Rudolf Nilsen’s Arbeidsløs Jul / Jobless Christmas

Over the past while, I’ve been reading a lot of the poetry of Rudolf Nilsen (1901-1929) considered by many to be Norway’s greatest working-class poet.

Nilsen died in 1929, at the age of 28, not from a life of excess but from illness. He died in Paris from tuberculosis but was buried in Oslo. His grave can be found in the north of the city, in Nordre Gravlund. He is remembered today through a statue erected in his memory and the naming of a square as Rudolf Nilsens plass in the area where he used to live. His was a peripatetic existence, and although most associated in people’s minds with the Vålerenga district of Oslo, his family moved around a lot within the city. Born in Orknøygata, he later lived in several places within his first year, and later at Lakkegata 58 where his parents were divorced. He is most associated with Heimdalsgate 26, the place which formed the basis for one of his most well-known poems: “Nr. 13”.

Although he was working-class, in his short life he mainly made his living as a journalist, chiefly for Norges Kommunistblad, a Communist Party daily. Nilsen was a committed communist. Although he was initially a member of Norway’s Labour Party, when a split came in the party in the 1920s, he sided with the communists and joined the newly formed Norges Kommunistiske Partiet. He was also jailed briefly for his involvement in smuggling Soviet literature into the West and attempting to spread it with a friend, Kyrre Grep.

His first collection På stengrunn was published in 1925, by Andelsforlaget, followed rapidly the following year by På Gjensyn in 1926. A third collection, Hverdag, was in the beginning stages when Nilsen, in the company of friends, went travelling through Spain and France. On the trip he contracted tuberculosis, and died shortly after in Paris in 1929. He was cremated, and his ashes returned to the city he loved, where they were buried.

As I’ve been reading his work, I’ve started some tentative translations, so here’s one called “Arbeidsløs Jul” or “Jobless Christmas” as I’ve titled it. It’s from his first collection På Stengrunn.

Abreidsløs can also be unemployed but usually the term Arbeidsledig is used nowadays, implying a momentary gap between jobs rather than the more permanent sense of being long-term unemployed that Arbeidsløs can signal. My translation follows the poem in the original below.

Arbeidsløs Jul

Vi som er dømt til livet
i gråbeingårdenes by
feirer i dag en solfest
for ham, som er født på ny.

Vi har fått tyve kroner
å feire hans komme med!
For dem har vi kjøpt en julegran
og en hel sekk ved.

For dem har vi kjøpt en bayer
og et stykke hestekjøtt.
Det siste skal minne om stallen
hvor frelseren blev født.

De fattiges herre og mester!
Det var ikke godt for ham.
Han hengtes til slutt på korset
midt mellom synd og skam.

Godt det er bare en skrøne
at Kristus er kommet påny.
Så blir det en fattig mindre
å nagle på kors i vår by.

Vi i de mørke gater
feirer i dag en fest.
Til jul får vi tyve kroner,
til påske: Korsfest! Korsfest!


Jobless Christmas

Us doomed to life

in the bone-grey city

celebrate a feast today

for him, born anew.


We’ve got twenty quid

to celebrate his coming!

We’ve bought a tree

And a full sack with it.


We’ve bought a beer

and a piece of horse meat.

This last to remember the manger,

Where our saviour was born.


Our poor lord and master!

It did him no good.

He hanged on the cross

between sin and shame.


It’s just as well it’s a lie

that Christ is come again.

One less poor bugger

to crucify.


We in the dark streets

celebrate a feast day today.

For Christmas we get twenty quid,

for Easter: Crosses! Crosses!


Headstuff Article on class and reading

Headstuff published a short feature article of mine today on their site about what it means to be a reader from a working-class background. It’s a topic I’ve wanted to write about for many years, but haven’t had the courage until now to tackle it. This is a topic I’ve been thinking about since I first started thinking about class way back in my teenage years. Books like Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy have helped me think through the meanings of being a working-class reader and the uses to which I put my own literacy. Here’s a short extract from the full article, which can be read here:

This is what happens to the self-conscious, the working-class reader: their education – set by those who they seek most to impress – teaches them to reject out of hand, because of its register, the place where they might actually first engage with reading – the only place perhaps.

