“No hearts in Europe more rejoiced than Irish hearts that Bohemia was a republic”: Irish reactions to Czech Independence

Today marks the 97th anniversary of the declaration of independence and the establishment of the First Czechoslovak Republic. This declaration, and the formation of this new state took place just weeks before the general election in Britain and Ireland that saw the Irish Parliamentary Party become a spent force, and Sinn Féin securing a mandate winning almost all seats. Not surprisingly then, the developments in the former Habsburg Empire, the creation of this new sovereign state and the acceptance of this by world powers did not go unnoticed in the Irish press. Nor did it go unnoticed by some who were running as candidates.

This last point is best proved by this leaflet from one general election candidate in Waterford in 1918:

Source: Waterford History Group Facebook page.
Source: Waterford History Group Facebook page.

While there is a touch of hysteria about this poster, the wider implication isn’t totally wide of the mark. In her examination of the various permutations of Czechoslovakia, Mary Heimann notes that:

At the beginning of the First World War, the notion that the Czechs and Slovaks might one day live in their own sovereign state, seperated from other countries by international borders, had not been seriously contemplated by anyone. Nevertheless, a new republic, named for the Czech and Slovak peoples… was about to take its place at the centre of a freshly redrawn map of Europe. [1]

In Ireland the press reaction was similar to that of Dr. White and his leaflet. One anonymous letter writer, “Asquinas” – combining Asquith and Aquinas – wondered in the Irish Independent whether or not that since, among many other things:

No religious differences divide Bohemia from Austria, to the Crown of which it voluntarily united itself by intermarriage of the Sovereigns. Far be it from me to suggest that such considerations should retard the national revival of the Czechs. Yet I bring them forward to prove that whether from the standpoint of geography, race, religion, economics or politics, Ireland has a prior claim to independence. [2]

Irish Times, 18 October 1918.
Irish Times, 18 October 1918.

According to the Irish Times in the lead up to Czech independence there was even a suggestion that the Duke of Connaught might become a new king of Bohemia. [3] The Irish Times, a strong unionist paper, only matter of factly reported on the recognition of the Czech council as a ministry, with Benes as Minister for Foreign Affairs and future Czechoslovak President, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk as Finance Minister. The paper, however, when reporting on the launch of a pro-Sinn Féin campaign in Mayo by a Rev. M O’Flanagan, recorded how, during his speech to the crowd, O’Flanagan apparently remarked that:

Poland and Finland and the Ukraine were today free from the subjugation of the Russian yolk,and the man who five years ago who would venture to predict that would be told that he was rainbow chasing, like Sinn Féiners. In Austria the Bohemians and the Czechs were also free, and there were no hearts in Europe more rejoiced than Irish hearts that Bohemia was a republic, for they all know the successful movement which she started for the revival and spread of her language. [4]

A sense of shared national struggle is palpable in these words and contrast quite strongly with Dr. White’s sense that no one knows who these people are. The reality is evident that politically clued in Irish people were well aware of the differing positions of the Irish and the Czecho-Slovaks. The last word perhaps should belong to Bulmer Hobson, who noted in his Bureau of Military History witness statement:

[Roger Casement] wanted to get Irish Freedom out of the quarrels of the European powers. Of the Czech leaders Masaryk came to London and Benes to Paris with exactly the same intent for their own country. They wanted to take Czecho Slovakia. out of the Austrian Empire. In London Casement was denounced as a traitor and Masaryk was hailed as a great patriot. Doubtless in Vienna the position was exactly reversed.

Casement got an undertaking from the German Government that if the course of the war enabled them to do so they would help to establish an independent Ireland. Masaryk got the same promise in London. Masaryk appealed to the victors, Casement to the vanquished. That was the precise difference between them. Masaryk became the first president of Czecho Slovakia, Casement was hanged in Pentonville. [5]


[1] Heimann, Mary, Czechoslovakia: The State that Failed, New Haven: Yale 2011, p.48.

[2] Irish Independent, 22 October 1918.

[3] Irish Times, 18 October 1918.

[4] Irish Times, 16 November 1918.

[5] Bulmer Hobson, Bureau of Military History Witness Statements, WF Ref # 1365. pp. 6-7.

