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The Coast of Bohemia

Maurice Earls

It is a pity that the many recently published ‑ and frequently groundbreaking ‑ commentaries on the 1912-22 period in Ireland show such little interest in the significant number of European countries whose pasts were broadly similar to our own. The omission is particularly unfortunate because the current explosion of historical writing will probably shape our understanding of the revolutionary period for decades to come and, if present patterns are maintained, we will lose the valuable and possibly transformative perspective which could be gained from comparison with others who edged towards independence over the same period. Actually, the comparative possibilities go further back than the early twentieth century and have cultural and religious dimensions in addition to the political, as I hope to suggest by taking a brief look at the Czech experience in the light of our own. But first it is worth looking at what appears to be a growing disengagement in areas of Irish culture from the traditional nationalist account of Irish history.

One result of living behind the wall of large states that stand between us and central Europe is that there is a tendency to see our history as somewhat unusual. Irish history is certainly very different from British, Dutch, French and Spanish imperial history but much less unusual if one looks east and beyond the historical patterns of western Europe. Interestingly, in the nineteenth century, Irish political discourse showed considerable awareness of central Europe and its similarities with Ireland. However, we appear to have lost this awareness as the twentieth century progressed, a loss which perhaps followed from the ebbing of our nationalist passions and, of course, the pervasive cold war narrative which tended to displace everything which preceded it.

The tendency to see our history as unusual fed into a sort of ideological embarrassment which could be found on both the right and the left over the last thirty years. The left was irritated by what it regarded as “old nonsense” getting in the way of standard class politics; and the right by the same “old nonsense” getting in the way of the country becoming a good place in which to do business. The struggle between these contending versions of modernisation was decisively won by the right and the values of pro-market globalisers now form the everyday and somewhat incongruous backdrop to the decade of commemorations.

Today’s dominant universalists cannot by definition attach much real value to the particularities of the Irish past. Ireland is seen as simply not very important in the evolution of the modern world and so its history therefore cannot be very important. Faced with the decade of commemorations the somewhat awkward response is to treat the whole thing cheerfully as a mildly entertaining costume drama while feeling perhaps, deep down, that there is something distasteful ‑ and possibly even disreputable ‑ about the Irish past.

For the most part, Irish historians, whatever way they may vote, are engaged with the particularities of the past and are thus, in this sense, out of step with the zeitgeist. They are doing a good job in raising their voices against the prevailing head winds, but whether their work is having much impact beyond those already engaged is doubtful.

There are a number of other reasons why the rhetoric of early twentieth century advanced nationalism appears hopelessly dated and unattractive to so many today. Prominent among them is a profound alienation from nationalist vocabulary and ideals in general, the source of which lies in the Provo war, which caused people to question their previous abhorrence of partition. As our recent thirty years’ war trundled along there was a general recoil from the zero sum objectives of militant nationalism, objectives which gradually came to be widely identified as utterly unattainable, and for many quite undesirable. Another important reason is the plain fact of increasing global interdependence, which in Ireland has involved five decades of a generally approved and voluntary dilution of state sovereignty. When you are consciously and deliberately diluting national powers you are unlikely to be moved by the language of radical autonomy and self-sufficiency.

In this environment, which is augmented by a national economic strategy that has seen us place pretty much all our eggs in the global trade basket, the main nationalist narrative of our history is not always seen to be possessed of any self-evident value or use. The reason the study of history is important for a society is that it can tell it what it is and how it came to be what it is, and also signpost possible futures. It’s a long, nuanced and attenuated process of course but when elements – usually political elements ‑ successfully distort history the result is invariably a social neurosis which invariably inhibits positive cultural and economic development.

The current wave of serious historical publication is doing much to refocus attention on a period when confronting imperial power actually led to a change in constitutional status and to the emergence of the democratic dispensation under which we live. But because of the factors mentioned, there is continuing resistance to recognising events from the revolutionary era as even comparable, in moral and historical significance, with for example the battle of the Somme and other events in WWI which have been awarded an almost transcendental importance in the globalist imagination.

The victory of the Entente forces in the Great War has been successfully presented as a key event in the making of the modern world, as opposed to the settlement of  another war between contending European powers that spread widely and was significant chiefly for harnessing industrial might to the war machine. The claims made for the significance of the war are staggering and extensive. It is, for example, widely implied that the hundreds of thousands of slaughtered soldiers were not destroyed by machines and by the callousness of their commanders, as the facts suggest, but rather self-consciously embraced death to ensure the triumph of liberal democracy. It is bunk, of course, but owing to unceasing chauvinist campaigns originating in Britain, claims of this nature have gained considerable purchase in postnationalist Ireland.

