A Spectator

Every once in a while you read a book that prompts you to rethink your own ideas that you have about a subject. I’ve just read Joe Kennedy’s Games Without Frontiers from Repeater Books. It’s made me revisit an old essay of  mine which I have been sitting on for a while. I wrote it while living in Prague and spending my time following my local club there, Bohemians 1905. Following Bohemians for little over a season helped mme understand better my ideas about football and its social function. It also helped me better understand my own fandom,  and what it means to be a supporter of a club when you live away. That means finding a new club but also they way it reinforces and changes your relationship with your home club. As Kennedy concludes “football is only ever a microcosm of whatever exists in our broader social settings”. I am still developing and changing my ideas of what fandom looks like here in Norway, but this essay captures a moment when I was trying to find my place in Prague and also at the same time, understand what role, if any, football has to play in social formation. So here it is, the essay, unedited and unupdated as I wrote it almost a year ago. I am sharing it now because I thought and still think it was well written even if the ideas expressed are no longer directly relevant to my lived experience at present. 

As an outsider in a foreign country, all you ever are is a spectator. It is how you are oriented to everything, everyone else, in the city. You have no compass but the one given to you by others. Prague runs east to west, not as I am accustomed, north to south in its orientation. This is a deep form of orientation. Ingrained. Though in their minds this is Central, not Eastern Europe, I am Western. This is resolute. In the map of the city which I am granted by those who live here, those who I talk to, I am always approaching from the west.  This is an orientation I am unable to escape.

I live on the east side of town. Crimea. Sevastapol. Kharkiv. The River Don that runs southeast to Voronezh. My home lies on The River Don, on Donská. From my apartment window I look up the hill Kozácká, named for the Cossacks. Around the corner, runs The Black Sea. The Crimea bleeds seamlessly into Moscow, before it, in turn, encompasses the Caucases. These are my immediate borders. My streets. At my tram stop, the Crimea, there is graffiti which read Včera my, Dneska ty. Our yesterday, your today. It is painted blue and yellow. The colours of the Ukraine. There can be no mistaking the meaning. It is punctuated by a yellow heart. Here, in Vršovice, all of my surrounding streets are named for countries. Estonia runs parallel to Norway runs parallel to Finland. At the foot of each of these is Copehagen. Armenia. Moldova. Murmansk. Deeper into this part of town there is Ulyanov street. A street for the Altai mountains. A street for the Bashkir peoples of Turkey. For the 28th Regiment of the Red Army. Magnitogorsk. Yalta. Lvov. Carpathia. Yerevan. Cuba Square. Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan. Kazakhstan. Kirgizstan. Here, in Vršovice, these streets all flow from one great avenue, Russia. These streets a map, of Communism, of the East. Their yesterday. Something of which they were once a part. Their addresses a daily reminder of the greater project. It’s ghost lingering in red street signs with white lettering and blue borders.

Prague must be one of the most mapped cities in Europe. There are countless mapped versions of Prague. Cartoonish ones for tourists with giant drawings of the major landmarks, bordered by ads for pub crawls, ghost tours, casinos. In these, the limits of the city are stark. There are maps for the discerning tourist with cool, clean lines. It assumes a certain amount of knowledge is already held by the reader of the map. It is about getting off the beaten track. The unbeaten track is still mapped. There is the map of Prague on my phone, dazzling with the stars of saved places. I am always its centre. Its heart. I am my own tiny blue dot. Each yellow star forming a criss-crossed constellation of my eating and drinking habits. Of haircuts and work. You could with this map trace and traverse my life in this city. You could live as I have lived. It would double over on itself a dozen times, like the accordion folds of any map. You would know my borders, my limits.

My favourite asterism is the starry plough. When I first started seeing Miriam, I would visit her in Tábor, an hour and half south of Prague. As we walked one night around the illuminated, still-standing walls of this medieval city, I noticed the stars in the sky. It was a clear night. October. I mentioned my love of the starry plough. The big dipper she called it. No, the starry plough. Our aims most modest are, we only want the world, from the plough to the stars. When I think of the starry plough, I think of home. In those eight stars, whether on a field of deep blue, or green, I can map a history of Ireland.