Sailors, Servants, and Strangers: Norwegians in the 1901 and 1911 Irish Census

Recently I set about exploring people of Norwegian origin on the 1901 and 1911 census. As you can probably imagine, when the census was taken, the vast majority of Norwegians who showed up on the census were not actually resident in Ireland at all, but crew members of boats and ships docked in Ireland on the night the census was taken.

These included people like 16 year old Lars Larsen, one of three apprentice sailors of that age, docked in Belfast.

belfast ship 1901
A ship with Norwegian and Swedish crew docked in Belfast in 1901, when the census was taken.

In total, there were 296 Norwegian men in Ireland in 1901 when the census was taken. Most of them based in Belfast, Larne and Dublin. Not all were sailors however. Some were most likely the sons of sailors. Take John Wellington, born in Norway, according to the census but living on Strand Street in Malahide and working as a boat builder. He is listed along with his wife, Margaret, from Co Dublin and a nephew, Christopher Farrell.

Or consider Olaf Haaland, married to Margretta J Haaland, daughter of John Giffard of Rathmines, a man who lists his occupation as “Dividends”. A large family, who appear from their internationalism (another daughter is married to a London man) and their address, to have been fairly well-heeled. Olaf was not the only Haaland then living in Dublin. Sixty-five year old Lars Olsen Haaland, a Scandinavian interpreter, lived on Lower Leeson Street with his two daughters, Bertha and Marie. Bertha was a shopkeeper at a chandlery, and Marie worked as a book keeper at the Singer sewing machine shop.

Another unusual family was the Stromsoe family in Queenstown, now Cobh, Co. Cork. Fredrick was a naval store labourer married to Cork-born Mary Ann with whom he had five children. The Stromsoe family werent alone in settling in Ireland in these years. In 1911, we find the Gulbransen family in Belfast. There is Ahavoh Gulbransen and his wife Elizabeth,  both Belfast natives. Ahavoh’s father Paul Fredrick, 78, and born in Norway lives with them. Son,  like father, lists himself as a watchmaker.

At the house of eighty year-old Agnes Warden in Sneem, Co. Kerry there were among her large retinue of servants (14 in total), four Norwegian men: Andreas Williamson, 43, a sailor and carpenter; Ernst Christiansen, 30, also a sailor by occupation; Conrad Christiansen, 25 and presumably Ernst’s brother who was a carpenter and Peder Johannesen, 37, and also a carpenter.

While there were in both years more men on the censuses from Norway thanks to sailors on board ships, the women who lived in Ireland from Norway were by and large young, presumably unmarried women who worked in domestic service of one kind or another. We’ve already seen the daughters of Lars Olsen Haaland,  but therec was also girls like Anna Ganda Berger send,  a 22 year old from Stange, Norway who worked as a cook for the Couser family in Armagh.

Or the Ganserod sisters who worked in a house on University street in Belfast. They worked for Anna Hunter, a 52 year old school principal.  The sisters,  Anna and Elisabeth, were 23 and 19 years old respectively. Anna, the elder of the two, had duties including being cook while Elisa was listed as a house maid.

The Wellwood family of Pottinger Co. Down had Sigrid Christiansen, 23, working as a nurse and domestic servant for them.

However, it wasn’t just young Norwegian girls employed as domestics by irish families, as the case of Nicoline Engelsen Lund illustrates.  Lund, 50 at the time of the 1901 census,  was one of four servants working in a house in Whitechurch, Kilkenny. The head of the house was Mabel Bryant, a 30 year old with a newborn son.

As ever, such discoveris raise as many questions as they seem to provide Anderson.  Through what networks were these young women in their twenties finding work in Ireland as domestic servants being key among them?  Is it sheer coincidence?

And what to make of the various Norwegian and part Norwegian dailies this cursory research brings to light? So small and scattered were they that they could scarcely be said to form a coherent group in Ireland at the time. And yet, one must wonder to what extent they maintained links with Norway as a country as it, a few years before Ireland,  became independent?

Perhaps the only thing that can be said for certain at present about these apparently anamolous Norwegian enclaves is this: between the sailors, servants and strangers to Ireland it is clear that there was some networks between the countries which are now perhaps lost to us. It is a reminder,  healthy and not a little timely, to recall that Irish life is as much a part of the world of the North Sea as it is a product of the Atlantic world. Indeed much the same point is made by Daryl Leeworthy in his work on Cardiff’s Norwegian Sailor’s Church.  It is a reminder to us that Ireland’s  historical interactions with the outside world see us not confined to our antagonisms with Britain or our emigration to the USA.

