My wife Doireann and I spent a long weekend in Prague earlier this month. For me, it was a sentimental journey into my family’s past. 71 years ago this month my Czech father Stephen and my Irish mother Eileen were married in the 12th century St Martin in the Wall church, a couple of hundred yards from the Old Town Square in that city’s most historic quarter. Last month my journalist daughter Sorcha, in the introduction to her book New to the Parish – about Ireland’s recent immigrants – wrote (and also spoke on radio) about how my father had arrived in Ireland in 1948 as a political refugee. I thought I would add some of my own memories.
My father was a Communist (although still only a candidate member of the Czech Communist Party) from a German-speaking Jewish background; my mother was a County Antrim Presbyterian. They had met three months earlier when my father, a journalist who spoke fluent English, had been asked to commentate on the Czechoslovakia versus USA game in the world ice hockey championship. At a post-match party he had met my rather beautiful young mother who, having spent the war years as a teacher in Bray, was avid for new experiences in some faraway European city, and ended up teaching English in Prague.
It was an unlikely match. My father had been badly wounded while fighting for the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War; had travelled as a courier between underground Communist parties in the Balkans under a Canadian alias; and had been interned for four years as a Communist by the British in India. My mother came from a devout and conservative Presbyterian family outside Ballymena. But it was a love match. Within two months my father had proposed and on 17th May 1947 they were married, first in a civil ceremony, then in the Hussite church of St Martin (one of the centres of the pre-Lutheran Czech Reformation at the beginning of the 15th century).
My father had at first resisted my mother’s insistence on a church wedding. He found it difficult to “compromise with the principle of man determining his own fate without divine guidance and inspiration.” In the end, Czechoslovakia’s greatest journalist, Egon Erwin Kisch – himself a Communist – persuaded him that he could make my mother happy by marrying her in church without compromising in the slightest his own socialist commitment. “And if you want to convert her to our views, it would be a fatal mistake to impose upon her a principle which is merely one of the conclusions to which Socialism leads, and not in itself a fundamental part of our creed.”
In the end my mother’s Christianity lasted longer than my father’s Communism. My father had been working as the editor of a communist-leaning government journal (the Communists were the largest party in a four party coalition at the time). However he was also a patriotic Czech who believed that Czechoslovakia had a key role to play as a link between Soviet Russia and the West, and more particularly, in June 1947, that his country, like the rest of post-war Europe, should accept the bountiful offer of Marshall Aid from the USA.
When the Czech leadership was summoned to Moscow and was ordered to have nothing to do with this brazen act of “American imperialism,” my father took a brave decision that would change the course of his life. He published an article in an independent Prague journal in which he attacked the emergence of a new wave of nationalism in both East and West; made fun of Soviet claims that all the great technological inventions of the previous 80 years were Russian, and of the new trend in Russia of condemning Western art and literature as ‘decadent’ He wrote afterwards: “I had no illusions that such an open attack on Soviet policy would place me beyond the pale in the eyes of every ‘disciplined and loyal’ Communist and would have the most serious consequences.”
And so it proved. On 24th February 1948 the Communists seized power in Czechoslovakia in a bloodless coup. That evening my father was informed that he had been sacked from his job. He decided that my mother, pregnant with me, should go back to the safety of Northern Ireland. He was visited by the security police who offered him a deal: become a spy for the Communist police or face the consequences of becoming ‘an enemy of the people’. He did neither: a short time later he walked under cover of night across the border into Austria and took a flight to London.
My father finished his 1951 memoir, Strange Land Behind Me, with the following words: “Some time after, the telephone in an empty flat in Bilkova Street must have rung peremptorily and persistently. My visitor probably drove along to the quiet old street opposite the Altneu Synagogue and, finding the place empty, made his report and then turned his attention to other men who had been foolish enough to oppose ‘the will of the people.”
We are all creatures of our backgrounds. In politics I am a social democrat and an Irish nationalist with as small an ‘n’ as you can find. In religion I am a Unitarian, from the kind of liberal Presbyterian tradition the United Irishmen came from, which believes, above all, in freedom, reason and tolerance. My father’s democratic socialism and my mother’s liberal Presbyterianism have both greatly influenced me. I have supported left-wing causes and left-of-centre political parties all my life. I have also tried to follow my mother’s example of involvement in peace and reconciliation movements: in her late sixties she was one of the Greenham Common women who protested against nuclear weapons at that US military base outside London; in Northern Ireland she was active in the Corrymeela Community.
My family background – Presbyterian, Jewish, socialist – makes me very suspicious of extreme nationalism, of the kind I see espoused by many in Sinn Fein. It is ahistorical, idiotic and dangerous to believe that all the evil in Ireland comes from one source: Britain. We need to tread very carefully and very slowly when we contemplate the possibility that the old nationalist dream of Irish unity may become a real prospect in the not-so-distant future, albeit at the cost of trying to incorporate a large, deeply hostile Northern unionist community.
We would do well to remember what happened in Central and Eastern Europe when irredentist nationalism met the stubborn remnants of people who still believed in old empires and old religions. As Robert Gerwarth, Professor of Modern History at UCD and author of a highly-regarded book on the aftermath of the First World War in Europe¹, wrote recently about that region in that period: “Populated by large, resentful minorities that felt oppressed by the new dominant majorities, most of the successor states [to the old pre-World War I empires] proved unstable and eventually gave way to an authoritarian dictatorship of one kind or another.”
¹ The Vanquished:Why the First World War Failed to End.
What a wonderful, rich history. It explains so much about the causes that you and Sorcha hold so dear.
Greetings from Ballymena ! Lovely to read your family history, you know you are welcome any time you are in the area.
Elegantly written, wise in conclusion.
Looking at the times we live in now I am reminded that
‘The astonishment that the things we are experiencing…are “still” possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable’. (Walter Benjamin).
Fascinating story. I would love to see a documentary where u revisited the places associated with your parents and told the story of his dramatic life, especially the postwar period in Czechoslovakia. Deaglán