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At the Centenary Crossroads: Interview with His Excellency Charles Sheehan

in Interviews

by Markéta Šonková and Anna Formánková


Markéta Šonková with H. E. Charles Sheehan. Photo by Lucie Tomaňová.

Ambassador Sheehan has been the Irish ambassador to the Czech Republic since 2015, but his time in the Czech Republic has slowly reached its end. The Cork-born lawyer has spent his career in the Irish Diplomatic Service, and his professional CV sports many illustrious posts. And yet, the ease and lightness with which he discusses a wide variety of topics ranging from sports, to literature, was simply heart-warming. 

Although Ireland is a small European nation, its culture is widely popular all around the world. Nevertheless, Ireland is much more than shamrocks, vast green fields, and St. Patrick’s celebrations. To that end, we talked to His Excellency about the Czech-Irish ties and their future, the Irish footprint in the world, and whether he has ever finished reading Joyce’s Ulysses, a feat many students of English and American studies strive to conquer themselves.


The Czech – and earlier Czechoslovak – ties and diplomatic relationship with Ireland did not start immediately after the First Czechoslovak Republic was founded and have even been discontinued several times. Yet, we do share some historic or even pre-historic ties thanks to the Celts and then the Irish Franciscan monks who came to Prague in the 17th century. How do you personally perceive the relationship between our two countries and where do you see the crucial milestones?

I am glad to see that you have done your research. (both laugh) And indeed, I think as an Irish ambassador, like, I think, Czech ambassadors, we are conscious that we are an ancient nation and a relatively new state. We are both celebrating centenaries. Czechoslovakia had its centenary last year. As you know, the story of Irish independence is a bit more complicated, but the relations between our two countries indeed go back into prehistory: you mentioned the Celts who came from this part of the world. We don’t know in great detail how they communicated across those great distances, but in the archaeological record, we can see that there definitely was a lot in common. And also, even today, in our DNA, we can see that there are Celtic roots. Then, in historical times, as you mentioned, the Irish Franciscan monks were here, down at Hybernská [street in Prague], for almost three hundred years and they had an important part in the academic life of this city. There were also many Irish doctors, and medical professionals in the 17th and 18th centuries in Prague.

So being the ambassador of Ireland, I think you start from a sense that these are two ancient nations which have achieved independence in the 20th century. In many ways, in terms of the cultural revival, nowadays, we are in what I would regard as the best of circumstances for developing relations. Both in practical terms, and in terms of the ease of communication: for example, we now have two daily direct flights between Prague and Dublin, the EU has abolished [mobile phone] roaming charges… We opened our doors to Czech people from the very beginning when you joined the EU in 2004. Unlike many other countries, we did not keep the derogation and we opened our labour market immediately. 

I would say that our two countries have this deep historical connection and that today is very much what I would regard as an ideal situation in terms of the depth of linkage between the two countries. 

There is a well-established Czech community in Ireland and there is also an Irish community here in the Czech Republic, particularly in Prague. Last weekend, I went to see the Irish football team. We have our own Gaelic sports and there is a proud Hibernians Gaelic club in Prague. In fact, there are Irish sports clubs growing around Europe now, something which is a total innovation. It simply didn’t exist 30 years ago. But now, there are approximately one hundred Gaelic sporting clubs spread all across Europe, particularly in Central Europe, and for example the teams from Berlin, Munich, and Vienna came here last weekend. So, I would say that our two countries have this deep historical connection and that today is very much what I would regard as an ideal situation in terms of the depth of linkage between the two countries. 


Photo by Lucie Tomaňová

As you already mentioned, there are certain parallels in the Irish and Czech independence movements in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Both our countries also commemorate some important historical independence-related milestones this year. Yet, the Czech Republic and Ireland still seem to be two rather different countries. Do you see any crossovers, either cultural, historical, or political? And where do you feel the countries could learn from each other’s history and experience?

I certainly agree that there is a parallel between the independence movements in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Particularly because they were both political, cultural, and indeed linguistic. There was a strong cultural revival in Ireland, particularly in the late 19th century, we call it the Celtic Revival. Some of our most famous writers and artists were in that period. And we can see the same happened here, that there was a re-awakening of national consciousness. You can see it for example in the building of the National Theatre, as a symbol and as a home for Czech culture. And I think that is not coincidental, because across Europe, the peoples of Europe were, I think, awakened to this sense of identity, to their cultural heritage, and it also found expression in the political structures. 

