offers the “best of both worlds,” which rendered it relatively effortless for Irish emigrants to settle there, it is surely difficult for them to understand why I have chosen to come here. This is complicated. The somewhat divergent perspectives we have on our old and new homes warrant exploration in a future column.

A sad farewell and a joyful homecoming 

So how did the trip end? For this emigrant at any rate, it’s no shame to say that, again as always, it ended in tears. First, a sad farewell to my elderly father – male emigrants and their fathers, in particular, would recognise our shaky voices, awkward, furtive glances, and unspoken mutual uncertainty about when we will meet again – engendered embarrassing red eyes on the short MBTA Red Line subway train journey to Boston’s South Station and then on the Silver Line to Logan Airport.

Some hours later, reunited with my 2 and ½ year old son, I cried tears of a very different kind upon witnessing his overjoyed reaction at seeing his Daddy after a week away and feeling his little arms clasped around my neck.

On both sides of the Atlantic, life marches onward.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and columnist with and

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