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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s