Story of Waterford’s first Jewish wedding in 1894 to feature alongside Representations of Jews in Irish Literature exhibition

I am delighted to say some of my research on the history of Waterford’s Jewish community will feature as part of an exhibition at Waterford Institute of Technology’s Library for the month of February. Below are full details of the exhibit:

Ulster University and the National University of Ireland Galway are pleased to announce a partnership with Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) which will see the Representations of Jews in Irish Literature exhibition being brought to Waterford. Representations of Jews in Irish Literature will be launched by poet Simon Lewis, who has recently published a collection of poetry Jewtown. Lewis was the winner of the Hennessy Emerging Poetry Prize and runner-up in the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award in 2015. The exhibition will be hosted by WIT for the month of February and will feature a complimentary display of materials relating to Jewish culture and identity including an exploration of the lives of Miss Fanny Diamond and Mr Jacob Lappin, the first Jewish couple married in Waterford on 14 November, 1894.

The exhibition is the first major output of a three-year research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council which charts the representations of Jewish identity, culture and life in Ireland from medieval through to modern times. It examines the portrayal of Jews in the literary record alongside the contribution of Irish-Jewish writers to Irish literature and celebrates this unique hyphenated identity.

A Jewish wedding takes place at the Waterford Courthouse in 1901. Source: wikicommons.

Mr Kieran Cronin, Developmental Librarian, WIT, welcomed the collaboration: “WIT is delighted to be partnering with Ulster University and the National University of Ireland Galway to bring this illuminating and pioneering exhibition to the south east of Ireland. We share the curator’s vision that the exhibition works best when accompanied by primary local artefacts which shed light on Ireland’s Jewish history, which has largely been overlooked.”

“The WIT Libraries’ research into Waterford’s Jewish history has also opened up an exciting collaboration with San Francisco-based Valerie Lapin Ganley, producer of the documentary ‘Shalom Ireland’; to narrate the fascinating story of her great-grandparents’ wedding in Waterford in 1894.” This will include artefacts relating to the couple in display cases including copies of the wedding invitation and marriage certificate amongst other documents that can be found. Having a very successful debut in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin on 30 June 2016, the travelling Representations of Jews in Irish Literature exhibition toured a number of key venues during the year including Armagh Public Library, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Coleraine Town Hall and the National University of Ireland, Galway.

Principal Investigator for the project, Professor Pól Ó Dochartaigh, Registrar and Deputy President of NUI Galway, commented: “The exhibition is testament to the fact that Irish literature reveals a cultural diversity that goes far beyond narrow stereotypes, and I would encourage everyone to come here and see for themselves what such diversity has meant in Irish literature.”

Director for the Centre of Irish and Scottish Studies at Ulster University and Project Team member, Dr Frank Ferguson also said: “This is a very significant project for Irish literary studies and one which shall make a major contribution to our understanding of the history and the cultural expression of Jews in Ireland. It is marvellous to see the interest that the project has already gained since its first official launch last summer and we are very pleased to be partnering with Waterford Institute of Technology to allow the exhibition to travel to the South-East.” The launch is due to take place at Waterford Institute of Technology on Wednesday, 1 February 2017.

The exhibition and launch are free to attend but booking is required. Those seeking further details and to attend the exhibition in February and its launch on 1 February should contact Peggy McHale by email or by telephone at: +353 51 302877 and email:

Representations of Jews in Irish Literature Exhibition – Waterford Institute of Technology will run for the month of February and will be launched on Wednesday, 1 February, 2017 at 6pm.


Books of 2016

As I did last year, I am going to list off the ten books I’ve read in 2016 that I think are worth hearing about. Many, if not most, are – like with my 2015 list – not actually necessarily published in 2016. I just happen to have read them in the last year. As it was with 2015, what I’ve enjoyed reading in 2016 has been motivated in part by the fact that I have once again moved countries; this time from the Czech Republic to Norway, and so some books I’ve read since coming here and have been using to help me learn more about my new home are present.

