Waterford United?

We’ve been here before. It seems, increasingly, we are here much too often. With chairman John O’Sullivan standing down, and with it, his deep pockets, Waterford United football club is in dire financial straits and facing an uncertain future once more. No one can deny the great job, and the great effort, made by O’Sullivan over his 10-year chairmanship of the club. It has been a difficult decade for Waterford United, and there have been many, many occasions on which it seemed the club was going to fold.

Here’s a short history lesson though, one that gives me hope, and shows that if nothing else, Waterford United has been a resistant club in almost 90 years of existence. The club began life as a local side called in Waterford Celtic in the middle of the 1920s, but as it became evident the club was outgrowing first the local competition and then the competition in Munster, it was granted, after a wait for two years or so, a place in the then Free State League in 1930. But, in a country reeling from international recession following the Wall Street Crash, and unprecedented unemployment crisis in not just Waterford but the whole of Ireland (plus ca change!), the club as it was founded in 1930 was folded and re-entered the league again in 1932. This version of the club would survive for little over a decade when it was re-constituted in 1945 as the Waterford Football Club Ltd (1945).

In this guise the club would stabilise and in the middle and late 1960s enjoy its most successful period, when they would win 6 league titles from 1965-1973, entering on several occasions the European Championship (forerunner to today’s Champions League). But a club cannot survive on legend alone. Real success would not come again until the end of the 1970s when we won the FAI Cup for the first time since the 1930s.

The early 1980s, another period of social and economic stability, saw the club shift shape once more becoming the Waterford United Football Club Ltd. in 1983. This legal reformation of the limited company is the version of the club which limps on today, going from financial crisis to financial crisis.

But, as I said, we’ve been here before. In the 1930s, when the club was first founded, the local business magnates were tapped for cash to help the club on its way, and throughout the club’s history a combination of local businessmen, members of the footballing community and the club’s fans have helped to keep it going.

We have been in the First Division of the League of Ireland for a long time, and as such with no signs of success, many Waterford people have completely lost interest in the club. This is no surprise, even if it is difficult to bear. Football without fans is nothing, and without fans there is no club.

Waterford are far from the only League of Ireland club to face the difficulties they are facing now in recent years. The clubs that have most successfully navigated the shifting financial fortunes of the past ten years are those who have opted for the Supporter’s Trust, supporter-owned model of running their club. All of the evidence points to this.

The current campaign to save Waterford United from extinction is in my view a kind of bailout. While the club is not too big to fail, it would be a tragic loss to the civic identity of a proud city. I would ask anyone who can to donate however much they can to the campaign.

But I also suggest that we need, as fans of the club, to insist that we cannot dig into our pockets every few years to save the club from collapse if it isn’t going to move towards a fan ownership model. If the money I was putting in to rescue the club now could be seen as a first step towards that – a kind of buy-in, then I think very many more people would dig into their pockets, at home and abroad. As I see it, this is the only logical step forward to ensure the club’s continued existence. And that means the setting up of a supporter’s trust. Once we hit the huge target to keep the club liquid that needs to be next part of this conversation. Otherwise, it will have been wasted money.

  • Things You Can Do:
    First and foremost, the best way to support the club is to go watch the team play.
  • Donate to the Save Waterford United campaign.
  • Join the conversation on Facebook.
  • Educate yourself about the supporter’s trust movement through Supporter’s Direct and the Irish Supporter’s Network.

To donate to the Save Waterford United campaign follow this link. This is the Waterford United facebook page where you can keep up to date on developments of the Save Waterford United campaign and join the conversation about the club’s future.


Histories: Living with a congenital heart defect

I haven’t been blogging as much as I would have liked over the past few months, but I’ve decided that I would post this, which is to be published in HeartstringsHeartstrings, for those of you who have never heard of it, is a publication produced by Heart Children Ireland – an organisation set-up in 1990 to provide support for children, and the parents of children, born with congenital heart defects. As someone who was born, and lives with a congenital heart defect I was delighted to be able to share my story with the magazine and decided to reproduce the piece here on my blog.


History is my whole life. I write it, read it, teach it. We all have histories. There’s our personal history, our family history, our local, national, and even global histories. We all have medical histories too. We are shaped as much by these as we are any other history we have. Our medical history is in a sense the truest history of our lives. We know its beginning, and its end, but its middle can be truly extraordinary.

