Irish Franciscans in Prague

When, at the end of the 16th century, the English Queen Elizabeth drove all members of the Franciscan religious order out of Ireland, little did she realize that she was creating a link between the Irish and Czech nations that was to last nearly two centuries. Ironically, while the counter-reformation meant that for much of the 17th century Czech Protestants were forced to seek refuge abroad, Catholic refugees found refuge here in Prague. Among them were the Irish Franciscan friars, who became an important religious community here in the city. A new book has been launched that traces this Czech-Irish link. David Vaughan reports.

The launch of the new book, The Hibernians in Prague, was accompanied by Irish folk music, played by the band, "Asonance", whose members are all Czech lovers of Celtic music. Bohemia is said to be one of the ancient heartlands of the Celtic people, going back over two-and-a-half thousand years, but the new book represents a far more recent and tangible link between the Czechs and the Irish. One of the book's authors, Jan Parez, told me about the influx of Irish refugees to Prague four hundred years ago.

Jan Parez: "There were several groups of people coming to this part of Europe: Irish soldiers - they served in the Emperor's services, the second group were Catholic priests and in our country there were especially Irish Franciscans. They established their college in Prague in 1629 and stayed here four 150 years till 1786. They were called in Czech "Hyberni" - in English Hibernians - derived from the Latin form of their homeland Hibernia or Ireland."

And there's a street in Prague called "Hybernska" - Hibernian Street - is that a coincidence?

JP: "This street is leading beside the former college. Of course the college was abolished in 1786 but the name of this place was kept in the mind of Prague people."

The name maybe, but few people today are aware why the street going past Masaryk Station has this name. Still fewer people realize that one 19th century Prime Minister of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was of Irish extraction, Eduard Taaffe, and he had a romantic ruin based on his ancestral Irish castle built on his estate in West Bohemia. But the launch of the book The Hibernians in Prague does come at a time when Czech interest in all things Irish and Celtic is booming, an interest that has been given its own name: "Celtomania". With "Asonance" playing in the background, I asked the First Secretary of the Irish Embassy in Prague, James O'Connell, whether he was surprised by the level of interest.

James O'Connell: "I knew of course that there were historical connections going back to the "Boye" tribe in Bohemia between the Celts and these lands and between Ireland and now the Czech Republic, but I had no idea at all before I came here of the level of interest by modern Czech people in Irish culture, Irish music. Quite honestly I was astonished when I came here. My last posting was in Australia, where up to a third of the population are perhaps of Irish extraction, and of course it was quite natural that people there would be interested in Irish music, Irish culture. I certainly didn't expect to find the level of interest that I do here, where people are not of Irish extraction.

Why do you think that is?

JO: I think that Czech people are rediscovering their history, are looking again, since perhaps the Velvet Revolution at what has made them what they are now, and an important part of this of course are the origins of the Slavic people and the associations of the Slavic people with the Celtic tribes, which moved westwards across Europe all those years ago.