The Irish Franciscans in Prague 1629-1786, Jan Pařez and Hedvika Kuchařova, Karolinum Press (Charles University, Prague), 200 pp, €30, ISBN: 978-8024626765
In the winter of 1629, a decade into the Thirty Years’ War, an Irish Franciscan priest, Father Malachy Fallon, made his way on foot from Louvain across a snowbound Europe to Vienna, the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, to meet Emperor Ferdinand II. His mission was to persuade the emperor to allow the Franciscans to set up another institution for the training of Irish priests to supplement the overcrowded facilities at the college in Spanish Flanders. It was a little over twenty years since the “Flight of the Earls” – Hugh O’Neill, Rory O’Donnell and other leaders of the old Catholic Gaelic aristocracy – from Ireland to the continent. Soldiers, priests and students followed their leaders: by 1614 there were three thousand Irish soldiers and three hundred Irish students in Spanish territories alone.
The Holy Roman Empire, a vast complex of about a thousand semi-autonomous political units under the loose rule of the Austrian Hapsburg emperors, was another haven for the Irish. It particularly welcomed Irish soldiers after the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618, when Ferdinand’s efforts to curtail the religious privileges enjoyed by his Protestant (mainly Hussite) subjects in Bohemia led to those Protestants appealing for support from their co-religionists elsewhere in the empire and the leading Protestant states of Denmark, the Dutch Republic and England. The result was one of the longest and bloodiest wars in European history, involving most of the continent’s states, from Spain to Sweden, Scotland to Turkey. It was a conflict with catastrophic consequences: the population of the Czech lands (Bohemia, Moravia and Czech Silesia) alone declined by a third due to war, famine, disease and Protestant expulsion.
Into this maelstrom arrived officers and soldiers from Catholic Ireland, skilled fighters forced into exile by the Protestant monarchy of England. Many of them ended up in the Bohemian capital, Prague, where the victory of the forces of the emperor and the German Catholic League at the Battle of the White Mountain in November 1620 had ended the first phase of the war, at least for that region. However it would not be long until their services were needed in the resumption of the sanguinary conflict against the continent’s Protestant powers.
When Catholic Irish aristocrats and officers found refuge on the continent, their priests came with them. The first great Irish religious and educational institution to cater for the exiles was founded by the Franciscans in Louvain in 1607, the same year that O’Neill and O’Donnell sailed from Donegal. The outstanding Irish Franciscan of the seventeenth century, Luke Wadding, founded a second – St Isidore’s College – in Rome in 1625.
Malachy Fallon was another Franciscan of outstanding intellectual ability and diplomatic skills. He had probably met and won the support of the powerful archbishop of Prague, Cardinal Harrach, before he even met the emperor in Vienna. Certainly the cardinal was strongly in favour of the Franciscans setting up a third Irish college in his city, and keen to have an established teaching order there to train priests as part of his counter-Reformation mission to re-establish Catholicism in Bohemia.
It was two years after Fallon’s 1629 visit, and receipt of the emperor’s grant of residence, that the Franciscans started to buy up the houses that would become the new College of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary of the Irish Franciscans of the Stricter Observance. The man who began the process of building the college in Prague’s New Town was Patrick Fleming, “a resolute and fervent young man”, a highly regarded theologian who was to become its first head, or guardian. However Fleming had little or no time to complete his task. In November 1631 he and a deacon, Matthew Hore, were murdered on the road to Vienna by villagers who may have been acting out of religious fanaticism. Alternatively the deaths may have just been another example of the latent mob violence that was endemic during those years of war, famine and plague.
In the following decades close links were forged between the college and two Irish exile groups in Bohemia: aristocrats and soldiers (often the same thing) and doctors and medical students. The names of the first of these groups sound like a roll-call of the Irish and old English Catholic nobility: Browne, Butler, Devereux, D’Alton, Gall, Lodgeman, MacCaffry, MacBrady, MacEnnis, MacAwley, Maguire, Nugent, Kavanagh, O’Brien, O’Donnell, O’Hegarty, O’Reilly, Taafe and Wallis. Only the “high born” could serve as officers in the armies of Austria and the empire, so it was mainly from this group that imperial soldiers were recruited. Their most famous – or infamous ‑ intervention in the affairs of that empire was in 1634, when a squad of Irish and Scottish officers, led by Captain Walter Butler, murdered Albrecht von Wallenstein (Valdštejn in Czech), Ferdinand II’s most outstanding military commander, who had driven the Protestant Saxons out of Prague but was then believed to be plotting with the emperor’s enemies.
