Why do actors struggle with the Northern Irish accent?

By Jayne McCormack

  • Published

The Northern Irish accent is notoriously hard to mimic, and actors Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney are the latest big screen stars to test their mimicking mettle in The Journey.

The biopic about the relationship between politicians Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness premiered at the Venice Film Festival this month.

London-born Spall and Dubliner Meaney join an acclaimed cast of actors who have tried to perfect Northern Irish pronunciation - with mixed success.

BBC News NI trawled through the cinematographic archives to bring you five memorable attempts:

5. Natascha McElhone - Ronin (1998)

Image source, PA
Image caption,
Natascha McElhone's attempt at a Northern Irish accent didn't hit the mark

The English actress took on the role of Belfast IRA operative, Deirdre, who is part of a team of hired mercenaries in Paris trying to steal a mysterious and heavily guarded briefcase.

Unfortunately for McElhone, her accent kept flip-flopping from a heavily southern Irish dialect to the actress's own dulcet tones.

But she wasn't alone at messing up the accent.

4. Sean Bean - Patriot Games (1992)

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Sean Bean's Belfast accent came up short in Patriot Games

Sean Bean's version of the Northern Irish accent dominated Patriot Games - in a bad way.

The movie also stars Harrison Ford, who plays retired CIA analyst Jack Ryan. His family witnesses a terrorist attack on the Northern Ireland secretary of state.

Who's responsible for the attack? Sean Bean, of course, doing his best (or worst) Belfast accent as a member of the Provisional IRA.

There are several other Northern Irish accent attempts by other actors in the film that would make viewers cringe, but Bean's was just the one that stood out the most.

3. Brad Pitt - The Devil's Own (1997)

Image source, AP
Image caption,
American actor Brad Pitt struggled with the Northern Irish accent

Now of course, it wouldn't be fair to lay all the focus on actors who can't seem to grasp the way Northern Irish people speak. Many English and Irish actors have failed at doing American accents over the course of film history.

But for veteran US actor Brad Pitt, who has managed various accents throughout his career, it seems the Belfast brogue was just too much to master.

He played Belfast IRA man Francis "Frankie" McGuire, who leaves Northern Ireland for the United States and ends up exchanging gunfire with (guess who?) Harrison Ford.

Natascha McElhone also makes an appearance in the movie... maybe she decided to star in Ronin the following year to have her own go at the accent.

2. Richard Gere - The Jackal (1997)

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Richard Gere couldn't get to grips with the Belfast brogue either

Acclaimed American actor Richard Gere certainly didn't have the worst Northern Irish accent ever heard on film, but the veteran star didn't exactly do a great job either.

He plays Declan Mulqueen, a former IRA sniper (are you seeing a pattern here?) who the FBI turn to for help to identify an assassin known as the Jackal.

If only Gere had turned to someone for help with his accent.

1. Tommy Lee Jones - Blown Away (1994)

Image source, Getty Images
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Tommy Lee Jones plays a convicted IRA terrorist in Blown Away, but it's his accent that drew the most talk about the movie

We've saved the best for last - sorry, Tommy Lee Jones. While he's renowned for his role as one of the Men In Black, his performance in Blown Away only lives on because of his poor Belfast accent attempt.

The American actor plays a convicted Northern Irish terrorist, Ryan Gaerity, who escapes from prison and heads to the United States to seek revenge on his old friend and former IRA member, Liam McGivney, now living as a bomb squad officer in Boston.

Both he and Jeff Bridges, who plays McGivney, fail to master the Northern Irish twang.

From the stereotypically Irish names, to the Irish dancing scenes, it is worth a watch even just for a chuckle.

'Only the really gifted actor can be expected to master it'

Professor Clive Upton, linguistics expert at Leeds University

Northern Irish accents have two major historical influences acting on them that make them unique from those of the Republic of Ireland or elsewhere.

These are from Scotland and from the English North and Midlands. This means that anyone trying to sound as if they are from Ulster needs first to move away from sounding generally "Irish", adopting some distinctly home-grown features instead.

They have to wrestle with a complication in whether vowels are pronounced "long" or "short": for example, vowel sounds tend to be drawn out before "v", "th", and "z" sounds, but to be short when they precede the sounds "p", "t", and "k".

All this means that an actor cannot get away with simply sounding "Irish" if they need realistically to represent Northern Irish speech.

They need a good voice coach who can alert them to a raft of features that are the product of complicated social and political forces acting over a long period, that have regional and social variations and that are constantly changing.

It can be done and it can be done without studying the huge volume of technical literature which experts have produced to describe the subtleties.

But only the really gifted actor, advised by an equally gifted tutor, can be expected to master it.

It seems the Northern Irish lilt is not just tough to master, it's also not very popular.

In 2005, a survey of accents for the BBC found that the most unpleasant voice was that of the former DUP leader, Ian Paisley.

However, it wasn't all bad news. The BBC Voices survey said people from Northern Ireland were also the "most proud" of their accents.

Maybe that's because they're the only ones who can do them properly.