I had the extremely disconcerting experience recently of sitting through an academic conference in Prague that was being conducted in two languages I don’t speak – Czech and Irish. Most of the people on the podium in the magnificent surroundings of the Strahof Monastery were Czech, and to my astonishment, seemed to speak fluent Irish, as they read and discussed translations from some of Ireland’s leading Irish-language writers.
Czech interest in Irish is not difficult to explain. Both are small countries who have been dominated by larger neighbours, both are countries where the native language almost died out. In the 17th century the Catholic Hapsburgs took control of Bohemia, driving out the Protestant elite, and imposing the German language on the Czech people. Like Ireland, the native language was kept alive mainly by peasants. Then came the long struggle for independence, and in the 19th century, the national revival. The first independent Czech republic was eventually founded in 1918, just a few years before our own. And in the Sudeten Germans, the country also had a large minority whose loyalties lay outside the state. But there is one crucial difference in our stories, inadvertently highlighted by the Czech-Irish academic conference: the Czech language revival succeeded, whereas ours did not, or only partially.
The ramifications of an Irish-speaking Ireland are almost impossible to imagine. In one area, at least, that of literature, this would have created an interesting situation
Inevitably, though, as I sat through proceedings my thoughts began to wander, and an idea occurred to me: what if Ireland had gone the way of Czechoslovakia after independence, and the language revival had indeed succeeded? What if Irish had really become the first language of the people of Ireland, with English relegated to a second language to be learned in school? The first generation would have been complicated, as it was in Czechoslovakia from 1918 to 1939, where Czech/Slovak became the official first language , but where there were very large minorities of German, Yiddish and Hungarian speakers. In some regions they were allowed to be educated in their own language. Would Rathmines and Rathgar have been allowed to continue speaking their own language? But for the next generations, Irish would have been the natural mother tongue. It surprises me that no Irish writer – in either language – has seized on this premise for a utopian/dystopian novel. The ramifications of an Irish-speaking Ireland are almost impossible to imagine. In one area, at least, that of literature, this would have created an interesting situation.
Prague, like Dublin, was a capital city where for many the language was the language of the imperial crown – that is, German. Prague produced many great German writers, but after independence, how are these writers regarded? Kafka is such an established brand, and so synonymous with Prague that he is an exception. Interestingly, Kafka could speak and write Czech, though of course he chose to write his books in German. A more typical case is Rainer Maria Rilke, often considered the greatest German poet of the last century. He was born in Prague, to an old Prague family, and lived there until he was 20. He seems to have loathed the place, but Rilke spent as much of his youth in Prague as Joyce did in Dublin. And yet, you will find few references to him in Prague now, and he is certainly not regarded as a Czech writer. So, in a modern day Ireland where Irish writers in the English language would be seen as an unfortunate blip in a living literature 2,000 years old, where would Joyce fit in? It could be argued of course that though he wrote in English, Joyce was "ethnically" Irish, and that his ancestors possibly spoke Irish. But Yeats is an even more difficult case, as his family were not even Anglo-Irish but partly of English merchant class stock. Probably, they would all, along with Wilde, Synge, Beckett and the rest, have been classed as British writers with an interesting connection to a colonial Ireland, which thankfully, no longer exists.
Out on the edge of Europe we are far from the hodgepodge of languages in middle and eastern Europe, an area which in the 20th century turned into a slaughterhouse
Why did the language revival not succeed? I have over the years been given many answers to this by Irish speakers. Economics are obviously a factor, as emigration to English-speaking countries has turned out to be a permanent factor in the viability of the Irish State. Nor did Ireland, unlike the Czechs, have a large, self-confident and very wealthy middle class, who championed the language. I suspect that another reason, more difficult to define, is that out on the edge of Europe we are far from the hodgepodge of languages and identities to be found in middle and eastern Europe, an area which in the 20th century turned into a slaughterhouse. The second World War, the Holocaust and postwar Soviet rule certainly simplified matters for the modern, monolingual nation states of that region. Somehow, people in Ireland, despite the urgings of Pádraig Pearse and others, have stubbornly refrained from seeing language, in this case, the Irish language, as the one true sign of national identity. The title of the academic conference here in Prague was "ar an imeall i lár an domhain" – on the edge in the centre of the world. It may well be that by being out on the edge, we are way ahead of the centre.
Michael O’Loughlin is writer in residence for Prague Unesco City of Literature