From Finnegan’s Wake to Calisthenics: Czech-Irish relations in the first half of the 20th century


A book entitled “Czech-Irish Cultural Relations 1900-1950” may sound a little obscure, but this slim volume published last year by the Centre for Irish Studies of Prague’s Charles University is anything but a dull, dry thesis. The book covers a hugely interesting and complex period, during which Ireland emerged from centuries of rule from London and Czechoslovakia arose from the ashes of the Habsburg Empire. David Vaughan picks up the story, in this week’s Czech Books.

The book’s author is Daniel Řehák [publishing under the pseudonym Daniel Samek] from the Institute for Czech Literature, and his study of Czech-Irish cultural relations in the first half of the 20th century begins with a glance at the period before the First World War. Cultural links between the Czechs and the Irish went back centuries: Irish Franciscans had fled to Prague to escape persecution by Queen Elizabeth way back at the end of the 16th century; from the mid 17th century one of the most influential Bohemian noble families, which included the 19th century Austrian Prime Minister Eduard Taaffe, also hailed from Ireland – they even had a folly built on their estate in West Bohemia, made to look like their ancestral castle in Ireland. And even James Joyce has a Czech link. His sister Eileen married František Schaurek, a Czech working at the branch of the Živnostenská Bank in Trieste. Here is what Daniel Řehák’s book tells us on the subject:

A reported story of the 1914 wedding has Joyce stay faithful to his reputation of a punster, as he predicted a fruitful union based on the conjunction of “jajce” (eggs in Croatian, and the pronunciation frequently given to Joyce’s name by speakers of South Slavonic languages) and “šourek” (scrotum in Czech). It was due to Schaurek, originally Joyce’s student in a language course, that several Czech expressions and toponyms found their way into the author’s magnum opus, Finnegan’s Wake. Because of the letters he sent to his sister Eileen and František Schaurek, who were living in Prague during World War I, the Irish writer was put on the list of Czech arch-traitors by the Austrian secret police at the beginning of the war. This however happened only due to a curious blunder resulting from the fact that the secret policemen were unable to determine Joyce’s origin, and most likely his actual occupation either… Like the Schaureks, Joyce [later] returned to Trieste, where he frequently met members of the Jewish community and found there inspiration for Leopold Bloom, protagonist of Ulysses: Mr Bloom was modelled on two gentlemen, a Hungarian Jew by the name of Luis Blum and a Czech Jew called Leopold Popper.

Between the First and Second World Wars Czech-Irish links developed rapidly. At a diplomatic level, the reason was pragmatic. Daniel Řehák explains:

“At the end of the 1920s Britain began trying to protect its markets from a flood of goods made in Czechoslovakia, so Ireland seemed a good alternative. Czechoslovak exporters put pressure on the government in Prague to open a diplomatic mission in Dublin. The main focus was to be trade – to find markets for sugar, machinery and shoes.”

The man chosen for the job was Major Pavel Růžička – a charismatic figure, who had fought in the First World War in the famous Czechoslovak Legions in Russia.

“He took advantage of Ireland’s growing independence. Not only did he manage to get Czech and Sudeten German experts on the sugar-processing industry over to Ireland and secure the import of machinery from Brno, but he also helped to reform the system of physical training for the newly emerging Irish army.”

As a former soldier and World War I hero, Růžička had become a good friend of the Defence Minister, Frank Aiken, and Aiken was enthusiastic when Růžička suggested setting up a system based directly on the so-called Sokol training back home in Czechoslovakia. The Sokol movement – sokol means falcon in Czech – had been going strong since the 19th century as a patriotic gymnastics organization, and had become one of the symbols of the Czech national revival. By the 1930s it was also one of the largest sports organizations in the world. We pick up the story in Daniel Řehák’s book:

Collective exercise subordinated to an aesthetic ideal and underscored by music found avid adherents in Ireland. The musical accompaniment for Irish Sokols was first provided by Czech rally compositions, while the creation of Irish music for the purpose was eventually suggested. The task was performed by a music teacher from an army school, John Francis Larchet (1884-1967), who regularly met with Consul Růžička.

The degree of Irish enthusiasm for the Sokol movement is reflected in an interview that the Irish publisher, L. P. Byrne gave to Czechoslovak Radio, when he witnessed the huge Sokol gymnastic displays that took place in Prague in the summer of 1938. The recording is crackly, but it is not hard to pick up his enthusiasm even through the background noise.