There are other stories we can tell about early twentieth century Ireland that frame us differently. An Ireland where Norwegian girls came to work as domestic servants, where interpreters lived and brought up their families, where our docksides were enlivened with the conversation and camaraderie of Norwegian and Swedish  sailors.


Smash Nazism: Public Sculpture and Politics

Every day as I head to work, my train pulls into Oslo Sentralstasjon invariably at platforms 15 or 16. This means I either swing round the station entirely on the walk to work, or if I go through it, I go through the Østbanehallen. Exiting the Østbanehallen, I am confronted each time with a large silver hammer smashing a swastika.

This sculpture, erected last year, and titled Knus nazismen, “Smash Nazism”, is unsubtle in conveying its message perhaps, but such unsubtle responses to present fascist tendencies are exactly what are required. It is a big silver hammer shattering a swastika on a black plinth. Many regard it as ugly, but it’s the bluntness of the message – and the fact that it helps to recognise the efforts of some of Norway’s less celebrated but often most daring resistance members that mark it out as an important public art work.

The artist behind the sculpture, Bjørn Melbye Gulliksen, from Sandefjørd, was born just one year after the Second World War came to an end. He himself was  leader of the visual artists’ trade union in Norway in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In a piece of apt symbolism, the new sculpture was revealed outside of the train station on 1st May – traditionally the day to celebrate international labour.

The sculpture is controversial not only artistically but because of those whom it commemorates: the Osvald Group. A resistance group led by Asbjørn Sunde, a committed communist, he was convicted in 1954 of spying for the Soviet Union. Sunde was a sailor and later fought in the Spanish Civil War as a member of the international brigades and a leader of the NKP – Norway’s Communist Party. The communist-leanings of Sunde’s Osvald Group (so-called because Sunde went under the alias of Osvald Pettersen in this period), meant that their role as resistors to Nazism and Quisling’s puppet regime went unrecognised for many years in Norway.

Five members of the Group are still alive and when the statue was unveiled last year, one of the five was quoted as saying:

“I think the unveiling was dignified and fine,” Anne Marie Malmo, who was part of the Osvald Group in Bergen, told Aftenposten. “What’s most important is that those who gave their lives (to the resistance effort) will be remembered.”

The base of the sculpture has two plaques: one to NSB workers who died during the Second World War, including two members of the Osvald Group.

The second plaque, specifically for Osvald Group members, see those two names appear again. The base of the sculpture also contains a quote from Sunde which translates as:

“It was worth fighting for the freedom—for all nations, for all races, for all classes, for all people”.

In times when we are faced with the prospect of emerging forms of ethno-nationalism throughout Europe, and fascism under the Orwellian name of the “alt-right” in the United States, such public sculpture and the story of resistance fighters like NSB workers and the Osvald Group become more important than ever to remember.The bluntness of a hammer smashing a swastika is a clear message: there should be no place in our world for such hate.

Decies no.72 Launch


Over the weekend while visiting my home in Waterford, I spoke at two events. The first was Booze Blaas and Banter as part of the Imagine Arts Festival hosted by the Waterford Council of Trade Unions. The second event, also part of the festival, was the launch of the newest issue of Waterford Archaeological and Historical Society‘s journal, DeciesI spoke alongside Tom Hunt and The Knotted Chords, a Waterford two-piece who provided the music. Here is an edited text of my short talk:

I want to talk briefly tonight to you all about some thoughts I have been mulling over for a while and of which the article on family history in the current issue of Decies is a product.

The article has been a long time in the making. It began its life as a series of blogposts I wrote on my own blog, the sidelines of history, and evolved over time and thanks to Cian’s encouragement into what is in the journal as we have it before us. In the article I make case studies out of several people in my family who I learned about while doing my family tree over the past year or so. I tried to look at their lives and explain them in relation to more well-known themes from Irish history: the history of the revolutionary decade, from the view point of labour and also emigration history. I wanted to do it in part because I wanted to share what I thought were interesting stories from my family that have helped me to learn not just more about myself and my family but have taught me something about those major historical themes.

