Irish drama booming in Czech Republic

A Skull in Connemara, photo: P.Borecky (

Many Irish plays have appeared in Czech theatres in the last decade or so, in what has been something of a boom for Irish drama in the Czech Republic. The latest is A Skull in Connemara by Martin McDonagh, which recently received its Czech language premiere at Prague's Svandovo Divadlo.

In the bar after the premiere of A Skull in Connemara, director Martin Glaser explains what attracts him to the play's author, Martin McDonagh.

"I like his specific sense of humour. His strange stories, strange characters. In his plays there is something typical Czech I think. It's something we understand here. I have never been in Ireland but I think people in Ireland must be of the same nature as Czech people - the play with words, the sense of humour, the type of thinking."

A Skull in Connemara, in Czech 'Lebka z Connemary', also struck a chord with these audience members.

Young woman: "I think I liked the play, because I like Martin McDonagh's plays. I saw all of them that were produced in the Czech Republic."

Second young woman: "Yeah, I liked it. It was very tough, and quick and loud. I like this humour."

Martin McDonagh is just one of a number of contemporary Irish playwrights to have their work translated into Czech and staged in the Czech Republic. Others include Brian Friel, Conor MacPherson, Marina Carr and Enda Walsh.

Julek Neumann translated A Skull in Connemara, and by the way is himself married to an Irish woman. He offers an explanation for this trend.

"I think there are two reasons. One is that after 1989 society and especially theatrical society opened to the possibility to having access to Irish plays, Anglo-Saxon plays, plays in English in general...Irish plays have two reasons why they appeal. First the authors who are translated, which is mainly Brian Friel and Martin McDonagh are quite accessible.

"On the other hand, there is something very close between Czech people and Irish people. After all, the first line in the school book of Irish history starts with the line: Celts came to the Irish islands in the fourth century from southern Bohemia. Which I remember I was astonished to read."

Not far from Svandovo divadlo is Prague's Charles University, one of the oldest universities in continental Europe. Its Centre for Irish Studies, which grew out of a mid-90s Irish Studies Programme, can also claim some credit for making Irish drama more popular. Academic Clare Wallace.

"The idea of Irish literature, studying these fields, is a popular one here. We're the only programme in the Czech Republic. And many of our students go on to be reviewers or people who are engaged in various cultural bodies and so on.

"Also I think some will go on to be translators. And work done by former students and my colleague Ondrej Pilny in terms of translation has meant that Irish literature generally, as well as theatre, has appeared in Czech in print."

Dr Ondrej Pilny is the head of the Centre for Irish Studies. He has translated a number of Irish plays and authors, and recently edited the first complete collection of J.M. Synge's works in Czech. He says the popularity of Irish drama is by no means an entirely new thing.

"I suppose there would have been always a fairly strong tradition of staging Irish drama in the Czech Republic or Czechoslovakia even before that, because for instance we were one of the first countries in Europe to have translations of Synge, staged here at the National Theatre. The translator would have actually gone to Ireland to see Synge and discuss the translation with him. And playwrights like Sean O'Casey or Shaw would have been immensely popular throughout the 20th century."

As for the boom of recent years, what criteria decide which Irish plays are staged in the Czech Republic?

"You know, what gets translated I think is chiefly determined by the preferences of the dramaturges and by what they see as currently being successful, particularly I would say in London and in Germany. Hence I suppose the arrival of Martin McDonagh here big style in Czech theatres, because it was so successful. To an extent I suppose this would be true also of Marina Carr."

And are there any negative aspects to the trend of Czech theatres staging contemporary Irish drama?

"To me personally the one drawback to all this would be that there are actually quite a few Irish plays on by very few Irish authors. And in fact there is a much wider variety obviously of good plays which could be actually staged.

I suppose we still have a debt to playwrights like Tom Murphy for instance, where there would have been only a single play, Bailegangaire, produced ever, here. I think there are a number of other plays which certainly merit a production and I hope this is going to happen."

Clare Wallace: "I haven't seen all of them, but I've certainly seen a good selection. Some of them I really liked, and some of them I really felt were a little bit too deliberately...Irish. That sounds rather strange, but it was as if an extra layer of Irishness had to be put on the top. And I tend to not like those productions so much!"

One last issue is how much Czechs understand these plays. Some references will no doubt be lost on them - so does translator Julek Neumann ever feel the need to add some extra exposition, to help Czech audiences?

"I am trying to avoid it as much as possible, but sometimes I have to add one word or two words, just to explain what the context of some object is, or some character is, or would be in rural society. Because Czech society is mainly urban. And many of the aspects which are so characteristic of Irish society, like relationship with the land, property, disappeared after 1948 from the Czech subconscious.

"So sometimes I have to add but I am trying to do it as little as possible. I think the other problem I have is the level of vulgar language, which always poses a problem, because the Czech language has a completely separate set of references, which are much less sexual and much more excremental.

"Some words are still very offensive when spoken from the stage, so I sometimes have to balance the references very carefully when I'm translating."