Julius Pokorny, 1887–1970
Germans, Celts and nationalism
Pól Ó Dochartaigh
Julius Pokorny (1887–1970) was the foremost Celtic scholar of his generation on the European mainland. Born in Prague, he studied at Vienna University, and learned Irish in Mayo and Kerry. A German nationalist, from 1908 he also became a propagandist for both the Gaelic League and the Irish nationalist cause. In 1920 he succeeded Kuno Meyer as professor of Celtic Philology in Berlin. Douglas Hyde, Eoin MacNeill, Myles Dillon and Liam S. Gogan were counted among his friends in Ireland; Osborn Bergin and T.F. O'Rahilly were among his contemporaries in Celtic scholarship. He translated Pearse, Ó Conaire and An Seabhac into German, and he is mentioned by name in poetry by Bergin and Flann O'Brien. He is also mentioned in Joyce's Ulysses, in which the belief that the ancient Celts had no concept of hell is attributed to him.
In 1935, Pokorny lost his Berlin professorship because the Nazis discovered that, though he was a Catholic, his grandparents had all been Jewish. He led an uncertain existence in Berlin until he fled to Switzerland in 1943. The Swiss admitted him because he possessed an Irish visa, issued in 1940 in Berlin on the instructions of de Valera at the instigation of Hyde. From then he taught Celtic at Zurich and Berne Universities and, after 1955, was Honorary Professor of Celtic at Munich University.
This book examines the main issues surrounding Pokorny's life, including assimilationist Jewry in fin-de-siecle Austria, German involvement in Celtic scholarship and Irish nationalism, mythology in Joyce's Ulysses, Nazi anti-Semitism vis-a-vis Jewish German nationalists, Irish and Swiss attitudes to refugees, and the value of Pokorny's scholarship. It is a tight but comprehensive study based largely on original documents and correspondence discovered by the author in Austria and Switzerland, as well as material from national archives in Vienna, Berlin, Berne and Dublin.
Pól Ó Dochartaigh studied in Cardiff, Kiel and Nottingham. A senior lecturer in German at Ulster University, he is the author of The portrayal of Jews in GDR prose fiction (1997) and the editor of Jews in German literature since 1945 (2000).