Among the ordinary people we often find the most extraordinary stories. A long time ago, in an interview I did for a local paper, I said that it was important for me that people should recognise themselves in their history and I still believe that. The world has enough – and will continue to have – the histories of kings, and generals, of the wealthy and the powerful. What marks the era since the middle of the 1900s as unusual is the interest we can take in the history of people like us – ordinary people who lived in and help make their own times extraordinary. We must not lose sight of the fact that this is an unusual and revolutionary turn in the focus of history. We must continue to write and research about the lives of ordinary people who may not have changed the world in the way we normally understand that idea – but who in their own lives and their own experiences of the world have something valuable to teach us about their time and about our own time. It is imperative, especially in the climate of the world at present, that the stories of ordinary people are not swallowed up, simplified, spat back at them and ignored.

As someone who is currently describing himself as a recovering academic, I have begun to think more and more about the function of history outside and beyond the academy. History for most of us is a deeply personal thing. There are often gaps between the personal histories we carry with us from our families and the official version of national or local history as we learn it in school. History is not just written by the winners, it usually written by those who can write. And those who can write, traditionally have been those who have had power. The battle is not always a literal one, but it is always a vital and a real one.

The great bulk of people crop up almost nowhere in the historical record. The powerful have a tendency to write about themselves and as long as history belongs to the powerful then our own, more common histories, will continue to be ignored and forgotten, yet more victims of the condescension of posterity. Of course, as my own article highlights, this is changing slowly but it’s a change we must be careful to to nurture. As anyone who has dipped their toe into the vast world of family history and genealogy can tell you, in our age of recording and tabulating – going back to the beginning of the nineteenth century especially – it is easier to find your relatives than ever before. The vast explosion in websites like ancestry and others like it has aided this process greatly as does the general process of the digitization of records like birth, marriage and death certs.

But if we are serious about genealogical history, about family history, being more than a mere pastime for people – if we want our personal family narratives, the ones which complicate and contradict the official strands of the historical record, to count for something then we need these things to be written about. We need to teach people more than how to simply find the name and birth and death date of their great-great-grandmother. We need to teach people how to think about the lives these people would have lived – to think more about the choices people were forced to make in the course of their lives so that you have ended up in this place and time in your life. Inside all of our family histories lurk the very things that drive “serious” history. If all the world is indeed a stage, and all the men and women in it merely players than we must give greater consideration of the roles they played. For it is the ordinary people of the world, who have and always will outnumber the powerful and the privileged, who have done most to shape the world even as they are told they have done the least.

So, here is my hope for my article – that by reading it, those people who research their own family trees and their own family histories will stop not when they have stretched back to their four-times-great-grandmother, and say the family history is complete. Instead, I hope my article will encourage people to ask questions about why their great-grandmother gave birth to twelve children only six of whom survived or why it was their great-grandfather went to work abroad for a decade or any number of the things which happened to these people as they lived their lives in their own times. Only by answering those questions can we really begin to write our own histories. Only by writing our history can we claim some power over the narrative. Only with the power that comes from knowledge of our own complicated version of the past can we begin to question the version of history which can look so unlike the one we experience.

My new home

I live in a railway village now. Harestua. Part of the Lunner Kommune, it is in the Oppland county of Norway, around a 45 minute train ride from Oslo Sentralstasjon. It is what the Norwegians call a tettsted. It is a small commuter village, which most people would, getting the train from Gjøvik to Oslo or vice versa, almost certainly pass by, not giving it a thought in the world.  There isn’t much to the rows of houses that slope down to Harestua vantnet, to be sure, but it’s worth getting off at the Harestua stop on the Gjøvikbanen to take a walk around. Behind the railway track, going east and slopping up away from the village, there are many trails that, in the summer are good for walking, and in the winter, good for cross-country skiing. Like all such small places, though, there is much more to them than first meets the eye. Harestua is not a historically significant place but that doesn’t mean there’s an absence of history here either.

The railway that runs from Oslo S to Gjøvik, the Gjøkivbanen, was completed between 1900 and 1902. The train first rain to Harestua on Tuesday December 18 1900, including the crown prince, Gustav, son of King Oscar II, leaving Grefsen in the north of Oslo at 9.10 am. As the line extended out from Oslo north towards Gjøvik so too did this the village of Harestua spring up, from among the railway workers, who decided to settle here along the line as they built it.