As usual the struggle with reading is tied up in the struggle with writing and the constant struggle to widen the horizons of the kinds of books I read. Such a list is also affected by the fact that it’s easier for me to recall what I’ve read probably in the last 3-6 months of the year than in the first half, but here goes.

Claire Louise Bennett – Pond

I’ve already written a long piece on the blog earlier this year after reading this book. A string of connected short stories, Pond is a powerful examination of secluded living. Absolutely essential piece of fiction.

Karl Ove Knausgård– A Death in the Family

The biggest name in Norwegian literature there is at the moment, Knausgård’s six-volume autobiographical novel, Min Kamp (My Struggle), a title which self-consciously invokes comparison with the title of Adolf Hitler’s screed Mein Kampf, is anything but. A Death in the Family is the English-language title of the first book in the series and, broadly speaking, revolves around Knausgård coming to terms with the death of his father although that hardly begins to do the novel justice. The fifth volume has just come out in English, and the sixth is on its way. The series has cemented Knausgård’s reputation and many more books are available in Norwegian and English of his. I am also currently reading his Home and Away, a series of letters he wrote with a Swedish author friend around the 2014 World Cup.

Neil Gaiman – American Gods

A book I’ve been vaguely aware of for years, I read this in the first few weeks of moving to Norway and I enjoyed it immensely, I read it just after finishing the next book on the list, and the centrality of a character named Wednesday, in homage to Odin, suited my new surroundings well. It is, I think the first piece of fantasy I have read in many years, and it was a thorough page-turner. A party I’m very late to, but glad to have arrived at nonetheless in the end.

Robert Ferguson – The Hammer and the Cross

Ferguson has just released a new book, Scandinavians, which reflects on his many years experience of life in Norway and the other Scandinavian countries. I picked up this book, The Hammer and the Cross, to get some better historical bearings on the viking period and the shifting sands of Norwegian and broader Scandinavian history. An excellent read, it provides a great overview of the impact that Viking invasion had not just on the countries they invaded but also the impact those places had on Viking belief systems in turn. A good companion book is Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World, a history of the world from the point of view of the North Sea.

Mike Savage – Social Class in the 21st Century

This Pelican introduction book, which was based in large part on the recent Great British Class Survey was assembled by a team of sociologists. It is an extraordinary attempt to map class as it appears in modern Britain (with parallels for Ireland and elsewhere). Attempting to define class in an age when someone may be economically less well off while having significant cultural and social capital is difficult but this book makes a fairly successful stab at asking questions around what things like the precariat really are and how it is that new forms of cultural capital actually operate.

Stephen King – On Writing

In an effort to spur myself into writing more again, I picked up this hugely entertaining memoir that while offering advice on writing in parts, is really the story of how to build writing into your daily life regardless of the motivation for that writing. It’s not a style guide or a strategy to write your first novel, but as a well-written book about the craft of writing, it provides its own fine example.

Susanna Clarke – Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Spurred on by the positive experience I had with Gaiman’s American Gods, I finally went on to read this book which has recently been adapted as a TV series by the BBC. Among the most fun aspects of the book are the copious footnotes and the entire world of magical scholarship which Clarke builds into the narrative.

Alberto Manguel – Curiosity

The first Alberto Manguel book I bought a few years ago was The Library at Night, a book which many of my friends will know, is among my favourite works of non-fiction. Here in Curiosity, Manguel uses Dante’s inferno and his guide in Virgil as the basis for an exploration of different forms of human curiosity. As you’d expect from Manguel if you’re familiar with his writing, it is erudite, philosophical, playful and ultimately affirming.

