“No hearts in Europe more rejoiced than Irish hearts that Bohemia was a republic”: Irish reactions to Czech Independence

Today marks the 97th anniversary of the declaration of independence and the establishment of the First Czechoslovak Republic. This declaration, and the formation of this new state took place just weeks before the general election in Britain and Ireland that saw the Irish Parliamentary Party become a spent force, and Sinn Féin securing a mandate winning almost all seats. Not surprisingly then, the developments in the former Habsburg Empire, the creation of this new sovereign state and the acceptance of this by world powers did not go unnoticed in the Irish press. Nor did it go unnoticed by some who were running as candidates.

This last point is best proved by this leaflet from one general election candidate in Waterford in 1918:

Source: Waterford History Group Facebook page.

Source: Waterford History Group Facebook page.

While there is a touch of hysteria about this poster, the wider implication isn’t totally wide of the mark. In her examination of the various permutations of Czechoslovakia, Mary Heimann notes that:

At the beginning of the First World War, the notion that the Czechs and Slovaks might one day live in their own sovereign state, seperated from other countries by international borders, had not been seriously contemplated by anyone. Nevertheless, a new republic, named for the Czech and Slovak peoples… was about to take its place at the centre of a freshly redrawn map of Europe. [1]

In Ireland the press reaction was similar to that of Dr. White and his leaflet. One anonymous letter writer, “Asquinas” – combining Asquith and Aquinas – wondered in the Irish Independent whether or not that since, among many other things:

No religious differences divide Bohemia from Austria, to the Crown of which it voluntarily united itself by intermarriage of the Sovereigns. Far be it from me to suggest that such considerations should retard the national revival of the Czechs. Yet I bring them forward to prove that whether from the standpoint of geography, race, religion, economics or politics, Ireland has a prior claim to independence. [2]

Irish Times, 18 October 1918.

Irish Times, 18 October 1918.

According to the Irish Times in the lead up to Czech independence there was even a suggestion that the Duke of Connaught might become a new king of Bohemia. [3] The Irish Times, a strong unionist paper, only matter of factly reported on the recognition of the Czech council as a ministry, with Benes as Minister for Foreign Affairs and future Czechoslovak President, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk as Finance Minister. The paper, however, when reporting on the launch of a pro-Sinn Féin campaign in Mayo by a Rev. M O’Flanagan recorded how, during his speech to the crowd, O’Flanagan apparently remarked that:

Poland and Finland and the Ukraine were today free from the subjugation of the Russian yolk,and the man who five years ago who would venture to predict that would be told that he was rainbow chasing, like Sinn Féiners. In Austria the Bohemians and the Czechs were also free, and there were no hearts in Europe more rejoiced than Irish hearts that Bohemia was a republic, for they all know the successful movement which she started for the revival and spread of her language. [4]

A sense of shared national struggle is palpable in these words and contrast quite strongly with Dr. White’s sense that no one knows who these people are. The reality is evident that politically clued in Irish people were well aware of the differing positions of the Irish and the Czecho-Slovaks. The last word perhaps should belong to Bulmer Hobson, who noted in his Bureau of Military History witness statement:

[Roger Casement] wanted to get Irish Freedom out of the quarrels of the European powers. Of the Czech leaders Masaryk came to London and Benes to Paris with exactly the same intent for their own country. They wanted to take Czecho Slovakia. out of the Austrian Empire. In London Casement was denounced as a traitor and Masaryk was hailed as a great patriot. Doubtless in Vienna the position was exactly reversed.

Casement got an undertaking from the German Government that if the course of the war enabled them to do so they would help to establish an independent Ireland. Masaryk got the same promise in London. Masaryk appealed to the victors, Casement to the vanquished. That was the precise difference between them. Masaryk became the first president of Czecho Slovakia, Casement was hanged in Pentonville. [5]

_______________________________________________

[1] Heimann, Mary, Czechoslovakia: The State that Failed, New Haven: Yale 2011, p.48.

[2] Irish Independent, 22 October 1918.

[3] Irish Times, 18 October 1918.

[4] Irish Times, 16 November 1918.

[5] Bulmer Hobson, Bureau of Military History Witness Statements, WF Ref # 1365. pp. 6-7.

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