Harestua train station as it looked in the early 1960s.

The town was, otherwise, a place of subsistence farming, and the combination of poor farmers and railway workers made the village a strongly left-wing place as Det Norsk Arbeiderpartiet rose to prominence. Indeed, as early as 1896, there was a march of workers from Harestua and Grua to Sand, where they marched with a red banner saying: Frihed, Lighed, Broderskap’ or ‘Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood’. Translated another way, that’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. As they marched, they were flanked by two white banners. One of these white banners read ‘Vi krever alminnelig stemmeret for alle’ ‘we demand universal suffrage’ and another read ‘Vi krever 8 timers arbeidsdag’, ‘we demand an 8 hour workday.’[1] This early agitation helps to give some flavour of the local politics. But such politics was not local alone, and would in time come to underpin the strong social democratic tendencies of Norway.

Despite this strong leftist bent, Harestua was by all accounts still a strongly Christian village, and people would move freely between the church and the party hall. Before the trains, the nearest place with a church was Grua. To get to church on Sunday, you had to walk there and back. As Marie Aubert Kleven writes:

fram till 1924 måtte befolkningen på Harestua helt till Lunner-toppen for å komme til kirke og kirkegård. Det var lang vei for å få utført kirkelige handlinger – og for å delta i konfirmantundervisning!

Until 1924 the people of Harestua had to travel to Lunner-top to get to the church and cemetery. It was a long way to go to attend church events – and to participate in confirmation lessons! [2]

A photo of part of the Solar Observatory above Harestua.

Harestua has always been a small place. But, its most famous landmark is the solar observatory built high on its eastern flank, tucked away up behind the village and the train
line. Built at a height of 580m, construction began at the end of the 1940s with the way to the site built first. The observatory became operational in 1954 for the University of Oslo. It would remain in operation until 1986. Since then it has served as an educational facility under the care of the Tycho Brahe Institut and also functions as a conference centre.

[1] Stenersen, Helge, Røykenvikbanens historie: og mye, mye mer, Brandbu : Helge Stenersen, 1981, p.32.

[2] Kleven, Marie Aubert, “Kirken og Harestua”, in Ekeberg, Magnus (ed.),  Harestuas historie : en artikkelsamling, Harestua: 1997, p.97.


George Toms 1870-1911

George Toms logbook 008
George Toms’ picture postcard from his Continuous Certificate of Discharge.

Doing family history is all about patience, and oftentimes luck. Occasionally something will fall into your hands that helps to flesh out a part of the family story. Recently, I was lucky enough to be given the Continuous Certificate of Discharge of my great-grandfather, George Toms. This document, issued by the Board of Trade, gave a description the seaman who owned it, along with details of the ships he sailed. This means that for the ships George Toms sailed on we have the following information:

  • The name of the ship, its official number, it’s port of registry, and its tonnage
  • The date and place of engagement
  • The seaman’s rating
  • The date and place of discharge
  • A description of the voyage (usually destination)
  • The signature of the Master
  • A report for character for a) ability and b) for general conduct

That means we now have a much clearer sense of the life he lived and who he was.

Born in Tramore, Co. Waterford on July 25 1870, by the time he was 5, George’s father had died. When he was just seven, his brother William, only ten years old also died. We know very little of his life from the age of seven until he was 29. At 29 he had a brief run in with a local RIC officer and was charged with public drunkenness, and fined 1s 6d at the Petty Sessions Court. Within a year, he was married to my great-grandmother, Sarah Kelly. The same year that George got married – he was married sometime between July and September of 1900 – is the same period after which we have his Continuous Certificate of Discharge.

According to the details of this document, George was 5’4 in height, with blue eyes and brown hair. His complexion is described as being fair. As was the norm in those days for sailors, George had two tattoos. Marcus Rediker in Outlaws of the Atlantic notes: “the original purpose of the tattoo was deeper than decoration: many a sailor wanted a telltale mark on the body so that in the event of catastrophic death he could be identified and properly buried.” One, on his left arm, with his initials GT, and another, on his right arm, of a harp and shamrock – both signifiers of his Irish identity, and together with his initials, undoubted aids for identification in the case of drowning. The culture of tattooing among sailors is generally said to stretch back to the 18th century, and, was particularly strong as a culture among sailors in Britain in the 19th century – the same culture of which George was a part. Rediker places tattooing into the wider culture of the sailor’s yarn, saying of tattoo symbols, like the heart “could prompt tales of loved ones back at home, while a liberty cap, pole, or tree could elicit a political rant bout ‘liberty’, a favourite theme among sailors in the age of revolution.” As well as identifying him as Irish, George’s harp and shamrock may well have elicited similar yarns about Ireland.