Then there were the doctors. These arrived towards the end of the seventeenth century, forced out by drastically reduced educational opportunities for Catholics in Ireland brought about by the Penal Laws. Several hundred were attracted to the prestigious medical faculty at Charles University, founded in 1348 and thus the oldest European university north of the Alps and east of the Rhine. In the eighteenth century they were the biggest group of foreign students in that faculty, making up ten to fifteen per cent of the total. They included distinguished eighteenth century doctors such as James Smith from Westmeath, who would become personal physician to Austrian emperor Charles VI and rector of the university; William MacNeven from Galway, who would become personal physician to Empress Maria Theresa; and the related William James MacNeven – one of the few to return to Ireland – who would come back to work in Dublin’s Jervis Street Hospital, become a leader of the 1798 Rising, join the Irish Brigade of the French army and end up as a professor of obstetrics in New York.
The new Franciscan college quickly became popular with, and was generously endowed by, both the Irish and Bohemian nobility in Prague. These overlapping aristocracies were both wealthy and well-connected. Jan Pařez and Hedvika Kuchařova note that the community’s new church “created a fairly exclusive impression and served in particular the needs of certain aristocratic circles and some of their own countrymen”. They record, for example, a donation from Francis Taafe, “Count of Carlingford, Viscount of Corin, Baronet of Ballymote, Imperial Chamberlain and senior commander of the Imperial Lorraine Regiment”.
Although the Irish Franciscans had good links with their Bohemian fellow order members, they were in many ways an isolated community. Their principal task was always to train missionary priests to return to Ireland to work in the difficult circumstances prevailing in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. They provided tutors to local aristocratic families but were not allowed to engage in parish ministry in Bohemia. They introduced edible potatoes – regarded in Bohemia as ornamental plants – in their garden. And they displayed many of the stereotypical traits of their race: frequently squabbling among themselves while expressing solidarity with their fellow countrymen in exile.
In the early years they were much in demand as teachers of philosophy and theology at the archbishop of Prague’s new seminary, where tuition had been delayed by the Protestant Saxon invasion of the early 1630s, and knowledgeable tutors were few and far between. However by the 1650s the local religious orders – Cistercians, Benedictines, Norbertines and Bohemian Franciscans ‑ had recovered and were able to fill most of the teaching posts at the seminary.
From the mid-seventeenth century onwards – with the intensification of anti-Catholic persecution under Cromwell –the numbers of Irish religious in Prague increased. The eighteen friars at the Franciscan college in 1634 had risen to more than fifty by 1654. And the problems that would come to haunt the college were already apparent. Quarrels between friars from the different Irish provinces were there almost from the beginning. As early as 1647 a row broke out between Munster and Ulster factions over who should be the new guardian. By 1665 a code of conduct was laying down a system of rotation of guardians from the four provinces, a striking illustration of inter-provincial rivalries in this outpost of Irish Christianity. Even the theology and philosophy lecturers were apportioned according to provincial quota.
Alongside the squabbling, there was real scholarship and priestly training. It was no coincidence that most of the college’s early teachers came from Louvain, a famous centre of Irish historical and hagiographical research. Men like Malachy Fallon (despite, towards the end of his life, facing Jesuit accusations of preaching “Jansenist error”), Patrick Fleming (author of Collectanea sacra, described by Pařez and Kuchařova as perhaps the most important work by an Irishman in the college library), Francis Farrell, Hugh Ward, John Colgan and Micheál O Clérigh contributed to a wide range of publications, from histories of the saints to books of theology, to an Irish dictionary. Later, at the turn of the century, Francis O’Devlin was renowned for his work in Irish. Graduates of the Prague college also returned to high office in Ireland: James Taafe as papal nuncio; Anthony MacGeoghegan as bishop of Meath and Clonmacnoise and Anthony O’Neill as guardian in Armagh.
In the 1650s came the significant figure of Anthony Bruodin, noted for his work on the theology of John Duns Scotus and the history of the Catholic Church’s persecution in Ireland. Bruodin became – unusually for an Irishman – guardian of the neighbouring Our Lady of the Snows Bohemian Franciscan friary in Prague. He later found himself in the middle of a quarrel between German- and Czech-speaking friars over who should be appointed as provincial of the Bohemian Franciscans (a post he eventually took up himself).
So fractiousness and rivalry were not exclusive to the Irish Franciscans, though the Irish friars were certainly noted for their excesses in this regard. A visitation by the archdeacon of St Vitus Cathedral in 1690 uncovered a sorry picture. In the words of Pařez and Kuchařova: “There was neither love nor concord in the college; on the contrary, disobedience predominated. Violence by one brother against another went unpunished – on the contrary, it was praised. Discipline had entirely lapsed; there was an active night life; choral worship was neglected and alms were squandered. It was clear that if the college was not to become a scandalous example (if it was not already) of how monastic life could be, reform had to be implemented.”