Robert MacFarlane – Landmarks

I had several years ago considered buying MacFarlane’s The Old Ways, his walking tour of Britain’s lost, old or obscured roads and routes but put it off. Living in the Czech Republic and now Norway, my interest in walking, and the kinds of knowledge it gives has only increased. So, when I saw this book by him which considers the words-we-don’t-use-much-anymore to talk about landscape and features of nature while out walking, I couldn’t resist. Although it focuses on words and names related to the British Isles, it is such a treasure trove of writing, and a brilliantly curious book, that it will make walking anywhere – through any place name – a much more interesting experience.

Frederic Gros – A Philosophy of Walking

As I continue to do more walking, and to think more about the pleasures of walking and hiking, this book provides an excellent overview of some of the philosophical aspects of what different kinds of walking mean. Whether you are keeper of assiduous habits always walking the same route at the same pace at the same time daily, are an ambler, stroller, parader or conqueror, this book will give you pause for thought about what it is we are doing, what we are actually after when we go out walking.

Are any of these in your top books of 2016, or any time? Anyway, here’s to a year of good reading and to a year of good reading to come in 2017!

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.

Per Ung’s Mannen med Sykkelen

As you walk up through Oslo city centre along Karl Johans gate, the street opens out into a big wide boulevard. On your left will be Stortinget, the Norwegian parliament, and the boulevard stretches all the way up the hill to the King’s Palace, taking in the National Theatre, and the magnificent Law Faculty of the University of Oslo.

In the most central part of the city, which is busy with tourists and locals, there are many public statues but one kept catching my eye, and it’s Per Ung’s Mannen med Sykkelen, Man with Bicycle.


I passed it a few times, bookmarking it in my mind to take the time to examine when I had a chance. I took the time to do so yesterday. Per Ung was a sculptor who was educated in his craft in part by Per Palle Storm, the man who’s work adorns Oslo’s Rådhuset which I wrote about before.

In fact, the style of Ung’s Mannen med Sykkelen  struck me as being so similar to the Rådhuset figures that Storm did, that I actually took notice of it mistakenly in the belief that it was more of Storm’s work.

One of the captivating things about Mannen med Sykkelen is that the figure has a certain insouciance about him, a confidence in his cycling abilities. I wondered before examining closely who it represented.

For the figure the sculpture represents, despite the name, is not just an everyman plucked from Ung’s imagination. In fact, the figure standing proudly next to his bike is Gunnar Sønsteby. Sønsteby, nicknamed “Kjakan”, or “the chin”, was a Norwegian resistance fighter during the Second World War. He was also codenamed No. 24 and took part in a wide range of resistance activities throughout the course of the war, spending time in Sweden and the UK. He is Norway’s most decorated citizen, and he died in 2012.

Ung’s sculpture of him with his bike was originally installed at Solis Plass when it was unveiled in 2007. However, after some 17th May celebrations got out of hand and the front wheel of the bike was stolen (and later put back), the sculpture was moved to its more discrete current location along Karl Johans gate, near to Spikersuppa among the trees.


The Guestbook

I recently took a hike up to Paradiskollen near Harestua with two friends. It was – to me – an unseasonably hot September evening. We left from Jeremy’s house at around 5.30pm and began our ascent through the forest nearby up towards the peak. The peak is 670m, or 2,198 feet. We started out at a good pace but I was disadvantaged by the fact that, in preparation for the sun going down and the cold to come in, I wore heavy pants with a t-shirt.  I brought a superfluous jacket. Jeremy and Marcus, both here much longer than me, sensibly wore shorts. In no time at all, I sweating buckets. Fortunately, Jeremy had sensibly packed a big litre bottle of water for us and I was the chief beneficiary. As we climbed, we spotted huge thickets of blueberries all along the path, mostly unpicked, and very ripe. After reaching maybe a third of the way up, we decided to take a breather, and went foraging through the scrub. A welcome break and we were, after picking great big handfuls of blueberries, ready to carry on. There was a deep red haze in the air that dispersed the sunshine, caused we thought by the trees sweating in the late September sun.