According to his certificate of discharge, George sailed a good deal between November 1900 and April 1905. According to this document, his first engagement was aboard the Eugenie, a London registered ship. He was engaged to work on the ship at Newport, Monmouthshire in Wales, and was listed as being AB, or an able seaman, which meant he probably had several years previous experience of working aboard ships. He would sail aboard the Eugenie to the Black Sea, returning on new year’s eve 1901, disengaging at Penarth in Glamorgan, Wales. Aboard the same ship in the course of the same journey, he made a trip to Malta, starting out from Penarth on 4 January 1901 and returning to Newport on 25 February 1901.

George was engaged again three months later again at Newport, this time aboard the s.s. Bona, on which he would travel to both the Mediterranean and the USA, returning 10 months later on 12 March 1902 to the port at Liverpool. The s.s. Bona turns up in the Port of London Medical Officer’s annual report, as having two cases of Enteric fever (Typhoid), on June 2 1902, a little under three months after George was disengaged. That year had seen a huge “war against the ship rat” according to one newspaper. According to the Medical Officer for January of that year in the Port of London with 2,293 ships inspected, there was some 7,626 destroyed. The danger of the diseases borne aboard ships making their way away around the ports of Britain and Ireland was a serious one, and one more of the many dangers faced by men like George while engaged in this difficult, laborious work.

SS Hypatia on the Clyde.png
The s.s. Hypatia, one of the ships on which George sailed during the period 1900-1905.

After another two month spell, George was engaged aboard the s.s. Hypatia, sailing out of Barry in Glamorgan, and bound for the Cape. It returned to Barry on the 28 July 1902. George was not to sail again for almost twelve months out of Britain.

On 6 July 1903, he was engaged aboard the s.s. Harmodius out of Liverpool and was bound for Rosario in the Santa Fe province of Argentina. Lying 300km north-west of  Buenos Aires on the Paraná river, the Port at Rosario began operating in 1852. George returned to Liverpool on 17 November 1903, and would not sail again out of a British port for over twelve months.

The Port of Rosario in Argentina as it looked in 1910. source: wikicommons.

He may have returned to sailing in December 1904 on account, in part at least, following the birth of his and Sarah’s first son, my grandfather, John earlier in 1904. And so it was he left once more from Barry in Glamorgan, this time aboard the s.s. Peareth also bound for Rosario, returning after five months to Bristol on 1 April 1905. This is the last trip recorded in this Continuous Certificate of Discharge. Although it was probably a matter largely of formality, in his Continuous Certificate of Discharge, George received stamps of “very good” in his Report of Character, for all of these journeys. This Report of Character covered both ability and general conduct. After returning from Bristol, George lived and worked out of Waterford, and both he and Sarah had four more children, one of whom, named George, was born in 1905, but died in his first year of infancy.

SS Peareth.jpg
The s.s. Peareth, the last ship George sailed according to his Continuous Certificate of Discharge.

George Toms himself would die at a young age, not long after he turned forty-one. On 19 December 1911, while working aboard the s.s. Reginald, this experience sailor fell from the deck while securing the covers of the on-deck cargo, and drowned before he could be rescued from the river. He was buried by Thompson’s of Waterford, in a walnut coffin, in Tramore where he had been born for a cost of £6 10s. It is ironic perhaps that this sailor, who had been far and wide aboard many ships, should drown not in waters remote from his home, but in the river that runs out to sea so close to where he was born and his family lived.

Frank Edwards: International Brigader, Teacher, Rugby Player

This year is the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, which ran from 1936-1939 and ended ultimately in victory for Franco and his military dictatorship. One of the most remarkable aspects of the republican side of the Spanish civil war was the International Brigades, which drew people from across the left spectrum to Spain to fight in aid of the Spanish republicans during the war.

