Imagine the ramifications had Irish become our first language

The Czech language revival succeeded whereas ours did not – why?

The statue of James Joyce off O’Connell Street. 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? Photograph: Cyril Byrne

The statue of James Joyce off O’Connell Street. 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? Photograph: Cyril Byrne

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.

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