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  • Soldiers, Sokol, and Symbolism:Forging a National Identity in 1930s Ireland
  • Conor Heffernan (bio)

Last night in Portobello when theHunters' Moon was yellowI drifted in to see this Sokol drill.It was truly most amazing, mostdeserving of my praising,A test of mind and matter, and of skill.

There was marching there was singing,and my ears are still a-ringing.With the rhythm of swift feet on polished floor,as they stepped in perfect measure,wearing tableaux at their pleasure,Would you blame us if we called for an encore? . . .

P.O.P., Evening Mail, 5 August 1935.

Writing for Dublin's Evening Mail in 1935 the anonymous P.O.P. echoed the view of countless others in praising the arrival of Sokol physical-culture exercises in Ireland. While P.O.P.'s poetic ability is perhaps disputable, his or her admiration for Sokol was not. With its origins in preindependence Czechoslovakia in the mid-1800s, Sokol was, according to Tony Collins, one of the most popular military-training systems of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, comparable in popularity to Ling or Turner gymnastics.1 It involved body-weight exercises done to music within an open field or gymnasium. Distinguishable by its adherence to Czech cultural traditions, especially after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, [End Page 37] Sokol's emergence in Ireland marked a combination of fortunate timing and advantageous connections.

Following independence for southern Ireland from Great Britain in 1922, the new state spent a great deal of its debut decade attempting to consolidate and bolster key pillars of nation-building such as the military, civil service, and police force. This, as detailed by Michelle Norris, often meant a heavy reliance upon preindependence systems alongside a thoroughly conservative attitude to public spending.2 While this conservatism was most notably seen in the realm of government investment, the continuity of military stability in Ireland owed in part to the state's refusal to drastically overhaul military training.3 In the realm of physical culture, this meant that Irish troops trained in the 1920s were subjected to the same physical-drill exercises as their counterparts from the late nineteenth century.4 At a time when the new state desperately and repeatedly sought validation on the world stage, most notably through the Tailteann Games, the continuation with the previous imperial regime appeared to counteract claims surrounding Irish political and cultural independence.5 It was not until 1934, when the Czechoslovakian consul to Ireland Major Pavel Růžička delivered a lecture on shooting to the Irish military, that efforts were finally made to revamp the military's training structure. Owing in part to Růžička's friendships with high-ranking political and military figures, Sokol was trialled and subsequently adopted by the Irish Free State Army that very same year. By the decade's end, the military Sokol system was being used by schools, prisons, recreational clubs, and, of course, the Irish army.6

While the introduction of Sokol into Ireland has received previous scholarly attention, a point discussed below, comparatively less [End Page 38] work has been directed toward Sokol's initial uses and symbolism in southern Ireland at this time. From 1934 to 1939 the Irish military, and subsequently Irish schools and prisons, undertook a rudimentary but extensive advertising campaign to promote Sokol physical culture. Military officers gave radio presentations on Sokol's effectiveness to the general public, public and private displays were held, and Irish politicians proudly espoused the system's benefits for the Irish of all ages. This effort to justify and promote Sokol physical culture in Ireland provides the basis for the current essay. Exploring the introduction and subsequent adoption of Sokol into the Irish military and educational system, it is argued that Sokol became a means of projecting a national identity for Ireland defined by its modernity and cultural autonomy. These efforts called upon the use of modern technologies and discourses, juxtaposing them with traditional Irish symbols and meanings. Central to this project was the use of individual bodies and their training. Sokol displays in particular, which began in 1934 and were still active...


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