It is very important to us that despite intensive situations, both in terms of the Second World War and in terms of the situation in Northern Ireland, we had unbroken parliamentary democracy for the past hundred years.

Ultimately, of course, the First World War was this cataclysm which simply destroyed many of the empires in Europe. In the Czech case – the Czechoslovak case – your independence was recognised at Versailles. That unfortunately was not our case, but ultimately, we achieved independence a few years later, and I would say in terms of learning from our experience, we certainly have been fortunate in that we have had an unbroken history of democracy. We celebrated one hundred years of the Irish parliament in January. Mr. Vondráček, Speaker of the Czech Chamber of Deputies, attended to represent the Czech Republic. It is very important to us that despite intensive situations, both in terms of the Second World War and in terms of the situation in Northern Ireland, we had unbroken parliamentary democracy for the past hundred years. I suppose that is the big contrast between the experience in this country. I think that in that sense, thirty years ago, after the Velvet Revolution, Ireland did reach out to people in Czechoslovakia. I also spoke recently about our experience in terms of the Czech accession to the European Union and certainly I think people in this country looked to Ireland to see how a small country might succeed within the EU.


Speaking of the situation of today, do you think that the ongoing uncertainties between Ireland and the UK related to Brexit could in the long run spillover from the Isles and subsequently impact also the Czech-Irish dynamics? We have here what we call Lex Brexitwith the UK to mitigate possible risks there, but there is also the question of British-Irish dynamics…

Well I certainly would regard it as a top priority that Brexit would not impact on Czech-Irish relations and I don’t see any specific reason why it should. Ireland will remain fully engaged in Europe, regardless of what the outcome of Brexit might be. And even though we do not know that as yet, but I think, essentially because Ireland will be fully committed to the EU, as will the Czech Republic, that while Brexit could have very serious implications for Ireland – and in many ways Ireland is a country which is most exposed to the risks of Brexit – I don’t believe that in terms of Czech-Irish relations, that Brexit should have any negative impact.

Photo by Lucie Tomaňová

Ireland – although aspects of its culture are extremely popular and well-known worldwide, as you mentioned yourself – sometimes seems to be in a shadow of some of the larger English-speaking countries. Where do you see Ireland’s role in the world and in Europe today and where do you see the most important cultural, political, or other exports from Ireland?

I suppose that Irish culture is seen in the context of the anglophone-world culture. We are very proud of our own Irish language, even though the most famous Irish writers have been in the English language. One factor which should be understood is that because the Irish diaspora had such an influence, particularly in the USA, in Canada, and in Australia – where my sister lives (laughs), and my aunt, and many other cousins, and I have of course many cousins in the USA – so looking at these huge countries from an Irish perspective, we see them through Irish eyes and through the eyes of our diaspora. So rather than seeing them as completely distinct cultural entities, I think we are very aware of the Irish cultural influence of these countries. 

We are very proud of our own Irish language, even though the most famous Irish writers have been in the English language.

In terms of what you might call “cultural exports”, literature I suppose is the most obvious one, but then we have things like the Riverdance which became extremely popular here, Irish music has always been popular in Central Europe, and the Irish film industry has had astonishing success in the last 20 or 30 years. That includes for example animation. We are not only relying on the traditional arts like theatre, which is quite different. So I would say that Ireland continues to be, if I can put it this way, a cultural exporter. Also in high tech fields, including for example gaming technologies, something in which this country is also very strong. Who knows what the “cultural products” of the future will be, but I think they will be quite different from the books and the paintings of the past.


Czech humour is said to be rather specific. But so is the Irish humour. Nevertheless, those two must be quite compatible, as some of the great works of Irish literature and culture have been transferred into Czech with a great success. And it is not only the classics, such as Oscar Wilde, but more recently also Martin McDonagh, Dylan Moran, or Máirtín Ó Cadhain, whose book in Czech translation even won Magnesia Litera, an important Czech literary award, last year. Do you think there is any particular reason behind this compatibility, historical or otherwise? Why do you think both Czech and Irish people turn to dark humour?