“I have seen those magnificent pictures, 50,000 men engaged in physical exercise on a vast field. The picture fascinates, the thing itself was even more fascinating – glamorous, magnificent, tremendous – something that people in Western Europe do not realise from the pictures presented, something that needs to be seen, felt and experienced, to get the inner spirit and the force and the power behind that magnificent organization, to get the 20th century as against a Greek background.”

But not everyone in Ireland was so keen on Sokol. Daniel Řehák continues:

“Voices from Catholic circles began to make themselves heard, vehemently criticizing the idea of introducing the physical education methods of Sokol in Ireland, because Sokol was known as a movement built on free thinking, and, if anything, was anti-Catholic. Instead there were calls for Ireland to develop its own system, based on Gaelic games.”

Under this pressure, Růžička’s initiative foundered, although not before hundreds of young Irish had been given a taste of physical education, Central European style.

Being immensely sociable, Pavel Růžička was an ideal diplomat, supported by his wife Svatava, who was much celebrated for her cooking. They rapidly became the best known and most popular figures in Dublin diplomatic circles. And Růžička was also a man of many talents – among other things he was an accomplished musician and musical manager – arranging for the Czech Philharmonic to come to Dublin, and also the celebrated Prague String Quartet, which visited Ireland several times during his stay in Dublin.

Karel Košťál with his wife and Czech Foreign minister in exile Jan Masaryk  (left),  Dublin,  1944,  repro: Czech-Irish Cultural Relations 1900-1950
I have already mentioned that the Bohemian aristocratic Taaffe family had roots in Ireland. In the mid 1930s, Count Edward Taaffe, grandson of the one-time Austrian prime minister, found himself sinking into ever greater financial difficulty. He eventually sold the family estate of Nalžovy and moved permanently to Ireland, an event that did not go unnoticed in Dublin. At one time, Daniel Řehák’s book tells us, Taaffe was even considered as a nominee for president of Ireland, a full three hundred years after his ancestors had left the country and made their fortune in Bohemia in the Thirty Years War.

In 1936 the Consul Pavel Růžička was forced by ill health to return to Prague, and he was replaced in the Dublin posting by Karel Košťál, who remained throughout World War II, when his homeland was occupied.

“Košťál did not hand over the Embassy to the Germans, but held out throughout the war. In the uneasy atmosphere of neutral Dublin, he even did some spying on the Germans. It was thanks to his efforts that after the war the consulate was raised to the level of embassy.”

Košťál returned to Prague, and Pavel Růžička came back once again to Dublin in 1947, this time with the full status of Ambassador.

When the communist takeover happened in Czechoslovakia in February 1948, Ambassador Pavel Růžička soon got his bearings, being an ex-Legionnaire who had personal memories of Soviet Russia. He convened a press conference where he outlined what was happening in Prague without any ambiguity and proclaimed that he would not serve the communists. He assembled the archive of the Czechoslovak mission and dispatched it to the Embassy in London. The communists tried to woo Růžička back home, promising him a pension; when the effort failed, they proceeded to confiscate all his property. Růžička subsequently occupied the Embassy building and confiscated its furniture in reaction to his dispossession. The communists demanded redress of the Irish Government; however, the Irish representatives sabotaged the matter, due to the expulsion of the Apostolic Nuncio from Czechoslovakia, and even went as far as refusing to issue visas to the “liquidators” of the Embassy… The communists gave up their effort to regain control over the Embassy in 1950 and closed down the mission to Dublin entirely.

Pavel Růžička and his wife Svatava remained in Dublin. But, despite the Cold War, their work to build on Czech-Irish links did not end there:

The auspicious foundations of Czech-Irish cultural and economic relations were to be paralysed for almost fifty years to come. The Růžičkas, who had become the epitome of all things Czech in Dublin for several decades, maintained their livelihood due to the culinary skills of Mrs Růžička by producing continental delicacies for Magill’s Oriental and Continental Foods, a shop located between Grafton Street and Clarendon Street.

Quite a contrast with the status they had known before the war – and both were fully aware that they would never return home. Pavel Růžička died in 1961, forgotten and ignored in Czechoslovakia, but much loved in his adopted city of Dublin. It was to be another 30 years before Czech-Irish relations were able to build once again on the links that he had so carefully forged before the war – a period that you can read more about in Daniel Řehák’s book “Czech-Irish Cultural Relations: 1900-1950".