Writing With “Norn Iron” Words & Phrases

Harland and Wolff cranes, Belfast 2009
Harland and Wolff cranes, Belfast 2009 copyright M.McGoverne

“What’s Norn Iron?” I hear some of you ask; Wikipedia defines Norn Iron as “an informal and affectionate local nickname used… to refer to Northern Ireland, derived from the pronunciation of the words “Northern Ireland” in an exaggerated Ulster accent (particularly one from the greater Belfast area). The phrase is seen as a lighthearted way to refer to Northern Ireland, based as it is on regional pronunciation.”

The Northern Irish accent is distinctive, some say unique, and is unmistakable; as such it poses a challenge to writers who need to write Northern Irish dialogue. A similar issue faces writers of broad Scots dialogue. I read Trainspotting in 1994, and was transfixed by the stories, but I was also impressed with Irvine Welsh’s use of Scottish vernacular and phonetic spelling to convey the sounds of the words as they would have been spoken by the characters.

From the inception of my novel And The Buntings Flew, which is based largely in Belfast, I planned to include as much local dialect, both street vernacular and the peculiarities of Ulster-English dialect in my story; I want to reflect the way the people who inspired the book spoke, and still speak. I also want to make the story accessible to all; I have a couple of friends who didn’t finish Trainspotting because they struggled with the language used, whch is a great pity. So I’ve decided to use the key phrases and words I recall from my own childhood in Northern Ireland, and those ones that I hear most frequently whenever I return. Hopefully I’ve captured an authentic slice of Northern Irish dialogue without overusing words that many readers may be unfamiliar with.

My use of “Norn Iron” is therefore in no way exhaustive! If you’re interested in finding out about more Norn iron words, In Your Pocket has a great introduction, with lots of very colourful and expressive phrases! 🙂

Having said that, I’d love to hear from you if you can suggest any more common words and phrases I may have overlooked. All of the phrases below are used somewhere in And The Buntings Flew; I hope you enjoy them and don’t have to refer back to this glossary too much!

Norn Iron Word/Phrase Meaning
Are you getting? Are you being helped/served?
Away in the head Stupid
Away on! You’re kidding!
Amn’t Am not (e.g. “Amn’t I? – Am I not?”
Aye Yes
Bake Mouth (from beak)
Baste Beast
Bout Ye/What About Ye How are you? Greeting
Catch yourself on! Wise up!
Chile Child
Craitur Creature
Dander A walk
Dead On Agreed, absolutely, OK, or great, perfect
Fillum Movie
Founder/ed Cold
Fry Fried breakfast (Ulster Fry)
Is that you? Are you finished/ready?
Lifted Arrested
Messages Shopping (usually for groceries)
Murdered Annoyed/stressed/pestered
Norn Iron Northern Ireland
Ould/auld Old
Peelers Police
Poke Ice cream cone
Quer A lot, very
See you? Here’s me! That’s what you think/say, but here’s my opinion
See (this thing/person/situation) An exclamation of annoyance/frustration, calling attention to something
So it is/do it does! Yes it is/yes it does
The day/The night/The morra Today/tonight/tomorrow
The dogs on the street know Something which is common knowledge
Themuns Those people
Thon That
Thonder There
Til To
Wait till I tell you I must tell you this
Wee Doll Girl, woman
Tortured See “murdered”
You Quite often in a sentence where not grammaticality required, e.g. ‘shut you your bake!
Yous/youse/yousons/yis Plural of “you”

And it started with “And”

“And it stoned me”
(Van Morrison, 1970)

The title of my novel in progress is And The Buntings Flew.

It’s a title I agonised over for a long time, so I’m not surprised when some people ask me, why does a self-confessed Grammar Prig have as the first word in the title of her first book, such a glaring example of bad grammar? As we were all taught at school, one should not use a coordinating conjunction to start a sentence. If you’d forgotten all about coordinating conjunctions, take heart, there’s only seven of them: and, but, or,nor, for, yet and so

It’s true that it would be unusual to use one of these words to start a sentence often, and definitely not if writing formally. Apart from anything else it would get boring very quickly. Don’t believe me? Take a quick read of the King James version of Genesis, Chapter 1. My CTRL-F search counted more than 100 uses of the word and; the age-old technique of listing out repetitions to aid learning also makes such writing rather heavy going, if not turgid, when read for entertainment.

I can’t say that messing with grammar conventions was the only reason I used and in this way, but it was definitely a contributing factor. If used sparingly, starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions evokes for me a slight remove from correct diction and formality, giving writing an informal, true to life and I think, a dynamic feel. 

For me the title is a way of dropping straight into the action, the lives of the characters, the history and natural surroundings I’m writing about in the novel. I want to evoke a sense of the reader stepping into that world and experiencing it first hand, in an everyday, matter of fact way, no matter how momentous the events described may be, to the characters or in history.

I did check to see if there were many written works with And as the first word of the title: I found a few, mainly poems: And Oh, That The Man I Am Might Cease To Be by D.H.Lawrence, and And there was a great calm by Thomas Hardy; suitably reassured, I decided I could follow in the footsteps of such literary heavyweights.

So, asks the reader (slipped another one in there for you!), tell me about the Van Morrison quote at the top of this article? Well, Van the Man is another poetic muse of mine, and this song is one of my all time favourites; my fellow Northern Irish singer-songwriter wrote And It Stoned Me about a semi-mystical event from his childhood in Northern Ireland, when a normal day in the life of a child was transformed, by a place and the people in it, into a time where time stood still, and the participants seemed in another dimension, if only for a short while.

So the title of And The Buntings Flew is also inspired by the song,  and its meaning, which are both sublime. I hope a little of that everyday real life transformative mysticism , just a little, rubs off onto And The Buntings Flew.