A SHORT HISTORY OF THE IRISH IN PRAGUE
by Fr. William Faix
We do not have to go back that far into to pre-history to trace Celtic-Czech relationships. As early as the mid-eighth century of our era there were wandering Irish monks and Christian missionaries who were involved in the great task of evangelization and civilizing the various Slavic tribes who were settling in what is now the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the trans-Elbian lands of present eastern Germany. Some etymologists ever at work even derive the name, Brandenburg, that quintessential Teutonic region, from a Celtic tribe or even name, Branden.
Brendan, a popular contemporary name, of course, conjures up the image of St. Brendan (+575), “the Navigator,” a Kerry man at that, whose reputed wanderings ranged from the shores of the Baltic Sea (thus satisfying his Brandenburg claimants) to the fog-bound coasts of Newfoundland, thereby beating the Scandinavian, Leif Ericsson and Columbus, to the shores of the Americas by centuries.
Meanwhile, the Irish missionaries had moved into close proximity of the Czech lands with St. Kilian (+689), another Kerry man incidentally, labouring in the regions immediately west of the city of Cheb and St. Emmeran (+660), who established a mission center for the conversion of the neighboring Slavs (especially the Czechs) in the city of Ratisbon. The first church, in fact, on Slavic soil was dedicated to this same St. Emmeran in Nitra, Slovakia, about 150 years later.
In the city of Prague, there is the great church of St. Havel or St. Gall (+630) named after another wandering Irish monk (this time from Leinster) who worked in Switzerland and was buried in the monastery and city later named after him. Incidentally, the former President of the Czech Republic, the noted celebrity and writer, Vaclav Havel, does have an Irish family name via a Slavic interpolation. When King Vaclav I (+1253) enlarged the then existent City of Prague by enclosing what is now the area between the Vaclavske namesti, the Powder Tower, the Vltava River and the Old Town, the area dominated by the Church of St. Havel (or St.Gall built in 1234) was dubbed the “new city around St. Havel” (novym mestem okolo sv. Havla.) In 1353, Emperor Charles IV sent to the Pastor of St. Havel, important relics of the Irish Saint taken from his shrine in Switzerland. In Prague October 16, the feast of this Irish holy man was an occasion of celebration. Among other events, it marked the beginning of the academic year, the end of the fiscal year, the end of the harvest, field work and the slaughter of animals in preparation for winter. Folk sayings also recalled St. Havel-Gall in the minds of the medieval Czechs sometimes with comic effect: Zpiva jako slavik po svatem Havle or He sings like a nightingale after the feast of Saint Havel. Of course, nightingales do not sing that late in the year!
Prague became a refuge for many individuals and families who fled religious and political persecution particularly during the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell after 1649. Political turmoil at home, religious isolation, lack of stability as well as the sense of adventure and opportunities for advancement in the Habsburg lands of Bohemia and Hungary brought such families as the Taafes to Hungary, the Butlers, the Deverouxs and Ogilveys to Bohemia and the Maguires and Hamiltons to Austria to name a few. However, one of the most influential of all organizations was the foundation of the Irish Franciscans in Prague. Outlawed by the Act of Supremacy (1534) of Henry VIII and persecuted during Elizabeth’s bloody suppression of the O’Neill and Fitzmaurice-Fitzgerald uprisings (1559-1566; 1569-1572; 1579-1583; 1593-1603) many friars fled to the continent and where they established themselves in Louvain (1607), Rome (1625), Prague (1629) and Poland (1645).
Their foundation in Prague came after the Battle of White Mountain (1620) and the Counter Reformation policies decreed in 1627 by the devout but single-minded Emperor Ferdinand II (+1657). Fr. Malachy Fallon and Fr.Gerald Fitzgerald with an imperial rescript in hand took charge and renovated the abandoned Benedictine monastery on Horsky now Hybernska Street and namesti Republiky. Creating a center of support for the émigrés as well as a monastery for the friars in the center of Prague, only came about through help proffered by such sponsoring aristocratic families as the Czernins, the Sternbergs, the Nostitzs, the Desfours, the Martinec and others close to the imperial court. Interestingly, the sole condition demanded of the Irish friars by the Emperor but never fulfilled was that they both preach and hear confessions in German!
Unprepared and probably more unwilling to engage in such a task, the friars mustered some German-speaking Augustinians, perhaps, from among their own fellow exiles at the Augustinian Church of St. Thomas on Mala Strana. At the time, the Augustinians would have had such talented Irish friars as Martin Lynch, Augustine Burke, a Doctor of Theology and Provincial Superior of Bohemia (1665-1668), a certain Irish Friar Oliver whose family name was not recorded and Balthazar Burke, who served as novice master and professor of theology at St. Thomas Studium Generale. In the following century, the Augustinians appear as preachers apud Hybernos (“at the Irish Church”). St. Thomas just below the Hradcany also became an Irish center for such émigrés as the Ogilvey family and other less known Irish who were to find their final resting place far from Ireland in the crypt of the Austin friars’ Church...
By the eve of the French Revolution in 1789 many of the descendants of “the Wild Geese” had assimilated comfortably into the general population. The British Parliament passed the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829 that somewhat improved political and religious conditions for the Irish. Twenty years later during the tragic days of the “Great Famine” North and South America rather than Central Europe had become havens for Ireland’s fleeing millions. Finally, the chronicle would be incomplete if it were not noted that after the fall of Communism in 1989, the Irish again returned, this time not as political émigrés or religious refugees but as vigorous entrepreneurs, business investors, salesmen/women, diplomats, writers, teachers, students, artists, pub-keepers and feisty pioneers endowed with a mixture of wanderlust and Celtic communicativeness.
The venerable Charles University with its graduate courses in Irish language and culture, the vigorous Czech-Irish Business Association; frequent literary meetings between the Irish and local community as well as the annual Saint Patrick’s Day Mass, banquets and awards, have engendered a lasting interest in Ireland’s rich tradition of prose, poetry, music and national beverages. Intermarriage has become as common in the community as the near universal network of “Irish bars” on the leisure scene. Irish music and dance are something of a rage with the proliferation of truly gifted Czech artists who seem to prove the presence of that “Celtic gene” in their artistic DNA. Saints Brendan, Kilian and Havel still pervade the religious traditions of the Czech lands. Although banished by the skeptical Emperor Joseph II in 1786, The Irish Franciscans have left a double legacy both in their once magnificent Church on Hybernska Street destructively remodeled in 2006 as a Theater and in the remnant of their rich library which had been given to and is still treasured by the Augustinians of St. Thomas. However, St. Thomas Church has picked up the slack and once more there is a place for Irish to worship. Each year the Austin Friars’ Church witnesses many marriages of Irish couples who often come back to have their children baptized in that same place where their forebears worshipped and prayed for better days in their homeland. Indeed, Prague and the Irish have a long ongoing relationship: long may it last!