The certainties I had about Prague, about the Czech Republic, have dwindled the longer I’ve lived here. Still I am trying to get a grip on it. I watch football from the terraces on Saturdays. There I am a spectator. But every other day of the week I am still one. I watch as this city, this country, my new home, also changes. From afar, I am a spectator of the changes at home. It is election week in Ireland. I wish I could vote from where I sit. I can’t. Instead I watch. I spectate.

One of the many things I love about Prague is its nearly inexhaustible number of antikvariats, or second-hand bookshops. In each one I visit I feel I am a deep-sea diver. There are corals of ex libris cards, discarded photos, postcards, medals, maps, and diaries. I swim through them, the water feels familiar though the language, the colour, is not.  Their stock in trade is second hand Czech books, which I cannot read, but occasionally I buy these if they are sufficiently interesting to me. Among the books I have bought are a range of different translations of 14th Century French poet and troubadour, Francois Villon, evidently considered sufficiently ideologically sound to be translated at the height of pre-Soviet invasion Czech communism.

Just before Christmas, the American poet Steven Rodefer died. I was lucky enough to have heard him read and to have even spoken to him at various times when I lived in Cork and he visited for the annual Soundeye poetry festival. I know the work of Francois Villon entirely because of him. His translations of Villon in the 1960s, under the moniker of Jean Calais is one of my favourite books of poetry. The week he died, in Prague’s Old Town, killing some time, and keeping out of the rain, I spotted on the poetry shelves of one particular antikvariat with which I am especially familiar, a whole slew of different translations of Villon from the late 1940s and the early 1950s. When I heard of Rodefer’s death I was cursing the fact that among the poetry books I brought from Ireland I didn’t bring his Villon. I wished I had.  I saw these three books and thought I had to buy them. They cost maybe a combined total of 150-,Kč. Though I couldn’t read the Czech, I could recognise something of Steven Rodefer’s own versions of Villon in the typography, the artwork of the books. It was a close proximation, across language, time and geography.

My only other substantial purchases in an antikvariat have been two photography books. One, which I got for 50Kč-, was a photographic history of Czech sport from the 1860s to the beginning of the First World War.  The other was a photo essay of the city of Prague. I bought this photo essay book early in my time in the city, when I was still in an exploratory phase and wanted to imbibe the city in as many ways as I could.

In his 1962 collection of photographs capturing Prague and its people, Praha a Pražané, published by the main publishing house of the Czech state since the period of the First Republic, Orbis, Václav Jírů included a number of photographs of sporting scenes. Along with the touching image of a group of young boys walking toward the open-air ice rink with their skates slung over their shoulder for some hockey in winter, there was also the power of the spartakiad, of speedway racing and more besides, but the most resonant images for me are those of football. As was surely de rigueur for a book of more or less vernacular, or at least social-realist photography taken in early 1960s Czechoslavakia, the images of football included almost obligatory jumpers-for-goalpost snaps.

The book of photographs covers a year in the life of the city, beginning in spring and ending in winter. As well as the jumpers-for-goalposts images of the summer months captured by Jírů, there are two other images of football that capture the game in that era in Czechoslovakia. On one page we see a fence, about ten feet in height, riddled with gaps and along the fence there are men, boys and women with prams, all looking on at the footballing action through the gaps – unable to get in either because of cost or because too many had already been let in. Here we have people straining to watch football. On the facing page, we see what appears to be a gate, but with no turnstile, wide open, and a single man standing, briefcase in hand, watching on as the action unfolds on the pitch. We can see, just barely, the packed stands of the stadium. Part of the book’s “autumn intermezzo” the image on the left is titled “One eye on the game” while that on the right is simply titled “A spectator”. In this last title there is the ambiguity of who is spectator and subject, from the camera lens, to the view that Jírů’s spectator sees of the players on the pitch, and the potential view of a spectator at the far end of the ground looking at Jírů’s subject, and finally, at Jírů as he takes the photograph himself. Borders on all sides. Framed, and framing. The page. The picture. The city.