The Gentleman Amateur and the Independent Scholar

No, that’s the not the start of a bad joke. As a historian who has spent the majority of my time researching sport, the notion of the gentleman amateur as the only kind of amateur there was in the sporting past has been a kind of ever-present. Thanks in part to the focus in a lot of the historiography on the role of public school’s in ‘inventing’ modern sporting practice – especially the work of James Mangan – the idea of the gentleman amateur as the only amateur is quite strong in people’s minds.

However, as sport spread its wings and many working-class, lower middle-class and plain middle-class amateurs began emerging in the hundreds and thousands of sports clubs that sprang up in the late nineteenth and early twentieth, the notion of the gentleman amateur as a distinct construct became even more important to reinforce. Or, as Duncan Stone has put it “while the aristocratic concept of the gentleman had social status inbuilt, amateurism – in the face of increasingly egalitarian social developments within and outside of sport – had to be constantly adapted in order to maintain the social status and distance between those calling themselves an amateur or professional.” [1]

Similarly, the idea of the amateur enthusiast in scholarly fields has been with us since the Enlightenment more or less. Today, we refer to people who produce academic material, but who are not affiliated to any University, nor have the benefits of same, as Independent Scholars. This is the category in which I have found myself since earlier this summer. But what does it mean? And what can we learn from the way the idea of the gentleman amateur was used in sporting circles to signify social stratification that tells us something useful about how the term Independent Scholar is used in the era of increasing academic precarity?

In her reflection on what it means to be an Independent Scholar, Kimm Curran notes that

From speaking to other colleagues who have made decisions not to go into academic positions (or are still struggling to find one), the failure factor weighs heavy on their mind. I am constantly reminded that the measure of success after the PhD is the coveted academic position. What about dedication to the discipline, teaching, supporting colleagues, advocacy and being part of the wider developments in your field and encouraging networks (research and otherwise)?

Kristina Busse, meanwhile writes that:

staying an independent scholar is actually quite hard: it requires the continuing desire to do research without the non-monetary but nevertheless quite real remunerations university positions afford. Depending on one’s institution, research constitutes different percentages of the expected workload, but most places encourage (if not demand) research and publication as part of the job description—and therefore as part of what’s done in exchange for a paycheck. As an independent scholar, however, research and publishing serves no quantifiable purpose. In a way, it’s love for learning and passion for knowledge in its purest form—or at least that idea is how I sometimes comfort myself.

In reality, though, it means that for the independent scholar, research is not and can never be part of one’s paid labor. It usually doesn’t feed into upper class teaching, as the general wisdom for the necessity of research at the university level goes. It doesn’t create lines on a vita necessary for tenure and promotion. And it doesn’t justify time spent away from one’s real jobs—be they family responsibilities, adjunct teaching, or some other way to keep yourself fed, housed, and comfortable. Being an independent scholar means that research and academic writing must be redefined as pleasure: I research instead of watching TV or reading a book; I write instead of meeting with friends or going shopping; I edit and do professional activities at the cost of my family time.

Both of these are worth quoting so extensively because they get to the heart of the matter. Being an Independent Scholar means having to rely on open-access, or still having people with institutional affiliation to loan you access codes. Of course, you could pack it all in. But why should you? But what about the wider idea of the Independent Scholar? What sort of figure do we imagine when we conjure them in our mind? For me, it is difficult not to think of some academic equivalent of the gentleman amateur of the late nineteenth century.

The idea of being Independent doesn’t naturally suggest to me being independent of the potential limitations that working in a university would entail, but being sufficiently independently wealthy of the pay an academic post would give you, to continue pursuing your research interests. Scholar too, has an old world feel to it. A pleasant word, but the construct ‘Independent Scholar’ has many negative connotations, as one myth-busting article proves.

I suspect – but would welcome someone who could furnish me with the figures – that many Independent Scholars these days are those who, in the face of less academic posts being available, or the rise of short-term contracts and little job security, must choose to be pragmatic about their ability to earn and live, as the two articles quoted above testify to. However, I am also sure that many Independent Scholars are retired people who have come to academia later in life, who explore it now as a passion and can look at that designation without the same sense of unease that young, early career researchers might. They can, and should justly be proud of it.

The designation Independent Scholar then is perhaps about as useful as the Gentleman Amateur. There are many types of Independent Scholar, but all are to some degree dependent on something: In my case, the generosity of friends to help me access articles via open access or other routes. Or, those for whom an academic career is not on the horizon, nor an ambition, they depend on their broader circumstances to enable them to conduct their research. There are many kinds of amateurism, and there are many kinds of independent scholars. Perhaps this is something we need to reflect on more.