We climbed further and further up and eventually, assisted partially by ropes towards the end, we reached the peak. At the peak, I saw something left by the Den Norske Turistforening, which I really liked. There was a metal dial explaining what you could see around from the peak. The view was very impressive indeed. It was I think the highest I had ever yet climbed, and I was glad to have made it, more or less in one piece, to the top of this since I knew that soon I would be walking up Gaustatoppen, which comes in at something like the 1800m mark, more than double this. I have been told, and I hope, that Gaustatoppen – the highest peak in Telemark – has a gentler incline. I’ll need it, I thought, as I stood atop Paradiskollen. As well as the metal disk, with a guide to the views, in the shaft holding up the disk there was a metal box inside of which was a guestbook for us to sign.

I think this is a wonderful idea, and caps off the sense of achievement that comes with getting to the top of any peak, however big or small. Guest books are a big thing here in Norway. It is common that people keep as guestbook at their hytte (cabin). Den Norske Turistforening at their various turhytter, for those who want to go on long hikes and have a place to stay to break up their journeys overnight, also have guestbooks. It is also common in museums and similar such places. Guestbooks appeal to my sense of posterity. Always fascinated by them, I never pass up the opportunity to add my name to one.

I’ve signed guestbooks at museums, art galleries, hotels, castles and now, I can say, on top of a mountain. While guestbooks appeal to my sense of posterity, they are usually a reminder of finitude. After all, once you scribble your name into a guestbook, unless you come back to the same place with great regularity, you’ll never see your entry ever again. Your name will be one more name among the hundreds and perhaps even thousands of people to have signed them. Unless they are digitized and some future relative of mine, yet unimagined and unimaginable in their lives to me, scours online archives in search of references to me – whatever relation I might be to them. The chances that anyone connected to me – living or yet to live – will encounter those marks I’ve made in those guestbooks is slim enough. Pen’s mark lives on, but not the mouth that sang.[i]

This set me to thinking as to the purpose of guestbooks. To record guests of course. One who is entertained at the house or table of another. From Heorot’s hall to a mountaintop in Harestua. The word guestbook was first used in 1849, in Graham’s Magazine,  a magazine that was at one time a rival to Harper’s and was edited by Edgar Allan Poe. The term visitor’s book appearing three years before in 1846 in Punch. He plunged into the mysteries of the guestbook, a sentence in the February edition of Graham’s ran. And we’ve been plunging in ever since.

Today we often think of guestbooks as something you sign at the end of a museum exhibition. One person has colourfully described such means of public expression through the private medium of handwriting thus:

Some signatures have the literary quality of a drunken phone call, while others contain eloquence worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize. These institutionally sanctioned rants—these drive-by shootings—these political haiku—are special exhibits themselves…[i]

Outside of museums and exhibits, I associate a guestbook mostly with hotels. Not just any hotel. Hotels that were once country piles – expensive, but not showy – hotels with a certain regard for their own place – however minor or major – in history are the ones with guestbooks. Such guestbooks usually have an off-white or creamy paper, gold leaf about the edge of the pages, with a soft red real or faux leather cover.

I have never yet had the privilege to be the first to sign an empty guestbook. In a way, I’m glad of this. The guestbook after all is a physical, bound, lined, manifestation of the love people have for an exhibit, a hotel, or their friends and their cabin. What could be more unloved than a hotel with an empty or a near empty guest book? What says decline more than huge gaps between the dates between one entry and the next?

Only very rarely have I signed a guestbook at the end of its life, when there is just a page or two remaining. I have signed most somewhere in their middle age. There is a fullness to them – there are plenty of pages filled already, with guests who’ve come from far and wide and there are plenty of pages as yet unfilled, waiting for fresh marks and remarks.

