Tracing Czech-Irish connections on St. Patrick's Day

Saint Patrick

As St. Patrick's Day is now upon us, Irish people all over the world will be raising a glass in honour of their patron saint. Because of historical circumstances, the Irish are well known for having a huge diaspora living in various countries throughout the world. The Czech Republic has also had many Irish émigrés living on its territory down through the years. We take a brief look at these Czech-Irish connections.

Bohemia is reputedly the region from where the Celts migrated across Europe two thousand years ago and settled in places such as Ireland. In addition to this historical affinity, there are a number of other connections between the Emerald Isle and the Czech lands.

There were various Irish settlements in the Great Moravian Empire of the 7th and 8th centuries. For the most part, these settlements were established by Irish monks and priests who helped spread Christianity in the region. At that time, continental Europe was mired in the Dark Ages and Ireland, thanks in part to its geographical isolation, was a beacon of Christian learning, which produced a number of missionaries who helped reinvigorate the Christian faith abroad.

Religion was also behind the most well known Czech-Irish connection. Fleeing religious persecution, Irish Franciscan monks set up a monastery here in Prague's new town in the 17th century. Their cloister was a centre of learning for nearly two centuries. The street on which the monastery was situated is still called Hybernska to this day, which comes from Hibernia, the Latin name for Ireland. Legend has it that the Irish Franciscans also introduced the potato to the Czech lands. Jan Parez has written a book on the Franciscans in Prague and believes that this story may be more than just hearsay:

"Well it's a funny story, but maybe it's true. I know from professional literature that potatoes appeared here in Central Europe in the second half of the 17th century, but they were planted not as a food, but as flowers in the garden. Nevertheless, it is very probable that Irish Franciscans planted them here for food."

Besides the Irish Franciscans, many of the Irish nobility, who were displaced by the English in the 1600s, also settled in what is now the Czech Republic. Their most famous descendant was Eduard Taafe, who was prime minister of Austria in the 1890s. Irish mercenary soldiers are also said to have been responsible for the assassination of Count Wallenstein, who was the last Czech pretender to the Bohemian crown before the Hapsburgs managed to consolidate their power here.

Because Catholics were denied an education under Britain's so-called Penal Laws in the 16th and 17th centuries, a number of Irish scholars also came to study in Prague at this time. One Irish medical student, James Smith of Balroe, actually ended up becoming Rector of Charles University in the 1740s.

Although there is a lot of historical material on Czech-Irish connections, a comprehensive study has yet to be conducted. As Mr Parez points out, there are some tantalising links that warrant further attention:

"In the past, there have been very many connections between Ireland and the Czech Republic - Bohemia and Moravia. The are some very special literary connections. For instance, take James Joyce and Bohemia. He used several words of Bohemia origin for example in Finnegan's Wake. In addition, when he taught languages in Dest his sister Eileen visited him and she met a Czech man there who worked in an insurance company and she married him. They later went to Bohemia and settled here, and I suppose that their offspring still live in Prague."