The Four Proud Unpronounceables of Ireland – Frank McNally on Britain’s struggles with Aoife, Niamh, Saoirse, and Siobhán

Anglo-Irish cultural misunderstandings

According to the London Times, quoting a survey of Google searches last year, the following paragraph includes what are now the “ten hardest words” for most British people to say: “Aoife and Siobhan both had omicron when they went to Kyiv but it didn’t stop their busy schedule – they had to meet Niamh and Saoirse, eat a meal of gyros and acai and attend a seminar about the Nguyen dynasty.”

Luckily for our neighbouring island, the trip described in the sentence is unlikely to occur in real life. Even so, it seems extraordinary that amid foreign foods, viral mutations, and Vietnamese history, 40 per cent of the allegedly unpronounceable terms are from Ireland, via female first names.

The Four Horsewomen of this phonetic Apocalypse include at least one mythical warrior goddess. But Irish history’s best-known Aoife, probably, was the one who unwittingly caused the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169.

Perhaps her modern namesakes are now leading a revenge mission. In invading the consciousness of our neighbours and forcing them to consult pronunciation guides, Aoife and her fellow fifth columnists may belatedly be introducing England to the basics of Irish, which had somehow escaped it during eight centuries of colonial rule.



Mind you, I still struggle with the mysteries of English spelling and phonetics occasionally. Only this week, for example, I have been reading Graham Greene’s classic Travels With My Aunt. Which is very entertaining, if marred slightly by the author’s insistence on rendering the speech of the Aunt’s African lover, “Wordsworth”, in what is supposed to be a Sierra Leone accent.

The keynote to this is that he always says “Ar” instead of “I”. Examples include the sentence: “Ar jes want to see what you have there”. Or, when offering to procure a Parisian prostitute for the sexually repressed narrator: “Ar find you lovely gel.”

To my ears, the constant “Ar”s made him sound like a pirate, or a native of from Somerset. Then I remembered that in Greene’s home-counties-English ears, “Ar” makes the sound that in most of the English-speaking world would be written as “Ah”.

This wasn’t as big an epiphany as first realising that AA Milne’s Eeyore was so named because that’s what Milne, a Londoner, heard whenever a donkey said “Heehaw”. But it was an important breakthrough.

Southern England’s strange relationship with the letter “R” – pronouncing it when it doesn’t occur, often, and not pronouncing it when it does – can be a mystery for the rest of us. It also makes some of their female names challenging. I’m thinking especially of that famous policewoman who’s always being mentioned in connection with crime statistics. Laura Nawda, I think you spell it, although I probably have that wrong.


You knew the story about Aoife, Niamh, Siobhan, and Saoirse being out on the town in Kyiv hadn’t really happened because there was no mention of drinking. And if anyone accuses me of perpetuating a national stereotype here, I blame Kate Moss and the other Anglo-Irish cultural misunderstanding of the week.

Apparently the supermodel’s nickname is “wagon”, which on a Tik-Tok video for Vogue magazine she tried to explained as follows:

“We were in Ireland. And we got a little bit tipsy at a wedding. And I think in Irish, ‘wagon’ is drunk. So basically we were all wagons, because during that time we were all doing shows, drinking a lot of champagne, and calling each other wagon.”

As I’m sure Kate now knows, from thousands of social media tutorials, that’s not quite the correct etymology. But she deserves credit for at least trying to learn Irish. And after all, there is a plausible connection between drinking and wagons, especially in mid-January, if only because of the numbers of people now falling off said vehicles.


Kyiv’s inclusion in the Ten Hardest Words list is credited indirectly to the Russian invasion, since which western reporters have been using the locally preferred form of the name, rather than the “Kiev” of old.

Now, the London Times explains, the city should be pronounced “Keev”. Then again, it also suggests Niamh should be “Neev”, which is at least half a syllable short of the sound most Irish people make.

Still, the so-named women and the Ukrainian capital may be of mutual benefit in their fight to be better understood in England. And Niamhs also enjoy the advantage of having an Irish naval vessel named after them, one of two on the hard-to-pronounce list with that distinction.

The second ship is LÉ Aoife, which over the years must have enlightened many in the British navy about how to say the name. But that has since abandoned its educational crusade in Irish waters in favour of even more important humanitarian work elsewhere. Decommissioned in 2015, it was donated to Malta, to help with the Mediterranean refugee crisis.