My story is a familiar one to thousands of Irish families in the past decade. On April 2 2015, I left Ireland for a new home, and a new life. Having finished university, I was unable to find secure work and so I decided to follow most of my peers and look elsewhere. I have lived for just over 12 months now in Prague, where I work as a proof reader for an online university, and teach the history of the Cold War to visiting American students at Charles University in the city. Sometimes to make a little extra, I tutor people in English on the side. I really enjoy my life here – a city steeped in history, there is the beautiful architecture, the wide river and its beautiful bridges, the numerous parks, and the wonderful public transport that opens up the whole of the Czech countryside to me. And I look forward to moving again in a few months’ time.

Since living here, I have met a wonderful partner. She is from Norway, and together we plan to move there to live and work in the near future. When I moved to Prague, I was terrified. I was scared of facing a new language, a new environment, and a new way of life all without the support of a family which since I was born, has provided a rock of stability and support.

I was born on 19 February 1988 in Airmount Hospital in Waterford. I was born with transposition of the great arteries (sometimes called transposition of the great vessels, TGV). A very sick child, I was brought to Dublin to Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin for treatment, and eventually, underwent a Mustard operation on my heart at around 11 weeks. Like most children born with a congenital heart defect, there are plenty of things which, growing up, I could not do.

I grew up in a soccer mad house, at a time when it seems the whole of Ireland was soccer mad. I can remember as a small boy wearing the tape thin on a video cassette we had of the Italia ’90 world cup. I must have watched Packie Bonner’s save in the penalty shoot-out with Romania one hundred times. All I wanted, like so many boys, was to be a professional footballer when I grew up. The realities of my condition (and my frankly awful left foot) meant this would always remain a dream for me.

But limited though my chances of becoming the next Denis Irwin or Roy Keane were, the life I have been able to live with my condition has been anything but. Like so many others who have been lucky enough to pass through the doors of Crumlin, to have had the guidance of Desmond Duff, and the support of a network like Heart Children Ireland, my life has been as rich and fulfilling as anyone could hope for their child, ill or otherwise. While I couldn’t play team sports competitively, this allowed me to develop my other great passion: reading.

My parents, my whole family indeed, indulged my desire for reading and I became an avid library user as a youngster, was bought books by all and sundry in my family. As my interest in history developed, my mother, on our trips to Dublin for my annual check-up would bring me to visit Trinity and its wonderful long room, to Dublinia – the Viking Experience to learn about Ireland’s ancient heritage, and to our beautiful National Museums. Memories of these first encounters with history as a living thing to be experienced are tied to my memories of trips to Crumlin.

My deep love of reading, and eventually writing, would set me on my current path, though I hardly knew it at the time. I inhaled history, literature and poetry wherever and whenever I could in any form. As I grew into a moody, and undoubtedly occasionally difficult teenager, reading, and my family, remained my rock. As a relatively shy teenager, my heart condition loomed large over those years of awkward development. Nonetheless, it was in those years that I determined that it would not be the defining characteristic of my personality, nor of my life. I never particularly tried to hide the facts of my condition to my friends, who were all hugely supportive of the differences this meant when I might get tired walking too long or could not indulge in the same way in much of the experimentation that make being a teenager what it is. As many a teenager does, I began writing poetry. Most of it was awful. But with time, I became better and started to publish poems in magazines, and would later publish chapbooks and even a collection when I was 24.

It seemed to me in those years that either I could own my illness, and find where it belonged as part of who I was, or it would end up owning me in some way: it would become a kind of border of my own possibilities, it would ringfence what I thought I could achieve myself. Now, as I look back on those years, that process, I realise was vital. By willing myself to not be defined by my illness I was more comfortable with it, and more in control of living with it. As such, it meant I was more in control of what my life could be.

After the nightmare that was (as it is for most!) the Leaving Certificate in 2006, I moved out of home to study Arts in University College, Cork. I studied English and History, a dream come true, for three years while also making the transition from Crumlin to the Mater. This was a big a change for me as any moving out of home, learning how to cook, and balancing my life with my studies.

When I finished my degree, I was offered the chance to do a PhD in history and took it. I remained in Cork for another four years and did my PhD in a wonderful environment where I made many life-long friends. I got some work lecturing at UCC part-time, before getting a job in online learning there, and then I secured a contract to publish my PhD as a book. Since I was first captivated by the world of words, I had dreamed of writing a history book one day. Then, at the age of 26, I had done it. It was an extraordinary experience. The book was published last June, just two months after I moved to Prague. I came home for two or three days to launch it.

