Remembering 20th anniversary of Velvet Revolution


Limerick felt exotic compared to rural Wicklow when I was growing up but then I went to Czechoslovakia, writes ELAINE BYRNE

THE FALL of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago symbolised the wider downfall of the Soviet sphere of influence and life irrevocably changed for the communist regimes of Eastern Europe. This day next week also marks the 20th anniversary of the sametová revoluce, the Velvet Revolution, so called because of the non-violent overthrow of the Czechoslovakia communist regime.

As part of my degree programme at the University of Limerick, I was sent on Erasmus to the eastern part of the Czech Republic, near the Slovak border, which coincided with the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Velvet Revolution.

Václav Havel, playwright and leading Czechoslovak dissident, wrote a famous essay in 1984 called Politics and Conscience. It was about the innocence of a small boy and a medieval peasant who had “not yet grown alienated from the world of their actual personal experience . . . where concepts like ‘at home’ and ‘in foreign parts’, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, near and far, duty and rights, still mean something living and definite”.

I was 20 then and Limerick felt exotic compared to rural Wicklow. Up to then, I still reared the turkeys we used as Christmas prizes for the epic 45 card drives held in our family pub. Most of my six younger siblings still believed in Santa and access to the outside world was mediated through the two RTÉ television channels.

Czechoslovakia was a country with too many syllables as far as my parents were concerned and my mother was happy to point out that I couldn’t even spell it. That it was now two different countries did not matter. It was eastern Europe and where the Iron Curtain had been.

And it was life changing.

For four months in 1999, the history, politics, economics and philosophy of central and eastern Europe were compulsively intoxicating. The 10th anniversary celebrations, however, were disappointingly underwhelming. Large wreaths dedicated to the memories of former president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, student Jan Patocka and others were everywhere. Groups of candles burned anonymously. But no great public displays commemorating freedom. My Czech classmates seemed oddly indifferent to it all.

Yet it was fascinating to learn about modern Czech history because it touched so much on our Irish experiences. We studied, for instance, the details of various second World War battles, the consequences of appeasement, the personalities of the army generals and the terrible aftermath of war. Things most Irish people only have a fleeting knowledge of without regard for the thousands of Irishmen who died fighting for Czech and European freedom.

That music and literature played such a formative role in challenging communist orthodoxy was captivating. Havel, for example, reacted to the imprisonment of members of the Czech psychedelic band, The Plastic People of the Universe, by publishing the seminal Charter 77 manifesto. The band had taken their name from a Frank Zappa song. The Czech underground pro-democracy movement regarded Zappa as the embodiment of their struggle for freedom and when Havel became president of free Czechoslovakia in 1989, he made Zappa an honorary Czech cultural attaché. Some theories suggest that the Velvet Revolution earned its name from the American rock group, The Velvet Underground, because of Havel’s love of Lou Reed’s music.

In 1999, Havel was still president of the Czech Republic and there remained a sense that he was still shaping a political system which for so long had “lived within the lie” as he described it in his 1978 underground essay, The Power of the Powerless. Havel believed that “living within the truth in the post-totalitarian system becomes the chief breeding ground for independent, alternative political ideas”.

Classes were deliberately timetabled from Tuesdays to Thursdays, leaving four full free days to travel. It was four months of exploring the Czech, Slovak, Polish and Hungarian hinterland, mainly to those villages and towns that popped up in our history and politics books. To the concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Terezin and the Warsaw and Budapest ghettos. To the small village of Medzilaborce on the Slovak/Ukrainian border, where Andy Warhol’s family emigrated from to America. The Warhol gallery there had been over ambitious in its assumption that tourists would travel two days across the Tatra Mountains from Bratislava to visit. Our reward was being left alone to unhinge the original pop-art prints to see what Warhol had written on the back.

Rent in the student dorms was six pounds a week; three-course restaurant meals were two pounds and a pint of privo/beer 10 cent. It was here my faithfully held Confirmation pledge was broken and I drank alcohol for the first time, learning about the delicacies that are homemade Slivovice and Becherovka. My tongue was pierced soon after by a non-English speaking dentist.

Then, along with the boyfriend I had just met, we decided to travel south in the general direction of Greece. Although we ran out of money two months later, we managed to visit Medjugorje, which pleased my apprehensive parents. From there to Mostar and Sarajevo where the Irish Army taught us how to ski on the 1984 Olympic slopes.

Yes, 1989 was indeed a formative year in European history.