[1] Duncan Stone, “Deconstructing the Gentleman Amateur”, accessed online https://www.academia.edu/745795/Deconstructing_the_Gentleman_Amateur

The Irish in Prague: The MacNeven family

William James MacNeven.
William James MacNeven.

The connections between Ireland, Prague, and wider Bohemia are legion. This has been brought home to me thanks in large part to two publications: The Irish Franciscans in Prague, 1629-1786 by Jan Parez and Hedvika Kucharová, published earlier this year for the first time in English and Ireland and the Czech Lands: Contacts and Comparisons in History and Culture, edited by Ondrej Pilny and Gerald Power, and published last year (I reviewed it on the blog a while ago here).

Earlier today, while enjoying a coffee at Barriqáda wine shop and café on Moskevska, I was reading the latest issue of History Ireland. In it there was a short piece on William James MacNeven, one of the leaders of the United Irishmen in 1798. It appears MacNeven’s family was one of those which had gone to Bohemia, to the Habsburgs, as a means of surviving in a Catholic milieu following the introduction of the Penal Laws in Ireland. So, we learn that young MacNeven, in the words of George R Ingham

was sent to live with his uncle, who, as one of Maria Theresa’s personal physicians and head of the medical school of Charles University, had been made a baron, living in a baroque palace and summering in a castle… It was there [in Prague] that the young MacNeven gained the easy sophistication that he would demonstrate in America, where his many élite friends included Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte. (History Ireland, September/October 2015, p.17)

William James MacNeven, according to the Dictionary of Irish Biography entry on him written by CJ Woods, “attended classical and medical colleges in Prague (admitted to study medicine 15 January 1781) and went on to complete his medical studies and qualify in Vienna (2 June 1785).” His time there in the company of his uncle, in Woods’ words, saw young William James drawn into a scientific circle to which his uncle belonged. His uncle was William Hugh MacNevin-O’Kelly, who lived from 1713-1787. MacNevin-O’Kelly “who owned a very fine house in Prague and a castle at Srutsch (Zruc)” was a significant figure in the history of the medical faculty of Charles University in Prague. An Imperial court physician to Maria Theresa, the entry on MacNevin-O’Kelly also written by CJ Woods’ in the DIB, is worth quoting at some length:

{MacNevin-O’Kelly] was appointed director of the medical faculty at Prague with authority above even the dean’s (16 November 1754), which enabled him to introduce innovations, in particular obstetrics, bedside clinical teaching, regular practical dissections, a chemistry laboratory and a botanical garden; he was promoted to full professor (1754) and began lecturing in pathology (1755). MacNevin-O’Kelly continued the practice of facilitating Irishmen wishing to study medicine at Prague.

His influence on his students was important: Jacob O’Reilly became an expert on Bohemian spas; Peter MacKeogh played a part in the development of the Prague botanic garden; Johannes Mayer founded the Bohemian Academy of Sciences. MacNevin-O’Kelly had a large medical practice among wealthy Prague families and his house was frequented by high society. On his father-in-law’s death (4 November 1767), he inherited his castle and estate at Srutsch (Zruc), about 100 km south-east of Prague, and a few days later was raised to the rank of liber baron of the empire (17 November). In 1770 he had the architect Johann Ignaz Palliardi design a magnificent baroque mansion for him in Prague, later known as Palacky’s House because of its associations with the nineteenth-century Czech historian and nationalist. Having retired from Charles University in 1784, he died in Prague on 9 February 1787.

The MacNeven/MacNevin family were not unusual in their choice of Prague and the Habsburg Court as a destination, even if, the Irish contigent “comprised an almost negligible percentage in the Estates community of the Czech Lands” according Jiri Brnovják [1]. Negligible numerically, perhaps, but it is evident that the MacNeven/MacNevin family had a not insignificant role in the life of Bohemia through their association with the court and Charles University.


[1] Brnovják, Jiri, “The Integration of Irish Aristorcratic Émigré Families in the Czech Lands, c.1650-1945: Selected Case Studies”, in Pilny and Power (eds.), Ireland and the Czech Lands: Contacts and Comparisons in History and Culture, Oxford: Peter Lang, 2014, pp.55-85.