While I didn’t say so in my speech on the evening of the launch, I couldn’t help but think of all that happened to bring me to that point. And I knew that it was a secret history that brought me there. A blend of my personal history, my family history, my local and my national history. But also my medical history.

That evening I thought not just of the hours in the archives, but the hours in the hospital that my mother spent worrying about me, and every hour ever since spent the same way. The photographs of me in intensive care, a muddle of skin and tubes. The agony it must have been for my parents. I thought of the efforts, the skill and knowledge of the surgeons, doctors and nurses I have known throughout my life. Though it went unsaid that evening, it is those things I think of most when I look at my book on the shelves in my apartment.

In most countries, it is common to wish good health to someone when you share a drink with them and raise a toast. Here in my new home, they shout na zdraví (to your health)! In my future home, they say skål! And at home in Ireland, we say sláinte. So whether it’s to be na zdraví, skål, or sláinte, I will always be grateful to all those who helped me make the most of my opportunities. I am lucky indeed to be able to write my own history.

For more information about congenital heart disease and Heart Children Ireland, I would encourage you to visit www.heartchildren.ie.

“Only a Healthy nation is an armed nation”: Sokol, the Czech GAA?

Eric Hobsbawm, one of the finest historians of the twentieth century, put it best in his lectures on nationalism when he said that sport was so effective a vehicle for nationalism because ‘what has made sport so uniquely effective a medium for inculcating national feelings, at all events for males, is the ease with which even the least political or public individuals can identify with the nation as symbolised by young persons excelling at what practically every man wants, or at one time in his life has wanted, to be good at’.

There are countless examples of sport in the service of the nation throughout modern history – you need only think of the use to which football and rugby were put as a recruiting grounds for soldiers in the United Kingdom during the First World War; the way in which fascist states like Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy used the Olympics or World Cup victory to their own political ends to gain some idea of just what Hobsbawm meant.

Here in what is now the Czech Republic, was previously the Czechoslovak Republic and before that what we might term loosely as the Czech Lands, sport was put to similar use to promote nationalism, and to create national consciousness among Czechs. Like the Gaelic Athletic Association, founded in 1884, in Ireland, the Czech gymnastics movement called Sokol (meaning ‘falcon’) was about encouraging national consciousness through physical improvement of the population. The Sokol movement, taking its lead from German turnverein, was founded in 1862 by Miroslav Tyrs. Tyrs exemplified, and was a leading figure through Sokol, in the Czech national revival. Born Friedrich Emanuel Tirsch in 1834, he took the Czech form of his name in 1860, and “along with other nationalists, he signified his Czech identity by wearing camara, or embroidered ‘Slavic’ button closures, on his coats in place of the ‘Austrian’ style buttonholes” according to Claire E Nolte.

The Sokol movement encouraged a particular style of national dress for its members when doing demonstrations, as you can see below. The uniforms consisted of a red shirt, introduced by co-founder Jindrich Fugner and ‘the Sokol uniform that began with Fugner’s red shirt and insignia was completed in a Slavic style, similar in purpose to to the Old Germanic garb of Jahn’s Turner.” According to Nolte, “the new uniform lent the club an esprit de corps that further increased its popularity” with members, and even nonmembers in the early days taking to wearing it even when official functions were not taking place.

Photograph of Sokol members, c.1880s.
Photograph of Sokol members, c.1880s.











The similarities between Sokol and the GAA, founded in 1884, are somewhat apparent. The adoption of traditional uniforms for Sokol, and the invention of county colours in the GAA, being a part of the same process of inventing traditions. They were both watched by the police forces of their respective governments for many years for signs of their potentially disruptive espousal of nationalism. And they both encouraged the development of unique national sporting cultures. But there aren’t just parallels between both organisations. It may surprise some people to learn, but Sokol gymnastics were actually adopted in Ireland for a time in both schools and the Irish Army, following independence.

A Czech consulate was set-up in Dublin in the 1920s, headed up by former Legionary Major Pavel Ruzicka. As Daniel Samek’s chapter in Ireland and the Czech Lands notes that through Ruzicka’s close ties with many in the Irish Army, Sokol was adopted as the favoured form of gymnastic training in the Army, ahead of so-called Swedish drill.