Aside from being a beautifully poised image, constructed and captured so well, this image has helped me understand Czech football and the country at large as I have lived here. If the photography of Jírů showed the sport of the people with the people clambering to get a view – then it would be nearly impossible to compose a similar picture of the game, and of the Czech people, in today’s climate.

So what is the reality in Prague? In a city where the major ideological battles of the twentieth century have been played out – democracy, fascism and communism all creating a palimpsest here through which you can walk, the history mapped and mappable, the city is one that now embraces the neo-liberal consensus. Yet there are in places a resistance to this.

Sparta Prague, the Czech Republic’s biggest and most successful club, play their home games at Letná Stadion, or the Generali Arena as it is officially known. For a club supposedly the darling of the old Communist regime and the worker, the nasty truth is that in a post-Communist state this is manifested in a decided rightward shift of its hardcore fans – the right-wing tendencies of the Sparta ultras manifests itself all around the local area. As you walk around the leafy Dejvice and Letná area generally you are likely to be met with stickers with taglines like “Good Night Left Side”, a play on the usual antifascist slogan of “Good Night White Pride” in part no doubt a result of the large student population in the area, typically the holders of the city’s liberal flame. Thus Letná is a contested zone between on the one hand the hard-right ultras of Sparta and those opposed to an increasingly nationalistic, right-wing, anti-immigrant culture typical of many post-Communist states in central and eastern Europe.

Ironically, Letná, Dejvice and Holešovice, which make up the catchment area of the club are each popular with expats, usually older more settled ones who have been in the city for between fifteen and twenty years in some cases. Happy to take their money at the gate, nonetheless one wonders how welcome these interlopers would be among the Sparta faithful.

When I first moved here, I saw Bohemians as the natural antidote to this as a football club. The bigger question remains for me however: are Bohemians, their fans, and their stadium a space for the exploration of alternatives to the orthodoxy of neo-liberalism that prevails in the Czech Republic or is it like many such alternative clubs – still fundamentally about the football first and the culture second?

The hope has to be that the culture is of real significance, if not the primary raison d’être. It is my suspicion, having attended Bohemians games for most of this season that most fans are just there to follow their team and have a good time while doing so. For many, politics probably doesn’t come into. You sense there is a degree of apprehension among some Bohemians fans in seeing themselves as the vanguard of an increasingly under-threat alternative culture in the Czech Republic’s capital. But for other fans following the club itself is a political act.

In recent times, the last official squat in Prague was forcibly shut down by a heavy-handed police operation. Following the major floods in the city in 2002, the regeneration that was required was used to gentrify a previously vibrant working-class community making it a centre for new office buildings. Karlín, which had been cheap and thus a good place for many in the city’s artistic community, including artist collectives, was increasingly overrun by new office buildings and subsequently by developers looking to build apartment blocks to house the area’s new office working population. This change has seen the spaces available for artists to work in diminish. The best example of this is the destruction of the former factory that housed the Trafačka collective – occupants of the former industrial site for a number of years until the owner of the building decided that the offers being made to him to demolish the site and build new apartments in its stead became too tempting. This has meant the dispersing of a collective that has operated for eight years.

The end of Trafačka means not alone a reduction of these artists’ collaborative potential but the end of one of Prague’s most celebrated artist groups of the past decade – a real loss to the cultural life of the city. This shows that the values driving Prague forward as a city are hostile to such collectives – be they squats or shared artistic spaces. Even the inoffensive Karlín Studios, which has been around for about ten years, is due to close in 2016. This exhibition space is in a former factory warehouse that has been gutted but developers have decided that it ought to be turned into either offices or apartments or some kind of mixed development. It will be erased. Removed from the physical map of the city.

In the suppression of the city’s small number of squats, the demolition of spaces like those occupied by Trafačka in order to make them into profitable developments for business, one notes the same processes at work as the education provided by the neo-liberal tutors identified by Benjamin Tallis. In two recent essays appearing in Abolishing Prague, Tallis reassessed the paneláks which house the majority of the city’s citizens and also the communist-era architecture spread throughout the city.

