Irish and Czech Connections: Charles University in Prague
Europe in the sixteenth century was a continent in turmoil. Religious wars divided communities; the exploitation of the New World turned the economy on its head; jealous states fought over scarce resources. Despite its geographically peripheral position, Ireland was at the heart of this upheaval. Under Elizabeth I (r.1558-1603) aggressive state centralisation, enforced religious conformity and stiffening economic competition caused bitter discontent in Ireland and forced many thousands of men and women to seek exile on the continent. They consisted largely of kin and family groupings with hopes to return. Reference works on the period include those of O’Conor (1753), De Courcelles (1822).
Among them were many great figures of Gaelic and Norman origin and members of various ranks of nobility with the means to travel and settle on the continent. Part of the exodus was to Bohemia, one of the bastions of the Catholic faith, where they were offered possibilities for study and careers denied to them at home. There are several accounts of Irishmen excelling to both greatness and notoriety in the Austro-Hungarian army and who rose to high ranks in many other places in Europe.
An exhibition Strangers to Citizens: The Irish in Europe 1600-1800 at the National Library of Ireland in 2008-2009 told the story of thousands of Irish who arrived at the ports of Spain, France, Italy, Netherlands, Russia, Sweden and elsewhere. They initially formed communities but eventually became integrated into their host societies with many succeeding to the highest levels of responsible, influential and learned positions. The exhibition coincided with the 400th anniversary of the flight of the Ulster earls in 1607-08 ushering in the end of the old Gaelic power system and the expansion of English power. Known as The Flight of the Earls, it was a watershed event widely commemorated in Ireland and beyond including jointly attended religious and other official ceremonies at the Irish College in Rome.
To mark Ireland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union from January to June 2013, the exhibition travelled to Spain and to the Czech Republic where a tour was organised by the Irish Embassy throughout the Czech and Moravian regions. It was shown at a number of Czech Eurocentres in different cities and culminated at the ancient Strahov Monastery in Prague. The exhibition was one of many cultural and official events held in Ireland and throughout the countries of the European Union during the time of Ireland’s Presidency.
A recently published fourth volume of ‘Irish in Europe Series’ titled The Ulster Earls 1600-1800 features an important piece on Irish Franciscan publications preserved in the Strahov Monastery Library. It also covers the Library’s extensive collection of manuscript class notes made by students during lectures delivered by Irish Franciscan scholars. Taken from a set of seventeenth century class notes the material was reproduced by the kind permission of the Strahov authorities.
Irish and Czech Connections
A book The Irish Franciscans in Prague: History of the Immaculate Conception (1629-1786) tells the story of the Irish Franciscan College based on numerous and hitherto neglected archival sources. It was a key factor in integrating Irish immigrants into the Kingdom of Bohemia. The Franciscan monks fleeing Ireland were invited by the Catholic Ferdinand II, hereditary ruler of Austrian lands including Bohemia, to settle there. Many Irish families of noble origin sought refuge in the Catholic provinces of the Hapsburg territories choosing the ‘Irish monastery’ in Prague to educate their children. It played the role until 1786 when it was dissolved by Emperor Joseph II under harsh church reform laws.
An updated history of the Irish College in Prague, in English, is due to be published at the end of 2014. A publication of Ireland and the Czech lands: Contacts and Comparisons in History and Culture, is the first book length study on the subject (Bern: Peter Lang 2014): A bibliography of cultural relations between Ireland and the Czech lands studies Irish-Czech relations from the seventeenth to the twentieth century.
A pre-WWI Austrian peerage documents names of Irish barons and counts residing in Bohemia who played an important role in the cultural, military and political history of their adopted land. Members of their families had distinguished careers as medical doctors and professors. Their contributions are widely chronicled in historical and academic publications. Some families have died out but the descendants of others have survived until the present time.
Charles University in Prague
An exhibition A Bohemian Refuge: Irish Students in Prague took place in the Long Room, Trinity College Dublin from 1997 to 1998. It was held to coincide with the 650th anniversary of Charles University in Prague displaying objects, books and other exhibits relating to Irish students in Prague in the eighteenth century. From manuscripts in the State Archives in Prague, a ‘Collection Hibernica’ of the Franciscan Province of Ireland by Benignus Millett O.F.M, lists Irish Franciscans in Prague 1695-1791.
A book on Irish Doctors in Bohemia by Ludvik Schmid, M.U. Dr.C.Sc is reviewed in the Irish Journal of Medical Science, Seventh Series, Vol I, No. 11, November 1968 (pp 497-504). It discusses the oldest dissertation thesis by an Irishman O’Conor (1678) dealing with physiological problems in medicine and ending with papers published at the end of the eighteenth century. A doctor Franciscus O’Reilly applied vaccination against smallpox as early as the beginning of the eighteenth century.
In 1629 Father Peter Wadding, a Waterford born Jesuit priest, was appointed as Rector of the University. Irish connections are documented when the Chair of Medicine was re-established at Charles University in the eighteenth century. Many Irish students were registered at the Prague School of Medicine who mostly enrolled during the period 1720-60. An Irishman from Balroe, Doctor Jacobus Smith, is said to have been an outstanding figure of the Faculty of the Chair and for a period was also Rector of the University where his portrait is still on display. An Irishman, Professor Doctor Wilhelm MacNevin-O’Kelly, from Aughrim served as Director of the Chair of Medicine. Both favoured their countrymen and supported them in all possible ways. Towards the end of MacNevin’s life only a few Irish students came to study at the Prague School of Medicine, the last was a Thomas Heney in 1778.
Centre for Irish Studies
The Centre for Irish Studies at Charles University aims to study and research Irish literature and culture in a European and global context. Its focus is chiefly on modern Irish writing in English, Irish theatre, film and contemporary critical theory. Its academic and cultural programme is extended by teaching the Irish language and on older traditions from Ireland. It offers post graduate M.A and Ph.D programmes. With a strong literary connection to Irish writers, it conducts seminars and other activities towards developing existing links between Irish and Czech cultures and forging new ones.
It is supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs, Ireland. The Government Agency Enterprise Ireland (EI), in liaison with the Czech Irish Business and Cultural Association (CIBCA), is responsible for the development and internationalisation of Irish indigenous companies, promoting cultural and trade relations between Ireland and the Czech Republic.
Ita Marguet, November 2014
Note: Acknowledgement is given to all sources used in this text. It follows a visit to Prague, October 2014. Related published texts are Irish Colleges in Europe: A snapshot in history (June 2005), Irish in Europe (1600-1800): Shared Histories (December 2007), Flight of the Earls: Between Ireland and Europe (March 2008), Tombs of the Irish Earls: Burials in Rome (July 2008), Strangers to Citizens: The Irish in Europe 1600-1800 (August 2008), Irish in Bohemia: Colleges in Europe (May 2014) by Ita Marguet.