It’s adoption was widespread but drew the ire of some who considered its aesthetic element too foreign entirely for Irish purposes. Little or no mention is made of Sokol after the 1940s in Ireland. This may in part be down to the fact that, following the February Coup of 1948, Irish ties with Czechoslovakia, now a communist country, were rather altered. In the National Archives, there are many communications between the Sokol organisation and Department of Education, External Affairs and Defence, asking that an Irish delegate be sent to the XI Sokol Slet (festival) in 1949. The Sokol organisers even suggested that a group of Irish dancers be sent to represent Ireland, to ‘exhibit the art of Gaelic dancing’ as part of the Slet. No Ministry wished to outright rebuke the offers being extended, but instead each in turn politely declined as the invites passed from one department to the next.

So, there are some intriguing similarities to be explored between this Czech organisation that hoped, in language common not just to Ireland, but throughout Europe in this period, to reinvigorate and train the youth, while also reviving national customs and the GAA. But the similarities are made starkest perhaps in how the organisations differ.

For one thing, Sokol was much more explicitly political as an organisation. It’s nationalism was worn very much on its sleeve. While their cry was ‘Every Czech a sokol’ not all Czechs were in that sense, Czech. In the 1890s, the Sokol experienced a split. Generally, Sokols were supportive of the Young Czechs in parliament, but the wide-reach of the Sokol organisation meant that many of its working-class members were supporters of the Social Democrats. That party’s fostering of class-based politics did not sit well with the bourgeois nationalism of the Young Czechs, or indeed of many Sokol congress delegates. And so, in 1897, at the Workers Academy in Prague, a new organisation, less nationalistic than Sokol was established, the Delnicka telocvicna jednota (DTJ), or Workers’ Gymnastic Club. Limited at first to Prague, a DTJ Union – like the Sokol Union, Ceska Obec Sokolská – to organise the DTJs nationally was founded in 1903. By 1913 there were 513 DTJ clubs with around 17,000 members. A handful survive today.

With the removal of the Social Democratic-aligned membership from many Sokols, these clubs were now often strongly aligned with members of the strongly-nationlist Czech National Socialists. This meant that overt Anti-Semitism became stronger in the Sokol movement. An organisation which had for many years represented progressivism in Czech political and cultural life was increasingly virulently nationalistic.

The Sokol survived the upheavals of the First and Second World Wars, and was, along with the DTJ, ripe for the picking when Czechoslovakia became a fully communist state in February of 1948. The famous Slets of previous years were remade into socialist Spartakiads, most of the Sokol clubs no longer existed to develop the national body of the Czech people, but to build socialist man and woman.

While this association with the communist regime might lead one to expect that the Sokol movement has disappeared, you’d be wrong. Many areas of Prague still have Sokol organisations, which serve as community sports halls with gymnastics, aerobics, tennis, swimming pools, saunas and evening classes. Most Sokols also have a bar and restaurant attached. I sometimes swim up at the Sokol in Kralovske Vinohrady, located in a large Communist-era Sokol building in Riegrovy Sady. I occasionally eat in the bar attached to the Dejvice Sokol hall. This is another aspect of Sokol that marks it out as European. The built heritage of the organisation is apparent all over Prague, and elsewhere in the Czech Republic.

Sokol Still Standing

Near to me, there are two Sokols. One, the Vrsovice Sokol is much larger, and is directly next door to the home of my local team, Bohemians 1905. Sokol in Vrsovice (a small satellite town of Prague unti it was formally adopted in 1922) was established in 1870, and they moved into their first building in 1877. Their current home is a modern building, likely from the Communist era.

The Sokol building in Vrsovice.

Both Bohemians 1905 and the Vrsovice Sokol run along Sportovní, which intersects with Vrsovická, a main thoroughfare. On the other side of Vrsovická, the street Sportovní continues and there we can find TJ Sokol Lokomotiva Vrsovice. This Sokol had its origins in 1923, when a club by the name of SK Železničářů Prague was founded in the area. By the mid-1930s, this club was a Delnicka telocvicna jednota (DTJ) club, as the map below shows. Today it is mostly an handball and table tennis club, but it still has two football pitches.