I think you are right, there is a certain sort of dark humour. Definitely with Máirtín Ó Cadhain, whose major novel is called Cré na Cille in Irish, I was absolutely delighted how successful the book was here and about the reaction of Czech readers to it. You probably know that Radvan Markus, who translated it, did so from the original Irish. And the original Irish is quite special, so it was quite a feat of translation, and I am absolutely delighted that it got such attention. I think I can understand why: the basic story is a village in the west of Ireland, where people in the local graveyard are talking to each other and are generally complaining about life and criticizing everything that has happened to them. I think that appealed to the Czech sense of humour, that even in the grave we will continue criticizing and complaining, and definitely there is that comparison. There is also another Irish writer who might be the epitome of that sort of humour – Flann O’Brien. We had a conference here a few years ago about Flann O’Brien and indeed that was a major theme of the conference, that sort of comparison; I suppose The Good Soldier Schweik is probably the classic text of Czech humour and there is a lot of parallels. 

I don’t know why that is, one factor that would certainly come true is the idea that both Czech and Irish became the language of the subject people, in Ireland, we call them “the dispossessed”. The language, which had been of course the language of everybody in Ireland, became, after the various wars, such as those with the Tudors, the language of the people who lost their land – the dispossessed. And therefore, it tended to be a sort of subversive language, used to coding, and I think there is a parallel with the Czech language after the Battle of White Mountain. This seems to continue to today, and definitely you see it in Czech films as well. It is a dark humour; it is a kind of subversive humour. So, as I say, I am delighted that Radvan Markus was recognized for his great work, Hřbitovní hlína.


Now talking about you personally, you have spent your professional life in the Irish Diplomatic Service. Some of the ambassadors who were posted to Prague, and we were lucky to interview before, had prior ties or, after being posted here, developed some deeper ties, to our country. Have you also chosen Prague thanks to your wife’s Czech roots or was the posting here just a coincidence?

I wouldn’t say it was a coincidence. First of all, there is a system of rotation, and that is why I am leaving now. And secondly, there is a system where you can express a preference for different posts. So I certainly expressed a preference for Prague. Not just for my wife’s sake, but because I have an interest in the country for many different reasons. And for the past 4 years, it’s been wonderful to work here.

Photo by Lucie Tomaňová

It is quite customary that each ambassador has a topic on their agenda that they might feel strongly about, or that they want to prioritize. Has there been any such topic that you wanted to pursue in depth?

Yes, I would say. Of course, the embassy – and as an ambassador – you have to pay attention to the full range of responsibilities, and you cannot ignore areas. But definitely, in terms of priorities, I felt coming here that the economic relations between the two countries was an area of great opportunity. For a simple reason: we in Ireland have been through a particularly difficult economic crisis and we actually had a troika with the EU and the International Monetary Fund to deal with these issues. They left Ireland in 2013, so I was coming to Prague shortly after we had left the programme and were on a growth path. In a similar way, the Czech Republic also had a difficult economic period. And both cases, arising from the global financial crisis, had their economic trajectory running in parallel: we were both affected, yet in the past four years, both our countries have been the fastest growing countries in the European Union. So it was logical to focus on the economic side. 

We are lucky to have here, just next door to us, our economic agency Enterprise Ireland, which supports Irish business in the Czech Republic. And they have had a lot of success in recent years. We have had a number of trade missions and I, for example, very recently went down to Brno, where I also went to Masaryk University. But the principal reason for going at that time was because of a major trade fair called TechAgro – a technology fair for farming and animal husbandry. There was a very impressive Irish stand with 9 different companies represented, and we were delighted that one of the Irish companies won a gold medal for innovation at this Brno fair. I just give it as an example of the growing links between our two economies. And I think, coming back to the question of Brexit, regardless of what happens in respect of Brexit, the European Single Market, will continue to grow. Moreover, both Ireland and the Czech Republic are very much, in political terms, supporting the further development of the Single Market – in other words, further breaking down of barriers to trade within the Single Market. That has been my priority for the past 4 years and I think the results have been excellent.


You are both the ambassador to the Czech Republic and Ukraine where you serve as a non-Resident Ambassador. In the past, you also served as a non-Resident Ambassador to several countries at once. Do you find this double – or even triple – role difficult or, on the contrary, do you see benefits to it, both to yourself and the respective countries?