The view of panelák housing (think late 60s early 70s social housing flats) held by westerners is unremittingly negative in contrast to the actual lived experience of those in them here in the Czech Republic. Likewise, the brutalist architecture of Prague that Tallis argues is occasionally the equal of Berlin goes against increasingly restricted ideas of what Prague as a city ‘is for’; the city as the tourist sees it is only to operate as a kind of real-life Eurodisney devoid of the things that make such places worth living in in the first place. In how read Prague, its architecture, it history, we are told to keep within the well-defined borders of the cartoonish maps your hostel or hotel furnish you with. The beauty of the Baroque is undeniable, objective. Anything else is heretical, subjective, awkward, a posture. No one, we are told, can really love Kotva.

Despite the demolition of places like Trafačka, other spaces are emerging that at least have the potential to act as engines of a subversive culture, in particular Paralelní Polis – a Bitcoin only café, and educational open office space that plays host to Prague’s crypto-anarchist community of hackers and others who are determined to build an alternative culture in the city. It will remain a clique-ish oddity, but its continued existence is a reminder of broader possibilities. It gives us a different way to read the contours of the city.

What does this have to do with me, with my little constellation of stars, my limits, my borders? The fans of Bohemians and the club are widely seen to share an antipathy for modern football’s pursuit of profit over other concerns. Through its development policy and absolute adherence to the logic of the market Prague may be seen to be preventing the emergence of alternative art spaces and squats that have the potential to help establish the city as a receptive one to creative people operating beyond mainstream culture.

It might be fair to say that in fact Bohemians’ home ground, Ďoliček, the dimple, is an alternative space. Not through a conscious cultivation of a politicised alternative but because in a culture largely uncritical of neo-liberal orthodoxies, any space that offers alternative approaches and culture is welcomed, encouraged and celebrated. When I stand watching Bohemians, I like to think of the club, of its fans, as Jírů’s lonely spectator – watching the game, wondering if it might be better. It too offers itself as a map. Perhaps I will save it and make it part of my constellation.


Writing Elsewhere: An update

A while ago, I alerted you to some of the places you could find my writing other than this blog. I’ve continued writing for Póg Mo Goal and you can read the most recent efforts at the links below:

The Rite of Spring

Kde Domov Můj – Where is My Home?

Death to Sparta: Prague Derby at the Ďolíček

Witches and Kings
I also recently contributed a piece to The Allrounder, which you can read here:

Football and Belonging

Thanks as ever for reading this blog, and I hope you enjoy my output elsewhere online as well!

Eventually, I will try to collate all of my various online presences here to make it easier to peruse.


“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:

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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.

Remembering Jan Palach, 1948-1969

Today is the anniversary of Czech student Jan Palach’s death. Palach died on January 19 1969 after suffering for three days in hospital from self-inflicted third-degree burns. On January 16 1969, Palach, standing at the top of Wenceslas Square, at the foot of the steps of the Czech National Museum, poured petrol over his head and lit it on fire, to the horror of passersby. Palach left a short and succinct suicide note in which he stated he took this action:

Because our nations are on the brink of despair we have decided to express our protest and wake up the people of this land…

He signed the note ‘Torch Number One’. The idea was that Palach would be first of many students to protest the Soviet invasion of Prague in August of 1968 in this way. Palach, and others, were disappointed chiefly with the compromosing attitude of Alexander Dubcek and his government following the invasion. Palach’s protest was also directed at the new censorship which the period of ‘normalization’ embodied. In particular, his protest was directed at this new censorship and the pro-invasion newspaper, Zprávy, which Palach and his comrades wanted to be taken out of circulation. [1]

The greatest, and grimmest, irony perhaps of Palach’s death was that, as Paulina Bren notes, it simply served to reinforce the new state of censorship rather than rattle it. Bren writes that:

That day’s evening radio news included just a brief and official government report of the incident and made no mention of the of the suicide note… The next day, as Palach lay dying in  a hospital from his burns, the now Moscow-controlled Radio Prague distributed a memorandum to its staff forbidding anyone to broadcast programs or segments on Palach. The only exception was made for the youth broadcasting division, which was ordered to provide carefully crafted information on Palach and his suicide with the sole purpose of deterring young listeners from following suit. [2]

Palach’s death, and his funeral, managed not to cause – as the death and funeral of student Jan Opletal had done thirty years previously  and would do again in the future- a swelling of national sentiment that turned into political unrest. Instead, by allowing the funeral arrangements to be left in the hands of the student body of the city, and allowing people to line the streets as he was taken from the Arts Faculty in the city to Olsany cemetery, there was no sense of not being allowed to grieve. President Svoboda, on 20 January, gave a special television address to the nation stating that ‘without you, comrades and friends, neither Comrade Dubcek nor I can or want to govern.’ [3] International news, film footage of the funeral can be viewed on the British Pathé website here and Charles University’s dedicated site to Palach here.

While the decision of Palach to set himself on fire in protest is largely put down to inspiration from Buddhist monks in Vietnam, there is a theatricality to Palach’s decision that is very much in keeping with the spirit of the new openness that the Prague Spring represented. It might be better understood, in some ways, as a form of action art (akcní umení). As Pavlína Morganová notes in her book on Czech Action Art, “the arrival of Soviet tanks in August 1968 brought a definitive end to this blossoming in Czechslovak culture [from 1964-1968].” This was a period that saw Czechoslovak culture engage with avant garde practices including fluxus and much more besides. One of the key effects of the Soviet invasion, and the period of “normalization” that followed on Czech art was that it necessitated a shift in where art could happen and be made in the country. As Morganová also notes

It was in the seclusion of private alternative spaces or nature that Czech body art and land art developed during this period. Nature, where it was easy to avoid the gaze of secret police agents and informers, became for many a starting point for small-scale land art often closely linked to body art. [4]

This might perhaps provide us with another way to understand Palach’s form of protest. By lighting himself on fire in the centre of the city, at the foot of one its most famous buildings, he took his private thoughts into the public sphere. It would be ridiculous to extend the metaphor too far by claiming his act as an art action or performance, a kind of body art, but his violent protest has transformed the site, and the wider city in which he made this protest.

Palach’s legacy in the city is plain to see. The square in front of the Arts Faculty of Charles University where he was a student, formerly Náměstí Krasnoarmějců (Red Army Square) is now named for him. At the spot where he burned himself alive in front of the National Museum, a memorial cross is laid unevenly into the footpath, bulging out, as if struggling. It is a powerful memorial.

There is also a small plaque to both him and Jan Zajíc, another student who self-immolated, near the base of the statue of St. Wenceslas in the square where he died. And now, there is another physical reminder of Palach and his action. A sculpture designed by American architect and grandson of Czech emigrants, John Hejduk, has been installed on Jan Palach Square in Prague. This impressive structure, entitled “The House of Suicide and the House of the Mother of the Suicide”, was drawn up by Hejduk in response to David Shapiro’s poem The Funeral of Jan Palach. Shapiro’s poem, whose text is on the slab that forms the base of the structure, was published in his third collection A Man Holding an Acoustic Panel in 1971. The poem reads:


When I entered the first meditation
I escaped the gravity of the object,
I experienced the emptiness,
And I have been dead a long time.


When I had a voice you could call a voice,
My mother wept to me:
My son, my beloved son,
I never thought this possible


I’ll follow you on foot.
Halfway in mud and slush the microphones picked up.
It was raining on the houses;
It was snowing on the police-cars.


The astronauts were weeping,
Going neither up nor out.
And my own mother was brave enough she looked
And it was alright I was dead. [5]

Shapiro’s poem was apparently inspired by a statement of Palach’s mother accidentally picked up by microphones. In an interview with Pataphysics magazine in 1990, Shapiro said that

Jan Palach was a young man who burned himself to protest against the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and even to this day his grave, or lack of a grave as it were, is a very political situation. But a personal funeral becomes a public funeral: what his mother said was picked up by a microphone – ‘My son, my beloved son, I never thought this possible. I’ll follow you on foot.’