In this context, minor peripheral events featuring homemade-looking uniforms in small countries can hardly be taken seriously or, at a minimum, cannot be central to the narrative of ourselves we present to the world. We want to attract more multinationals and consolidate the considerable benefits FDI brings. Being relevant to major events in the history of liberal democracy helps the cause. And if we want to be relevant we have to somehow bolt ourselves onto the “big show”: after all our wretched progenitors have made it pretty difficult for us to make any claims in relation to the Second World War.

The desire to be allowed to play a part in the Great War was articulated recently by government when a bursary to support work which had been commenced by Google – who else? – on developing a digital database of Irishmen who served as British soldiers was announced. (The very small number of Irish who fought for the Germans are not included.) The idea is to search for Irish soldiers in previously overlooked areas of the British armed forces such as the navy. The Irish ambassador to Belgium explained the thinking: “In proposing the scheme the aim was to bring the history of the First World War closer to Ireland.”

Our forbears, it seems, misread the future with their embarrassing “God save Ireland from conscription” nonsense which we certainly won’t be featuring on the Ireland Inc packaging. But all is not lost; amongst the sea of young men hideously and unnecessarily cut down in their prime were many Irish youths. These poor souls are our ticket to global respectability. Let us honour them in a digital archive and the bigger it is the more respectable we are, so let the digging begin and let’s support the work with a bursary. Then the world will know the real Ireland was engaged with the “big show” and that the 1916 business was merely one part of our history’s rich tapestry.

Is there a way of breaking this pattern? Probably not, but comparing our experiences with those of central European countries could assist in convincing society of the deep relevance and centrality of the revolutionary era by moving the focus from Ireland as an unusual or isolated case to one which presents the Irish experience as part of the general assertion of European peoples against undemocratic, claustrophobic and authoritarian empires which blocked subject peoples from achieving their economic and cultural potential and which stood against the possibility of modern freedoms for those peoples. An interpretation along these lines, which emphasises the international, might conceivably take root as it has the merit of accuracy and is fully compatible with substantial cultural and economic development. The recent Scottish debate showed that the case for autonomy can be well made in contemporary postnationalist terms, so there are possibilities.

To take one example of an area where comparative history would be useful: in Ireland we have long engaged in debate over the merits of constitutional versus violent nationalism. Participants appear to believe the subject touches on universal moral and political truths. Yet for many its established and well-worn arguments are simply boring. However, if there was a greater awareness that similar subjects were debated throughout central Europe and if we took the trouble to examine these ‑ mostly Slavic ‑ debates, ( how about a few bursaries?) we might well encounter language and concepts of pragmatism and action which would take us beyond our own frequently pedantic exchanges. But first we would have to fix Central Europe in our geographical sights.

Bohemia and the other Czech lands are only a few hundred kilometres from Calais. Notwithstanding, Shakespeare famously believed Bohemia had a coastline and for much of the twentieth century the area was thought of as extremely remote. Few in Ireland would have argued with its characterisation by another Englishman as “a far-away country …of [which] we know nothing”.

However, since the 1990s little pieces of Central Europe have featured on the Irish map of the accessible exotic. Ryanair made it possible to visit such odd places as Krakow and Prague. Travellers, on returning to Ireland sometimes commented on the relative absence of statues in Dublin. Indeed, since the advent of cheap flights to the Czech capital some returning Dubliners have thought of their city as embarrassingly naked.

While we never came near the exuberance of Counter-Reformation Prague, there were once statues on the streets of Dublin which are now gone. The problem was that much of this statuary celebrated individuals associated with the glory and triumphs of our imperial neighbours. After independence, some were removed by government and others by the paramilitaries while others still survived unmolested. The hostility towards imperial statues in Ireland in the early twentieth century is sometimes treated as evidence of our peculiarity, and perhaps also our lamentable backwardness. However the problem of dealing with unloved statues featured in many central and eastern European countries after independence.