It certainly is an added responsibility. Particularly in the case of Ukraine which is such an important country. I would say that it requires a considerable commitment of time and effort. But I have always found it very interesting to have this “other dimension”. Most of my colleagues here do not have what we call a “secondary accreditation”. In other words, they are solely devoted to the Czech Republic. Likewise, in Athens, I was ambassador to Serbia and Albania, two very different countries in the neighbourhood. 

I would say, we do it simply because as a small country, we cannot really have an ambassador everywhere. It is a perfectly accepted and normal diplomatic procedure. So my contacts in Kyiv in the Foreign Ministry and so forth understand that perfectly. The good news, in respect of Kyiv, is that we have recently announced that we will establish a resident embassy there and we will have a resident ambassador in Kyiv next year. I think that reflects the importance of Ukraine, both politically and economically, and it also reflects a new policy document produced by the Irish government in terms of what we call “enlarging our global footprint”. In other words, developing a network of contacts around the world, which includes some new diplomatic missions. So I am delighted that Ukraine was chosen as one of the new resident missions. But I will always regard it as an important part of my experience here.


To finish on a lighter note: Have you ever read – and more importantly, have you ever finished reading – Joyce’s Ulysses?

(both laugh) I have indeed, and I re-read it at times. In fact, we are coming up to Bloomsday – as you might now, the entire novel is based on a single day, the 16th of June 1904 in Dublin. I would say that Ulysses is not as difficult as people imagine – it is not at all as difficult as Finnegans Wake. I have not finished Finnegans Wake although I have read parts of it. But Ulysses I have read, and there are pieces that are complicated, but most of it, I think, if you take time, is easy to understand. And I hope I am right, because I am going to host a reception for Bloomsday in two weeks’ time¹ at which we will do readings and I will do a reading from Ulysses.

Photo by Lucie Tomaňová

Ambassador Charles Sheehan

His Excellency Charles Sheehan is Irish career diplomat and has been Ambassador of Ireland to the Czech Republic and Ukraine since 2015. He presented credentials to President Miloš Zeman on 26 August 2015 and to President Petro Poroshenko on 9 December 2015.

Ambassador Sheehan was born in Cork, where he also spent his university years: he earned a B.C.L. (1979) and Ll. B. (1982) from University College Cork, and B.L. (2002) from Kings Inns Dublin, Ireland’s oldest legal institution and oldest School of Law.

He entered the Irish Diplomatic Service in 1981 and since then, he worked as Third Secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs (1981 – 85), Second Secretary, Embassy of Ireland, Copenhagen (1985 – 88), he was also at the Development Cooperation Division, Dublin (1988 – 90), was a Vice Consul, Consulate General of Ireland, New York (1990 – 91), Deputy Chief of Protocol, Dublin (1991 – 94), Political Officer, Embassy of Ireland, Rome (1994 – 98), he worked at the International Security Policy Section, Dublin (1998 – 2002), after which he became Acting Deputy Legal Advisor, Dublin (2002) and Consul General, Chicago (2002 – 06), followed by being the Head of Finance, Department of Foreign Affairs, Dublin (2006 – 07), Director, National Forum on Europe (2007 – 09), and the Director, EU Secretariat & Communication, Department of Foreign Affairs, Dublin (2009 – 10). He became the Ambassador of Ireland to the Hellenic Republic in 2010 (until 2014), during which he also served as non-Resident Ambassador to the Republic of Serbia & non-Resident Ambassador to the Republic of Albania. Between 2014 – 15, he was the Director, Europe Division, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Dublin. In 2015, he became the Ambassador of Ireland to the Czech Republic and non-Resident Ambassador to Ukraine.

We would like to thank the members of the staff of the Embassy of Ireland in the Czech Republic who helped with arranging this interview. Thanks also belong to Jana Záhoráková for her help with the transcript, Lucie Tomaňová for taking care of the photo material, and Bridget Laughlin Geraghty for her kind help with proofreading. Last, but surely not least, we would like to thank His Excellency Charles Sheehan for making the time in his busy schedule to talk to us.

The interview was done on June 6, 2019.

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