There were some attempts at such reform. However these had clearly not taken root by the time of the next major visitation in 1737, led by the archbishop of Prague himself. After eleven sessions in the college, the report of the visitation was a damning one. It came to the following conclusions: meditation, college Masses and spiritual exercises were all very much neglected; monastic discipline had deteriorated to the point where there was little respect for superiors; community life was not maintained with, for example, plenty to eat on the superiors’ table and aristocratic students invited to partake while lesser friars went hungry; the college was divided into factions and there were some violent incidents; sins against poverty were not even regarded as sins, with the unfortunate practice of brothers being allowed to keep part of the alms they collected for their own needs. “Not even the observance of the vow of chastity was impeccable, not to mention vulgar speech and songs.” It should be remembered that the Prague Franciscans were a young community, with a large proportion of students and only seven members out of forty-five over forty.
The community leaders at this time set the tone for its unholy atmosphere. The guardian until shortly before the 1737 visitation had been one Nicholas D’Alton, who was described by his contemporaries as “furious, impatient, hypochondriac and bilious”. His main rival was a highly regarded theologian called James Griffin who nevertheless “did not shun female company and sometimes amused himself in town”. None of this bad behaviour by both superiors and subordinates appeared to affect the numbers in the college. In 1774 there were forty-six Irish friars and seventeen Bohemian lay brothers in residence. Neither did it affect the steady flow of trained missionary priests returning to Ireland. Between 1756 and 1783 forty-five friars received money to pay for clothing, books and other necessities for departing missionaries. However another seventy were not allowed this payment for unknown reasons, so it is likely that a significantly greater number went back to Ireland, where conditions for Catholic priests had become more favourable with the partial relaxation of the Penal Laws.
By the 1780s the Irish Franciscan College’s days were numbered. With the arrival of Emperor Joseph II – and his policies of “enlightened absolutism” ‑ came religious toleration, the liberalisation and modernisation of the Catholic Church in the Habsburg lands and the dissolution of a third of the monasteries. In the words of the authors, these policies “dealt the final blow to the lush Baroque way of life which was coming to an end in the monasteries, friaries and colleges”. The first wave of dissolutions came in 1782-84. The Irish Franciscan College in Prague was swept away by the second wave in 1786. Of the thirty-seven Irishmen then in the college, only nine returned home. Some of these became guardians of Franciscan friaries in Ireland. Michael Egan was one of the last to be ordained a priest in Prague. After serving as guardian at Ennis, Roscrea and Castlelyons he went on to become the first bishop of Philadelphia in 1808.
The college church is now a musical theatre called Hybernia Theatre. Sometime after 1816 the street which now leads eastwards from the former college towards the Masaryk Railway Station was renamed Hybernian Street. Pařez and Kuchařova conclude: “So before long only the name of the street will reflect those times when, in the very centre of Prague, in the streets around the Powder Gate, Irish could be heard and its reverberations mixed with the footsteps of men who had undertaken the long pilgrimage from Erin’s green island, with the Latin and German words of the sermons on their celebrated patron saint, St Patrick, and with the murmur of students who were learning theology according to the interpretation of John Duns Scotus.”
This book represents a valuable piece of primary research by two Czech archivists, filling a gap in the history of the Irish “Wild Geese” and the Irish Franciscans in an ancient and civilised central European kingdom (ruled by “Good King Wenceslas”, a saintly duke of Bohemia as long ago as the tenth century) that we in this island know little about. It is part of a remarkable flowering of interest in Irish-Czech connections by researchers in Prague in recent years, led by Professor Ondrej Pilny and his Centre for Irish Studies at Charles University.
This is highlighted by the excellent 2013 collection of essays on those connections in Ireland and the Czech Lands (edited by Pilny and Gerald Power) which – as well as the Irish Franciscans in Prague ‑ covers a comparison of the Irish and Bohemian nobilities in the sixteenth century; the integration of Irish emigré aristocrats in the Czech lands; Bohemian-Irish analogies in travel writing; Irish intellectuals and Czechoslovakia between the world wars; the Czech Sokol gymnastic programme in Ireland; Czech reactions to Irish poetry and prose from 1790 to 2013; Miroslav Holub and Seamus Heaney and the impact of Irish drama in the Czech Lands from 1900 to 2013. Is it too much to ask that we Irish might turn some answering attention to that small, friendly country with a parallel history of religious conflict and persecution, cultural and linguistic revival, foreign occupation, hard-won political independence and great literature and music on the other side of Europe?
Andy Pollak was the founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies (1999-2013) and is a former Irish Times religious affairs correspondent. His father came to Northern Ireland as a political refugee from Czechoslovakia in 1948.