There is always a political dimension to public monuments and this is very much the case with the religious statues of which many still adorn the Czech capital. The images of corpulent swaying bishops and plump trumpet-blowing angels which adorn Prague’s baroque churches and which impress, even amaze, tourists can be traced to the Austrian imperial intrusion into Czech lands following their victory at White Mountain in 1620. In the wake of the Hapsburg troops came an army of Austrian Jesuits who were determined to reverse the advances made by the Reformation in the Czech lands. The Austrian priests who descended on Bohemia and Moravia following military conquest were determined to establish Catholicism as the official religion of the country – pretty much a mirror image of the British Reformation programme for Ireland, which established the Anglican Church in defiance of the wishes of the people.

In the Czech lands the Habsburg Counter-Reformation was enforced by coercive measures broadly similar to, but perhaps a little more extreme than, those employed to support the attempted Protestant reformation in Ireland. In any event the Habsburgs were more successful than the British. By the early twentieth century only four per cent of the Czech people were Protestant. However the Czechs were somewhat desultory in their Catholicism. They knew they had been coerced but over time low-watt Catholicism had become a habit for them. While one twentieth century Czech writer referred wearily to the remaining religious statuary as the rotten fruit of the Counter-Reformation, no one really gets animated by the loss of the Czech Protestant heritage. The Czech response to their religious dragooning took an indirect form. When the Catholic Church was attacked during the Communist era, the Czechs – unlike the Poles – just shrugged. They are now the least religious people in Europe.

Both Dublin and Prague became capitals of independent states around the same time and both states found they inherited a significant cache of political statuary erected by their former overlords. It is interesting to compare the ways in which each country dealt with this unloved inheritance.

After independence in October 1918, a crowd of 250,000 Czechs met at White Mountain to commemorate the battle and celebrate the much longed for fall of the Habsburgs. From the site of the battle a group went to the Town Square in Prague which was the site of a Marian column erected in 1648 to celebrate the defeat of the Swedes in the Thirty Years’ War.  They pulled down the column, which they saw as a symbol of German oppression. Indeed numerous Marian statues were pulled down throughout rural Bohemia. (Today one encounters empty plinths which probably once supported religious statues. Whether these were removed in the nationalist era or the communist one is unclear.)

Once the Marian monument in central Prague was removed the Czechs erected a statue of Jan Hus, the original proto-Protestant Czech leader. This act, however, was more a political than a religious statement. Efforts were made to get up a new Czech Protestant church but little came of them. The Czech failure to revive Protestantism in the twentieth century has many parallels with the intense but unavailing efforts of the Irish to revive their ancient tongue. Beyond a certain point, it seems, return is impossible.

Some Irish visitors to Prague in the 1990s may have been pleasantly surprised to come across the original of the very familiar Child of Prague in The Church of Our Lady Victorious. A wish is said to be granted following a prayer at the shrine. Many Irish would have little difficulty with this promise since in Ireland the statue is still associated with ensuring good weather for special occasions, especially if it is moved outdoors for the day. But in the Czech Republic today the Child of Prague lacks heft; New Age beliefs now apparently satisfy the need for belief in the miraculous. The fact that the Czechs don’t get the Child of Prague cult is reflected in the rather zany versions of the image – you can buy it in whatever colour you wish ‑ which are sold in Prague gift shops. Reproductions of the statue do not feature in Czechs homes, in much the same way perhaps that leprechauns, whose features derive from nineteenth century racial stereotypes, feature in Irish gift shops but are not generally found in our homes.

After independence some religious statues were attacked because they were perceived as anti-Czech, but most were left unmolested. The practice of erecting religious statues gradually declined in Habsburg Bohemia with the “march of reason”; they were replaced by secular monuments. The German sense of itself as spreading the blessings of civilisation began to be reinterpreted in secular language. From the late nineteenth century the absolutist monarch Joseph II became the focus for celebrating German superiority over the subject peoples of the empire. But with independence the Czechs were free to express and indeed act on their feelings regarding alleged Czech inferiority.

In late 1920s Bohemia there were numerous spontaneous attacks on statues of Joseph II. These usually took place without the agreement of the local authorities, who had hoped to avoid public disorder by boarding up the offending objects. The Germans didn’t care for the practice of boarding up their heritage and sometimes under the cover of darkness unveiled them anew. The popular attacks by Czech ultra-nationalists generally involved a symbolic humiliation of the emperor, whose image was either covered in human excrement of dropped head first into a public toilet. Many of those involved were from the ninety thousand former volunteers who fought with the Entente (primarily Russian) forces during the war. (Overall around 1.4 million Czechs fought in the war ‑ the Habsburgs had a long-established conscription policy. Approximately one hundred and fifty thousand lost their lives.)

