Book Review: Ireland and the Czech Lands

Growing up in Waterford city on the same street as the Kilbarry site of Waterford Crystal’s factory and visitors centre, I was only ever vaguely aware of the names of Karel Bacik and Miroslav Havel, the two men who were granted permission by Ireland’s Industrial Development Agency (IDA) to begin again the business of glassmaking and glassblowing in Waterford after both men’s livelihoods were taken from them following the Communist liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1948.

Only since my partner has moved to Prague have I become more alive to the connections between Ireland and the Czech lands. Indeed the connections with Waterford stretch much further back than either Havel or Bacik. Peter Wadding, lesser known first cousin of Luke Wadding, was for a time chancellor of the famed Charles University in Prague at the height of the Thirty Years War. Equally interesting, a new work reappraising Canon Sheehan reveals that some of his works were translated in the early twentieth century into Czech. In a recent Dublin Review of Books essay, co-editor Maurice Earls writes of how our thousands of first world war dead ‘… are our ticket to global respectability. Let us honour them in a digital archive and the bigger it is the more respectable we are, so let the digging begin and let’s support the work with a bursary. Then the world will know the real Ireland was engaged with the “big show” and that the 1916 business was merely one part of our history’s rich tapestry.’ But he also suggests that perhaps in Ireland we might move beyond such seemingly tired and circular debates if we set about

comparing our experiences with those of central European countries [it] could assist in convincing society of the deep relevance and centrality of the revolutionary era by moving the focus from Ireland as an unusual or isolated case to one which presents the Irish experience as part of the general assertion of European peoples against undemocratic, claustrophobic and authoritarian empires which blocked subject peoples from achieving their economic and cultural potential and which stood against the possibility of modern freedoms for those peoples. An interpretation along these lines, which emphasises the international, might conceivably take root as it has the merit of accuracy and is fully compatible with substantial cultural and economic development.

Earls’ essay offers us the Czech lands as a potential point of comparison. He’ll be glad to know then of the recent publication of a book which begins to do just that. Ondrej Pilny and Gerald Power have edited a collection published by Peter Lang entitled Ireland and the Czech Lands: Contacts and Comparisons in History and Culture. across a wide variety of essays, on topics ranging broadly across multiple centuries and disciplines – from the settlement of Irish elite families in Bohemia and the fate of Irish Franciscans after their college in Prague closed at the end of the eighteenth century; from the perception of Czechoslovakia’s ‘Ulster Question’ by Ireland’s catholic intelligentsia in the interwar period to the adoption of Sokol gymnastics by the Irish army in the same era – we are treated to an array of points of contacts and comparisons between both places. As well as these historical contacts and comparisons there are those cultural exchanges of the written word from the influence Miroslav Holub exercised over Seamus Heaney, the performance of Irish plays on the Czech stage in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and the reception of Irish writing since the beginning of the Czech revival to the present day.

In a book with such broad ranging treatments of such apparently disparate topics it might be expected that it’s centre could not hold. Yet the book is structured in such a way as to ensure a degree of continuity across the range of topics often difficult to achieve in such edited collections. Thus excluding the introductory chapter one can see the other nine chapters in conversation with those next to, in front of and behind them in a relatively seamless fashion. Thus Gerald Power’s contribution on the integration of Aristocratic Irish families in the Czech lands has a suitable counterpoint in Jiri Brnovjak’s work on the dissolution of the Prague College of Irish Franciscans in 1786. Likewise Martina Power’s treatment of Bohemian-Irish analogies in both German and British travel writing is extended beyond her essays period end-point of the mid-nineteenth century by Lili Zach’s contribution which considers how the Irish Catholic intelligentsia of the interwar period viewed the developing situation in the First Czechoslovak Republic in the aftermath of the Paris Peace Conference, where some of those writing in the likes of Studies were reporting back from travels to the new nation as Ireland negotiated its own new-found independence. The conception of a Central European nation with its own variation on the ‘Ulster Question’ and the potential lessons to be learned by Irish nationaliss from the Czech example is extended in Daniel Samek’s intriguing essay on the adoption of Sokol gymnastic techniques by the Irish army in the 1930s. Samek rightly acknowledges that part of Sokol’s limited reach in Irish sporting culture beyond the Irish army was precisely the pre-eminence of the Gaelic Athletic Association in fulfilling a role similar to that performed by Sokol in the Czech lands. The potential similarities in the other spheres of cultural revival which both countries shared as part of the greater rise of the nation from the nineteenth century follows in Bohuslav Manek’s essay on the reception of Irish poetry and prose, Justin Quinn’s essay on Holub and Heaney and finally in Ondrej Pilny’s examination of Irish drama in the Czech lands.

In their introduction, the editors Gerald Power and Ondrej Pilny write that it is best to see this book as a series of maps. Given the famous addition of a coast to Bohemia by Shakespeare, a turn since used by Derek Sayer As the title of his Czech history and recently the title of Maurice Earls’ Dublin Review of Books essay the set of maps presented to us here by Murphy and Pilny can offer us much more than just a sketch of the coast of that “faraway place” but allows us to explore its interior, an interior which as this book demonstrates, had a good deal more people from Ireland in its pages, on its stages, in its cultural and political spaces whom we might recognise than “people of whom we know nothing”.

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