Many men from across Ireland fought and died in the Spanish Civil War, including several from Waterford. Most famous of the Waterford international brigaders is Peter O’Connor but I want to focus today on Frank Edwards. Edwards was the son of Belfast Catholics who moved to Waterford and where Edwards would grow up. Edwards would train to be a teacher and would have a stint in Waterford’s famous Mount Sion school.

There are many references to Edwards in the local press before he went to fight in Spain. The earliest is a reference to his exam success in 1925, when he “passed with considerable credit the Easter Examination for teachers, and has entered on his course for training.” (Sept. 25 1925) Among the other early references to him, which might be a surprise to some, are in relation to his involvement with rugby. Although he played his rugby with his school Waterpark, the earliest sporting reference to Edwards was his inclusion in a CYMS team that played against Fethard (Oct. 11 1929). In 1930, he was elected team secretary of the Waterford City Rugby Club (Sept. 19 1930). His involvement with Waterpark did not abate and he was elected an officer of the Old Boy’s club in 1928. Edwards turned out for Waterpark in a game against Waterford when the new rugby grounds at Ballinaneeshagh, on the site of the old Bully’s Acre was opened in 1928 (Octo. 12 1928). When a Waterford selection took on Limerick’s Young Munster’s the following month, Edwards was a part of the team (Nov. 16 1928).

Edwards was also in a Waterford selection that played a Cork selection for trials for a junior interprovincial game in 1929 (Feb. 9 1929). The same year Edwards was elected onto the committee of the Waterford Boat Club (March 8 1929). He would remain a stalwart of the local rugby scene however and was part of the Waterford City team that bear Dolphin in 1930 at the Mardyke to win the Munster Junior Cup (May 9 1930).

Edwards’ interests extended well beyond sport, and he was also a  member of the local Gaelic League, being a committee member of the city branch (Oct. 14 1932). Edwards, before he went to Spain worked as a teacher in Waterford, and was admitted to the Waterford branch of the INTO (Irish National Teacher’s Organisation) in 1928 (Jan. 27, 1928). By 1934, he was treasurer of the East Waterford branch of the INTO and was also involved as treasure of the Waterford Workers’ Council. (Feb. 2 1934; March 29 1935).

It was through his membership of the INTO and the Republican Congress that he would become well-known in Waterford beyond the city’s small rugby fraternity. As a member of the Waterford Workers’ Council he was critical of the then Fianna Fáil government being quoted as saying in 1933 that in his view the government did not “sypmathise with the masses” (March 24 1933). Only a month before, he let it be known that he felt that the people of Waterford would be better served by the provision of more housing, rather “than in the erection of houses for stray cats, one of which was being provided in this country on the most up-t0-date lines.” (Feb. 10 1933)

Edwards was the head of the local Republican Congress and was speaking when a major riot broke out between those who supported the Republican Congress and the Blueshirts in 1934. (June 8 1934). His involvement in the Republican Congress saw Edwards fired from his post in Mount Sion, and his students went on sympathetic strike to have him re-instated in 1835, causing uproar locally. During the course of the strike, the parents and children who were divided on Edwards and his situation clashed, leading the Civic Guards to charging at the crowd with their battons. (Jan. 18 1935)

Edwards remained in Waterford after this fiasco but went to Spain in December 1936, just two months after the passing of his mother. After the Spanish Civil War, he would return to Ireland, and would spend the remainder of his teaching career at the Zion School in South Dublin, a primary school for Dublin’s Jewish community.

“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.

Reading History: George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier

wigan pier

I can still remember it well. In history class in St. Paul’s Community College, we came to a section in our textbooks (Dermot Lucey’s Modern Europe and the Wider World for those of you interested) on the Great Depression and the changing political situation in Britain. Here was the Jarrow Crusade in vivid detail, with the most extraordinary of photographs. And along with it there was a quote from a book by George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier.

To that point, all I knew about Orwell was Animal Farm and 1984, neither of which I’d yet read. But this quote jumped out at me – something about the condition of working-class English people in this period resonated with me. Curiously, this was around 2005 or 2006, during “the good times”. I was completely enthralled, and in what I am nearly certain was my first ever Amazon purchase, I sought out this book and began a relationship with the writing of George Orwell that has scarcely altered since. While I may be more circumspect about some of his writing now, at the time I was utterly dazzled by it. And with The Road to Wigan Pier, I was struck by its sense of justice. It’s sense of what was unjust and what might change it.