The new monument, inspired by Shapiro’s poem, was originally designed by Hejduk for a class project with his students. A temporary wooden version was previously on view in Prague in the 1990s, but this new version is to be permanent.

Palach’s legacy then is assured, but what it will mean in the future, is uncertain. As ever, in memorialising, there is the possibility that his death, and the reasons for it, be forgotten.


[1] Mary Heimann, Czechoslovakia: The State that Failed, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011, pp.272-273.

[2] Paulina Bren, The Greengrocer and his TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2010, pp.30-31.

[3]  Heimann, Czechoslovakia: The State that Failed, p. 273.

[4] Pavlína Morganová, Czech Action Art: Happenings, Actions, Events, Land Art, Body Art and Performance Art Behind the Iron Curtain, Prague: Charles University Press 2014, pp.22-24.

[5] David Shapiro, “The Funeral of Jan Palach”, A Man Holding an Acoustic Panel, New York, 1971.

Irish reactions to the Velvet Revolution in 1989

Here in the Czech Republic, it is no ordinary Tuesday. Today in the Czech calendar is Freedom and Democracy Day. November 17th 1989 marks a significant day in the modern history of the Czech Republic. November 17th 1989 occupies a position in the narrative of Czech history,  like October 28th 1918, of the beginning of a hopeful new era. It marks the emergence from the oppression of regime foisted on Czechs from outside. In 1918, it was casting off the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire to form the First Czechoslovak Republic. In 1989, it was casting off a calcified Communist regime which had since the beginning of the 1970s enforced ‘normalization’ following the crushing of the Prague Spring. These are the parallels between 1918 and 1989, and as with any narratives of national freedom, they are highly seductive. But, the truth of the events of 1989, the ‘velvet revolution’, and the end of Communist rule beginning with the student protests on November 17th that year are decidedly more complicated.

So, what happened on November 17th 1989? It was something extraordinary. It was a student protest to mark the 50th anniversary of the murder of student Jan Oplatel in 1939 by the Nazis. However, it would turn out to become much more than that.

Jan Oplatel’s own death came about following protests planned by Czechs to offer civic disobedience against the Nazi Protectorate one year on from the Munich Agreement. On October 28th 1939, the mass demonstration saw scuffles in Wenceslas Square that ended in the wounding of several policemen, the death of a Czech worker. Otakar Seldlácek, and the fatal wounding of Opletal. Opletal’s funeral took place on 15th November 1939 and was attended by 3,000 students and watched by some 10,000 onlookers. [1]

Jan Opletal.
Jan Opletal.

While the funeral itself was peaceful, the trouble began once it ended. When students congregated to sing patriotic songs and shout anti-Nazi slogans, Secretary of State for the Nazi Protectorate Frank, had his car overturned, and his driver was beaten up. In retribution, the Gestapo raided a committee meeting of Prague Student’s Union and made arrests the next day. In Brno, 1,200 students were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Back in Prague on the 17th November 1939, eight Student Union members were taken out by the Nazis and shot. As Peter Demetz notes however, these were not necessarily radical left-wing students. Indeed he writes in his account of the events that they were ‘committed to policies of the government-sponsored National Solidarity and were in no way active in the resistance’. The ninth victim was a Slovakian Jewish man Marek Frauwirth, believed by Czech police to be a Communist. [2]

And so it was not just to remember Oplatel but all of these various people that students took to the streets in November 1989. There were a number of things which made the protest in 1989 so extraordinary. For one thing, this protest was officially sanctioned to go ahead. This was due to the fact that chief organisers of the march, to go from Albertov to Vysehrad, were members of the SSM, a Communist student organisation. More remarkably still, the protests echoed closely those of fifty years before. Tony Judt notes that:

…when marching students began to chant anti-Communist slogans the police attacked, scattering the crowd and beating up isolated victims. The police themselves then encouraged the rumour that – in a replay of Opletal’s own murder – one of the students had been killed. [3]