Presented with a guestbook, I catch myself glancing immediately at the names just above where I will mark my entry. A neighbourly relationship is forming. Who will be my neighbours on this page, I wonder. I am interested first in rifling back through three or four of the closest pages, to find places I recognize. Occasionally, I hope to glance a look at someone who hails from the same place I do. My tastes widen then, and I search for those from the unusual or unexpected parts of the world. Then I look at names – seeking out the rare, the unusual. I marvel at the handwriting: the chicken scrawls, the cutesy and the cartoonish, the perfect cursive of those taught to write in close proximity to the teacher’s cane.

Some people leave a lot of themselves behind on the page. Full addresses, the number of their houses, postcodes and all. Some are more cryptic, a street or a town name, sometimes the country alone. Full names, initials, degrees, titles. Some leave little messages – congratulations on the wonderful exhibit, what wonderful hosts & how helpful the hotel staff were. Some draw smiley faces. Some use the guestbook as a chance to play, or to chide. Some write the date over and over again in their own hand, others following convention with a simple perfunctory “. Some add the time. Many of course leave nothing, unrecorded in the guestbooks. Their visit logged, if it all, only in their own memory banks.

We pressure the paper and make our mark with ink in the hope that pen’s mark lives on, but for me, the pleasures is the plunging in. Connecting ourselves with others, even those we don’t and will never know. Writing in a guestbook is at once all about saying I was here, I lived, visited this place once, saw this exhibit, but it is also strangely anonymous as an act. You somehow know no one is ever likely to read what you’ve written and yet you hope. After a few days, a few weeks, to say nothing of the passing of years, your entry will be beyond the onward march of the guestbook pages. Guestbooks work as a kind of intermittent census of yourself. A record of your movements for others. Take pleasure in the plunge as often as you can.


[i] Morris, Bonnie J., “The Frightening Invitation of a Guestbook”, Curator: The Museum Journal, Volume 54, Issue 3, July 2011, pp. 243–252.

[ii] Trevor Joyce, “Rome’s Wreck”, XXXII, in Selected Poems, 1967-2014, Bristol: Shearsman Books, p. 58.

“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.

Visiting Kutná Hora: How to be a tourist?

This weekend was a long weekend in the Czech Republic for May Day. And so, with Friday off, myself and herself went to the town of Kutná Hora, one of the 12 UNESCO World Heritage sites in the the Czech Republic. What we saw there was breathtaking – from the gothic splendour of St. Barbara’s Cathedral to the famous Sedlec Ossuary, with the bones of over 40,000 people who sought burial on the site, decorating the interior of the chapel. But we both left Kutná Hora a little uneasy: the historic town centre is preserved but was ghostly thanks not just to bank holiday, but also because the majority of the towns inhabitants live on the the edge of the town, in a series of high rise flats that run all the way from the historic town centre to the far edge where the Sedlec Ossuary can be found, and attracts over 200,000 visitors per year. A ghoulish place is Kutná Hora, but the spectres that haunt are not just those of the skulls in the ossuary, but the realities of making your town a tourist town – those hulking high rise flats also haunt. Continue reading “Visiting Kutná Hora: How to be a tourist?”

Reading History: Tom Hunt’s Sport and Society in Victorian Ireland

Moving on from my last ‘reading history’ post, I’ve decided to speed forward a little in time to a book I read in my first year as an undergraduate in University College, Cork. This book has had a profound influence not alone on me, but on my field of specialist research since it was first published in 2007. Continue reading “Reading History: Tom Hunt’s Sport and Society in Victorian Ireland”

Reading History: The Young Oxford History of Britain and Ireland

In a now famous injunction, E.H. Carr in his classic text What Is History? suggests that if you want to know the historian, then you should know their history. While Carr meant this in terms of the politics that will have informed the historian, I’m using it in this post, as a jumping off point for an extension of Carr’s injunction. More than just knowing the historian’s history, it might be worth knowing their reading history. And so, here’s a short look at one of the history books that I can both recall reading in a vivid way, but which has also survived in a way that many other books I was given over the years has not. Continue reading “Reading History: The Young Oxford History of Britain and Ireland”