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The curious case of the Latvian prime minister’s Irish accent

Brogues to be found in unexpected places as Hiberno-English on the rise since the departure of Britain from the EU

On his entry to Prague Castle to join a summit of European Union leaders, Latvian prime minister Krisjanis Karins was accosted by the bank of waiting journalists.

“What do you think about the price cap?” one reporter asked him, looking for a comment on the issue of the day.

In an unmistakably Irish accent, Karins replied: “A price cap on gas, if that could be achieved, would be grand.”

I shared a clip of the incident on social media and it quickly took off. “If you close your eyes, he could be a school principal in Tipperary,” one user marvelled.


“His father Weeshie Karins hurled for Piarsaigh’s,” another joked. “He’s obviously from the Kenmare Karins. I knew his father.”

I experimented, playing the clip for friends without letting them see who it was. “That’s an Irish politician,” one insisted. “He sounds like a local councillor.”

Latvian media picked up the story. “One of us!” read the headline in news website, reporting the “excitement” as Irish people “heard a strong Irish accent” in the prime minister’s words. He had used the “common Irish slang” of “grand”, the article explained.

The phenomenon is not confined to Latvia’s head of government. I recently met a Brussels-based Swedish journalist who sounded like a native of Westmeath. I asked her if she was married to an Irish person or had lived in the country. “No, sure I just have loads of Irish friends, like,” she demurred.

I was determined to get to the bottom of the Latvian leader’s brogue.

Young Krisjanis was actually born in Wilmington, Delaware, where his parents had moved during Soviet times. He spent summers in the old country, moving back permanently in 1997.

The first clue to his possible sensitivity to accents is that he studied linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, gaining a PhD for a thesis on the rhythm and intonation of the Latvian language.

I made it my mission to ask him about this issue of vital importance in person.

As the European leaders gathered once again in Brussels last week, I waited for Karins at the spot where the arriving leaders take a few questions from journalists, if the mood takes them, in front of a row of national flags.

A media scrum formed on Mr Karins’s appearance. “Do you have understanding of the position of Germany and the Netherlands?” one journalist roared at him. “Do you understand the concerns of Poland holding up funds to Ukraine?”

“Is granting Bosnia EU candidate status a way of stopping Russian influence there?” another demanded to know.

I raised my voice above the din. “You have a slight Irish accent, could you explain why that might be?” I cried.

For a moment the Latvian prime minister seemed a little thrown. “Your guess is as good as mine,” he told me.

I persisted. “Do you have any Irish friends, have you visited Ireland at all?”

“I have visited Ireland,” he replied, still evidently puzzled. I asked him about the broader ties of Ireland and the Baltic States.

“Certainly Latvia-Irish relations are wonderful,” he said, getting into his groove. “We have a large expat community of Latvians living in Ireland. We have wonderful political relations. Um, if that has had some inadvertent effect on my English,” he laughed, “well, so be it. Good.”

But according to one Brussels insider, it isn’t just an Irish accent that Karins has picked up – but a Kerry one.

Because both their surnames begin with K, for 10 years as an MEP in the European Parliament Karins sat beside Seán Kelly, the Ireland South MEP.

“We had great chats. He’s a good character, a good friend, actually,” Kelly told me.

“Occasionally there’d be a function on that we’d be supposed to attend. We’d say to each other: we’ll skip the speeches now, we’ll go for a little drink ourselves, and then we’ll go and join them for the dinner.”

Karins visited Kelly’s native Killarney at one point and the two walked the Gap of Dunloe. “I can understand why he has a bit of a, hopefully a Kerry accent, and some of the colloquialisms.”

It’s all mounting evidence for the increasing dominance of Hiberno-English in the EU, now that the Brits have departed.

And Kelly’s work is not done yet. Just last week, he says, an Austrian MEP asked him to explain what he meant by calling someone “a bollocks”.

“She said, what’s that?” Kelly said, creasing with laughter. “Now she’s using it.”