I have re-read the book several times since, but have not now read it for many years. Like with other books I’ve written about for this little series, The Road to Wigan Pier exists as part of my mental furniture on several different levels: first, as a book which I devoured and when I had read less books than I have now, thought it unsurpassable. Second, and more importantly perhaps, it exists as a reminder to me of the kind of work I one day hope to write; it is a book moreover which encourages me to constantly think about the value of not alone what write, but about what use writing can be for at all. If by writing we cannot affect change, then what are we, as historians, social commentators, or even bloggers writing for, exactly?

And one might ask, what use reading, if not to have a similar effect? This was a question posed some time after by Richard Hoggart in his classic The Uses of Literacy. Hoggart’s was a book which I only read for the first time during my PhD, having been introduced to it by a friend. Now as I look at my decade old, Penguin  Modern Classics edition of The Road to Wigan Pier, I note that it is Hoggart who penned the short introduction that prefaces Orwell’s text. Perhaps most astutely observed by Hoggart is this (the introduction was written in 1989):

it is easy to see why the book created and still creates so sharp an impact; so much adverse notice on the one hand, so much grateful fellow-feeling on the other. Above all, it is a study of poverty and, underlying that, of the strength of class divisions. Orwell notes with contempt how in 1937 it was fashionable to say that class divisions were fading in Britain. Twenty years later I published a book which made similar points, and was told by some reviewers that I was grievously mistaken, that class feeling was virtually dead. Thirty more years on and the same things are being said. Class distinction do not die; they merely learn new ways of expressing themselves. Orwell’s stance in this matter is completely up to date. Each decade we shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty. (vii)

Hoggart here fixes upon something which makes The Road to Wigan Pier timeless in many respects. Orwell’s ideas as expressed in it, are still vital to someone who wishes to understand the real social impact of unemployment and who wants to really understand the ways in which class functions. Take this for instance:

In the kind of shabby-genteel family that I am talking about there is far more consciousness of poverty than in any working-class family above the level of the dole. Rent and clothes and school-bills are an unending nightmare, and every luxury, even a glass of beer, is an unwarrantable extravagance… In such circumstances you have got to cling to your gentility because it is the only thing you have; and meanwhile you are hated for your stuck-up-ness and for the accent and manners which stamp you as one of the boss class. (115-117)

Here we have Orwell discussing what in many ways has been and continues to be a defining feature of class formation in the post-industrial age: what Pierre Bourdieu identified as social and cultural capital. And in this single passage we also see why Hoggart in his introduction is able to say that the book is a study of “the strength of class divisions”. It is not just an antagonistic working-class who make themselves distinct from other classes but also the downwardly mobile middle-class (a growing constituency today) who make sharp distinctions between themselves as people with superior social and cultural capital. This is especially the case when their actual monetary situation is no better, and perhaps even worse, than working-class counterparts. Orwell would undoubtedly recognise the anxiety of today’s downwardly mobile middle-class easily. Consider this passage on the real impact of unemployment:

When you see the unemployment figures quoted at two millions, it is fatally easy to take this as meaning that two million people are out of work and the rest of the population is comparatively comfortable… This is an enormous underestimate, because, in the first place, the only people shown on unemployment figures are those actually drawing the dole – that is, in general, the heads of families. An unemployed man’s dependants do not figure on the list unless they too are drawing a seperate allowance. A Labour Exchange officer told me that to get the real number of people living on (not drawing) the dole, you have got to multiply the official figures by something over three. (69)

Not only was Orwell able to distinguish the difference between an individual living on a means tested dole, but the impact this would have on their dependants, in a passage that followed immediately after, he was able to pinpoint the reality of being underpaid – in contemporary discourse, precarity:

…in addition there are great numbers of people who are in work but who, from a financial point of view, might equally well be unemployed, because they are not drawing anything that can be described as a living wage. (69)

Thus, Orwell in writing this book, though written many years ago and in a very specific context has provided anyone who reads this book with an extraordinary weapon: an ability to critically analyse a situation, to empathise with but also distance oneself critically from people and assess the material conditions in which they find themselves. So we find a critique of class distinction, of means testing, of precarity, of a failure to provide a living wage all in words that ring true today, first penned in 1937.