(Published in the Irish Times 5/4/16)
Seventy years ago in 1946 the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia emerged as the largest political party in free elections forming a coalition government with the support of smaller parties. By that time Denis Scrivener (nee Zdenek Skrivenek) had returned to Prague with his new Irish wife Nan Keating. But the Communist Party soon became a tool of the Soviet Union and a dictatorship followed for over forty years.
Denis had survived war-time exile in Britain where he met Nan and joined up with the Free Czech Army, crossing the channel just after D-Day in 1944 and seeing action around Dunkirk. His remarkable story and subsequent life in Ireland is recounted in a self-published book from 1991: The Skrivaneks and the Scriveners (A Czech in Ireland).
The half-Jewish Denis had already endured the murder of his sister and her two children in the Holocaust along with numerous other family members. Now demobilised he observed unruly Russian soldiers flooding into Prague. He recalls how their chief leisure occupation: ‘became the stealing of motorbikes, robbing people of watches and molesting our women who didn’t have to be young or pretty to attract their unwelcome attraction.’
Denis had returned to work in his father’s successful furrier business and he and Nan were living on Wenceslas Square in the heart of the city. By that stage Nan had learnt Czech and together they enjoyed a lightness that settled briefly over Prague before the unhappy tide of history washed through once more.
A daughter, Maria, was born but Denis’s anxiety was growing over what was happening as the Communists asserted total power by expelling other parties from the coalition.
He made up his mind after the apparent suicide in 1948 of the one non-Communist member of the government, foreign minister Jan Masaryk, son of Tomas Masaryk the founding father of Czechoslovakia. A police investigation in the 1990s concluded that he was thrown from his balcony in the ministry.
Denis resolved to live in his wife’s country which he had never visited, though Nan would have preferred a return to London. He regarded Ireland as: ‘a more romantic kind of choice with something of an adventure attached’. Their minds were made up when an Irish visa arrived from the Department of Justice.
The first port of call was the family farm in Powerstown, County Tipperary which at the time had no electricity or running water. Dennis arrived first with his daughter Maria who initially refused to speak English despite being brought up bi-lingually. Nan followed soon.
In time Denis would become a successful entrepreneur but along the way he was treated abysmally by a number of employers as he struggled to support a growing family that would soon include a son John and another daughter Cathy.
He endured a particularly unpleasant experience with one Cork businessman who tricked him into hard labour with the promise of a Dublin franchise. He recalls that this was ‘my first Irish experience of being let down in a major way, to be followed, over the years, by many others.’ He reckons that ‘there was no question that as a foreigner I was severely discriminated against.’
At last Denis became a salesman of tractors in the era of the Massey Ferguson. He says that: ‘working in my father’s business taught me quite a bit about how to create the desire in a prospective customer, how to present my product in a way that would meet his expectations and how to close the sale.’
Denis’s methods included keeping a file on all prospective clients that would allow him to ask about the wellbeing of a son in America or how the farm’s side line in potatoes was doing. In 1962 he launched his own company Farmhand, an enterprise that survives today. He concludes: ‘Ireland had been kind to me but dreadfully slow in allowing me to establish myself. Not only that it also gave me a number of hefty “kicks in the teeth” in that tedious and long process.’
Denis’s survival instincts are an inspiration to anyone who finds themselves in a new country, as I do now in Prague on a romantic journey in the opposite direction. It is also a tale for our time as we see millions of refugees passing through Europe once again. His example illustrates how migrants often bring a hard work ethic and dynamism to their host societies.