Vrsovice 1938
Vrsovice in 1938. You can see the site of the present Sokol, the Bohemians ground (Danneruv stadion) and the DTJ playing fields, home of Lokomotiva Vrsovice.

Away from my area, plenty of other parts of Prague still have much older Sokol buildings dating from the nineteenth century. In Nusle, not far from Vrsovice, there is the magnificent Sokol building which stands over the whole of the neighbourhood of Nusle, even above its magnificent town hall. Nusle’s Sokol building is among the most interesting, because as well as being a beautiful building, a still operating sokol club, it is also an unusual site of historical memory. Here is a view of the building itself:

As you approach, you notice that the water feature is of particular importance. Here’s a close up. It shows the years 1914-1918, 1938-1945, and 1948-1989 engraved in the stone. The first two are references to the world wars, the third to the period when Czechoslovakia was under Communist rule.

There is also, on the approach to the main Sokol building, a small tombstone marking the death of three people during the Prague Uprising in 1945:

This Sokol then is much more than just a sports club or even a social club, it is a site of historical memory. Such is its imposition here in fact that the street below it is Pod Sokolská, Under the Sokol.

Another excellent example of the beautiful architecture of Sokols is the Sokol in Malá Strana, built in 1897 (pictured below).


It was nearly impossible to get a good photo of this particular building, as it is well gated and in an awkward spot at the very bottom of Petrin Hill, but I would recommend people keep and eye out for it, it’s an almost-hidden gem. Not far from here, on Karmelitská (best known for the church which houses the Child of Prague), there is the main building of the modern Sokol movement – Tyrsov Dum – Tyrs House, named for one of the two co-founders.

A common feature of the older Sokol buildings is the inclusion of a Falcon with its wings spread. Not far along from Tyrsuv Dum, while still walking Karmelitská, on the side opposite the church, there is a plaque at head height, which marks a house in which Miroslav Tyrs lived from 1841-1852.IMG_0570.JPG

Beyond Malá Strana, two of the other great Sokol buildings in Prague are those of Zizkov and Karlín. The Zizkov Sokol is unusual in that it is a combination of a nineteenth century Sokol building with a similar architectural style to those in Nusle and Malá Strana, but has been expanded with a newer, modernist part. Here is the original building with close-ups  of some features, including busts of Tyrs and the other co-founder of Sokol Fugner.

The newer part of the building includes depictions of falcons in a variety of panels with symbols including the crown of Bohemia and with the Sokol flag. Also on the newer part of the building is a large panel depicting a woman and child, two men together with a sword and a man and woman dancing, the woman holding a victory laurel.

Here is the old and new building together:

The Zizkov Sokol.

Before turning our attention to the Karlín Sokol, it’s worth looking at the Sokol building with which many people are most likely familiar, that of the Kralovské Vinohrady Sokol, which is the imposing building in Riegrovy Sady in the heart of Vinohrady.

According to website, The Prague Vitrviu“it was in 1938 that František Marek, Václav Vejrych and Zbyněk Jirsák came up with the design for this extensive building in the functionalist style – its tall rectilinear columns giving a modernist twist to the ideal of a classical colonnade.In 1941, the building was commandeered by the SS as a sports centre, and after the Second World War it became a military hospital and repatriation centre for returning Czech soldiers.”

Just in front of the entrance to this imposing building there is a small monument celebrating the 150th anniversary of Sokol:

IMG_0579.JPG On this monument we see the Sokol slogan Tuzme Se! which can sometimes be seen on Sokol buildings, including the Karlín building. Today, the Karlín Sokol is, on approach, obscured by a railway bridge, just peaking its head above the train line.


But, if you go under and around the bridge you are treated to what might be the most beuatiful Sokol building in the city:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

So, those are just some of the wonderful Sokol buildings of Prague.

That they are all still in operation says something about the durability of the organisation after one hundred and fifty years. They also provide an extraordinary built heritage for a sporting organisation. The legacy of Sokol can also be seen in the names of streets and squares like Tyrsova, Sokolska and Fugnerova Namesti.

The history of Sokol is complex – it had its international dimension in the US among the Czech diaspora there, celebrated in their massive meets, the Sokol Slet (not unlike the Irish Aonach Tailteann in its own way), but like so many sporting organisations of the nineteenth century its strongest history was national. To know the twisting and turning history of the Sokol is in some ways to know better the history of the Czech lands.