Residents of the ethnically German Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia did not appreciate these attacks on the image of the emperor, much as British loyalists in independent Ireland made efforts to protect the statues of British monarchs and luminaries in St Stephen’s Green and other public places. In comparison to the actions of the Sudeten Germans, the actions of the Free State loyalists were relatively feeble. The difference was that, unlike Ireland, the Czech lands were not partitioned and the German element comprised three million out of a total population of thirteen million. In Bohemia around one-third of the population was comprised of Germans, many of whom were Jewish.

The Czechs were not able to impose their will on this sizeable community, whose ultimate loyalties continued to be German. In Bohemia there were several violent and on occasion deadly confrontations with ethnic Germans who gathered to protect the emperor’s image, sometimes accompanied by bands playing the Radetsky March. Encroaching Czechs, who demanded the removal of all items offensive to Czech feeling, sought to impose a winner-takes-all cultural and political dominance. But this was a virtual impossibility in the face of such a large and geographically concentrated German population.

Ironically, Joseph II had been a reforming monarch, who amongst other things made life easier for the Czech peasantry. Once he was admired by both Germans and Czechs. But when, from around the 1880s German chauvinists celebrated and developed an imperial cult of Joseph as a symbol of German superiority, he came to be hated by Czech nationalists.

Had Ireland not been partitioned the country might have experienced a Sudetenland type problem in the inter-war years. Arguably, that is precisely what happened in Northern Ireland largely due to a botched partition and, of course, the subjugation of the sizeable Catholic minority inevitably and eventually unravelled.

With the emergence of the Nazi state, the Czechs feared losing the Sudetenland altogether in an imposed partition or annexation by Germany and in response they developed formidable defences, especially in Bohemia. They were betrayed by the great states of western Europe, which permitted the Nazis to annex the Sudetenland and in the process to undermine Czechoslovakia as a viable state. There followed a period of German oppression which made the Habsburgs appear positively benign.

With the unconditional surrender of Germany at the end of the Second World War the Czechs would not be satisfied with tearing down statues. The brutal German occupation ensured that. President Edvard Benes declared to residents of Brno in May 1945: “The German people … ceased in this war to be human … behaved like … a monster. This nation must pay for all this with a great and severe punishment … We must liquidate the German problem.” There followed an ordered and disordered driving off of the German population. The disordered phase involved mass expulsion and expropriation in horrific conditions which led to thirty thousand deaths and which would normally be regarded as constituting a crime against humanity. The Czechs told themselves that the land was simply being returned to its rightful owners.

In Ireland things were more low-key. Perhaps, despite our propaganda, we are a phlegmatic people, or perhaps partition saved us ‑ or at least the South ‑ from serious violence. Freelance geligniters did target a number of equestrian statues and, more famously, Nelson’s Pillar, but official and everyday Ireland was not much bothered by statues. It wasn’t until 1949 that the Dáil decided to remove the massive statue of Queen Victoria from its front lawn. The debate at the time was far from passionate with one theme being that the removal should probably go ahead as it was not a flattering representation of the good lady and in any case the statue was on the ugly side. It was not covered in ordure and there was no suggestion that it should have been, which is just as well since it was given as a gift to the Australians in the 1980s.

The issue of the royal insignia on countless postboxes in Ireland also suggests an Irish unwillingness to get worked up over symbolic minutiae. Some zealots wanted the royal emblems burned off every postbox but the less dramatic solution of simply painting them green sufficed. Indeed, just inside the Rathmines entrance to Cathal Brugha barracks ‑ a military centre which celebrates Collins and his successes against the British in a display of period photographs in its officers’ mess ‑ stands a green postbox with the insignia of King George painted green. It seems no one ever bothered to suggest it might be removed.

The dullness of Ireland in the early decades of independence is frequently excoriated. And there was of course an underbelly, about which we have learned much recently and which reveals a capacity for viciousness. That viciousness, however, which was largely focused on the unfortunates regarded as either superfluous or a threat to the social order, did not spill over into mainstream society. In the right political circumstances it might well have spilled over and encountered equally vicious countervailing forces. Dull times, it seems, can have some advantages over interesting times.


Maurice Earls is a bookseller and Joint Editor of the Dublin Review of Books



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