Later acknowledged as a false report, it nevertheless had the effect of mobilising students more strongly, and Judt goes on to note that within twenty-four hours, the universities were occupied, mass demonstrations were taking place, and the police looked on. [4] In her more detailed account of the events, Mary Heimann describes this false rumour as ‘the “pebble” that began the national “avalanche” which overwhelmed the current regime.’ [5]

This overwhelming of the Communist regime saw things change rapidly as dissidents from groups like Charter 77, who despite their fame in the Western world, were virtual unknowns in their own country and whose original Charter barely mustered a few thousand signatures, established the Civic Forum that effectively became first a shadow, and then the real, government.

Following on as this had from similar events all over Soviet satellite states in the same period, perhaps most notably with the fall of the Berlin Wall in East Germany, the events in Prague were international news, and didn’t escape the notice of the Irish media. The events were followed closely by Ireland’s main newspapers, the Irish Press, Irish Independent and the Irish Times.

The story of the murdered student found its way into an editorial in the Irish Times entitled ‘Prague Dawn’:

The astonishingly rapid escalation of support for the radical reformers was seen in the participation of ordinary citizens who swelled the ranks of the demonstrators to an estimated quarter of a million. Many students in schools and universities mounted sit-in strikes against the brutality of the police attacks on last Friday’s much smaller demonstration, in which a student was beaten to death. [6]

The same newspaper also had a report from AG Brain who witnessed Havel’s speech to an estimated half a million people (an exaggeration surely) on Wenceslas Square. Brain wrote that ‘Mr Havel wrote three years ago that the restoration of Stalinist rule in the wake of the Soviety invasion of 1968 virtually brought history to a halt in his country. It was a moving moment, therefore, to hear him declare before a throng of half a million on Thursday night that ‘history had returned to Czechoslovakia”‘. [7]

History had indeed returned – even though to some this was the end of history – and an Irish Times editorial in the same issue as Brain’s piece entitled ‘Prague’s Indian Summer’ made reference to the country’s history. This time it was said that:

The hope must now be that Czechoslovakia will advance inexorably towards a national variant of social democracy or democratic socialism which will bring peace at last to the sad ghosts of Tomas Masaryk, the state’s founding father, and his courageous son Jan. No matter what difficulties lie ahead, the proud spirit of the nation has been reanimated decisively. [8]

The other Irish dailies were also following the story with great interest. The Irish Press made the events in Czechoslovakia front page news:

The Irish Press frontpage on November 25 1989
The Irish Press front page on November 25 1989.

Many of the articles in all three of Ireland’s major newspapers focused strongly on the return to the public limelight of Alexander Dubcek. His reappearance was described by the Irish Independent as ‘a symbolic turning of the tables’ following the crushing of the Prague spring in 1968. The Irish Press reported somewhat more presciently that while he was a popular hero, he was in the eyes of many, yesterday’s man. [9]

Dubcek was a symbol of reform Communism – socialism with a human face – while Havel was a symbol of anti-regime dissent. Havel would become President of Czechoslovakia on 29 December 1989 with Dubcek installed as head of the Federal Assembly. What began as a sanctioned student commemoration of a previous student’s challenge to an unwanted regime ended with the death of Communism in Czechoslovakia. A new era required a new face, and at that moment, it was Havel who seemed the more appropriate choice.


[1] Heimann, Mary, Czechoslovakia: The State that Failed, New Haven: Yale, 2011 125; Sedlácek is named in Demetz, Prague in Danger, New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 2008, 79 but not in Heimann’s account.

[2] Heimann, Czechoslovakia, 125-126; Demetz, Prague in Danger, 81.

[3] Judt, Tony, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, London: Pimlico 2007, 618.

[4] Judt, Postwar, 618.

[5] Heimann, Czechoslovakia, 301.

[6] Irish Times, 21 November 1989.

[7] Irish Times,  25 November 1989.

[8] Irish Times,  25 November 1989.

[9] Irish Independent, 25 November 1989; Irish Press, 25 November 1989.

“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 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.