My Father’s Voice

My father, Brendan Adams, was dialect curator at the Ulster Folk Museum at Cultra, and in that capacity he spent an enormous amount of time gathering and preserving the Ulster dialect, both in the field and via the ambitious Ulster Dialect Survey.

Dad wasn’t partisan when it came to language: he spoke both Irish and Ulster-Scots fluently (amongst other languages) and he believed strongly in the value of people getting together and talking to each other. So often in Northern Ireland, language and culture are weaponised to exclude and build walls between us, but Dad believed that the languages and dialects of our island belong to us all. 

Dad died right before I was born in 1981, so not only have I never met him, I’ve barely even heard his voice. Until now, the only audio sample to which I’ve had access was a snippet on a dictaphone he’d used for work, and which had been partially recorded over. 

But now Donal McAnallen at UFTM is heading up a project to digitise the museum’s old dialectology recordings, including some recordings of school children in Co. Armagh in the 1960s. Those children, now in their 60s, have been able to hear their childhood voices, as have their grandchildren, and we can all hear just how the enormous social change that has taken place in the decades since has influenced both accent and dialect.

And my father’s voice is on those newly digitised tapes too. This morning BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster played some snippets, which begins a little past the 1:25 mark.

You can read more about the project and my dad’s work on the BBC website.

BBC followed up with Angeline; she talks about the experience of hearing her father’s voice here.

Brendan Adams, with his uncle Richard Hayward, founders of the Ulster Dialect Survey


Folk and Tradition

With the world seemingly on fire, we decided to take ourselves away from the news pages and start transcribing these notes that had been in a poly pocket for a while. We thought that they’d make good underpinnings for an article, but when going through them it another thought struck us: we could use the devastated, haunted world it described as the one that Kaila and Sebastien, and possibly Ymke, travel through in one more adventure, the idea for which we had last week. 

When my father, Brendan, died suddenly in 1981, he left behind a vast array of material, from notes to full-fledged research papers. The Folk Museum and the National Archive took what they could make use of. The rest, Rem and I gradually explored over the past decade. The papers had sat in boxes in the attic of my childhood home for years. I was born two days after his death, so you can understand my mother having better things to do than trawl through it. As it was, Rem and I kept thinking we’d found it all, and then suddenly another box would turn up.

To say it’s odd to be born after a parent dies is an understatement – though it can’t be uncommon in a society like ours, where so many people have died suddenly in far more traumatic ways. You make everything up as you go along, including your relationship with their memory.

If you know The Time Traveller’s Wife, think of the scene when Henry travels forward in time, to be greeted by his stricken daughter, still a child. He realises that he’s intruded on a part of the future where he doesn’t exist, and it’s much sooner than he would’ve guessed. Something about that scene has always resonated intensely with me. The weirdness is heightened by the fact my dad became a father late in more senses than one: he was born in 1917, I in 1981. So exploring family history is also, immediately, just… history.

Some years ago my dad’s uncle, the actor, writer and all-round ambassador of Irish culture Richard Hayward, was honoured with a biography and a symposium. Richard Hayward in his time was a much-loved and much-seen figure, while my dad, in contrast, did most of his work in relative anonymity. I used to think I needed to do something about all this: a biography. And then my health got worse and I realised I couldn’t subsume my own life in his. And yet… bits of his work, his life, work their way into my fiction more and more. Maybe that’s its own solution.