Havel was a hero who didn’t disappoint, says Art for Amnesty’s Bill Shipsey

Source: Český rozhlas / By Ian Willoughby /

This Thursday a bust of Václav Havel will be unveiled at Ireland’s Dáil (Parliament), making him the first non-Irishman to be recognised in this way. The man behind the move is barrister Bill Shipsey. The founder of Art for Amnesty, he also raised funding for a tapestry in the late Czech president’s honour at the then freshly renamed Václav Havel Airport Prague and brought the first Havel’s Place memorial in Europe to Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Park.

Art for Amnesty's Bill Shipsey and Iranian writer Azar Nafisi at the Havel's Place in Dublin's St. Patrick's Park in May, photo: Ian Willoughby
Art for Amnesty’s Bill Shipsey and Iranian writer Azar Nafisi at the Havel’s Place in Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Park in May, photo: Ian Willoughby

When I spoke to Bill Shipsey recently, he told me his interest in Václav Havel went all the way back to 1977. He had just joined Amnesty International – and the then dissident was his first case.

“The work at that stage was the first time Havel went to prison, when he attended the trial of the Plastic People of the Universe and was adopted by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience. He was one of the people my group worked on, trying to secure his release.”

What form did that take? Was it letter writing?

“Letter writing, yes.”

Would the communist authorities in Czechoslovakia have reacted in any way? Or did you get any feedback in any sense from Prague?

“Not from the authorities. But that was not uncommon in terms of the letters that we wrote.

“But we knew from the prisoners’ families – sometimes you wrote to the prison authorities, sometimes you wrote to the authorities – that it was enormously important to the families that people outside their own country were taking notice.

“Also it’s not just an end in itself. Amnesty is successful. We know that prisoners have been released. We also know that by writing letters it makes it much more difficult for governments to act with impunity. They can’t just forget about that prisoner.

“When I read about the wonderful poets under Stalin, people like Marina Tsvetayeva, who spent a lot of time in Prague, or Osip Mandelstam, who was imprisoned and sent to the Gulags, they would have benefited so much from an organisation like Amnesty International in the 1930s.

“From somebody to say to the Soviet government, or whatever government, that were imprisoning prisoners of conscience, We know they’re there, we care about them, you’ve got to respect their rights.”

How was it for you meeting Mr. Havel all those years later? I guess as your case he must have been a kind of abstract figure, on paper, but then you met the man for real.

Václav Havel, photo: Tomáš Vodňanský
Václav Havel, photo: Tomáš Vodňanský

“That was in 2003. In 2003 I founded Art for Amnesty. I founded it to allow artists to give voice to their support for Amnesty International. One of the ideas I had initially was that Art for Amnesty should be celebratory.

“Because a lot of the work of Amnesty International is hard and depressing. I wanted to create a space for celebration within Amnesty International, and that’s why I came up with the idea to have the Ambassador of Conscience Award.

“And in my mind’s eye when I was thinking of the award there was only one person I was thinking of and that was Václav Havel.”

Why Havel?

“I have a number of heroes in my own pantheon of gods – people like Ghandi, Martin Luther King – but for me Havel actually feels closer to my ideal. Havel is the person I would like to be on my best day.

“He was not only courageous in the face of oppression and being sent to prison but he was articulate. He was a great writer, a great thinker, and he was able to articulate the importance of human rights and what they mean in a very tangible way.

“I think his essay The Power of the Powerless is probably the greatest essay or text on human rights that has ever been written.

“It’s the greatest manifestation of somebody standing up against seemingly insuperable powers but dismantling them by the power of the pen and the power of words.”

So how was it then when you actually met?

“Very often in life your heroes don’t match up to your expectations. You tend to idealise people in your mind. But in the case of Havel he was greater than I had imagined.

“We had difficulty in communicating in the sense that I don’t speak Czech. His English was I think better than he let on, but he wasn’t comfortable in English. But that actually didn’t matter. Through the limited English that he had and through gesture [we communicated].

“And the aura of goodness and humility around the man was something exceptional. We met in July 2003 – it coincided with one of the Rolling Stones’ concerts, in Letná Park that day – and then in November 2003 he flew to Dublin to accept the award from the hand of Seamus Heaney.”

Is it the case that Heaney had inspired the award in the first place?

Seamus Heaney, photo: Public Domain
Seamus Heaney, photo: Public Domain

“Heaney wrote a poem at our request 30 years ago in 1985, 10 years before he won the Nobel Prize for literature, in 1985. He initially said no and then said yes to writing a poem.

“Poets don’t write to order and Heaney didn’t either, but he wrote this marvelous poem called The Republic of Conscience in which he imagined this, I suppose Utopian, republic.

“Towards the end he described this republic with the words: Their embassies, he said, were everywhere but operated independently, and no ambassador would ever be relieved.

“So I had the idea that we would create this award within Amnesty International called the Ambassador of Conscience and in a sense they never got relieved – they were ambassadors for life.”

Tell us about when Havel came to Dublin to accept the prize – how did that go?

“The first night he arrived it was late in the evening. We picked him up from the airport. Dagmar, who was travelling with him, was tired and he dropped her at the hotel. Then the first thing we did was to go to the U2 studio.

“At that time Bono and Edge were recording what was to become the Vertigo album. Bono had lost his father about a year before that and he had written a song called Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your Own – and he and Edge played it for Havel.

“Guinness was produced somewhere in the U2 studio and then we went on to a late-night bar. I remember being a little bit worried about 3 o’clock that we were still in this bar which should have closed by then.

“I didn’t want the former president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic to be arrested on my watch. But somehow we managed to get out of the pub and home safely.”

What kind of communication was there between Havel and U2? Was he a U2 fan? Were they fans of his?

“Bono and Edge were huge, huge fans. Bono tells a lovely story that once he went to a Forum 2000 meeting and for some reason, through some mix-up, he wasn’t on the official list or wasn’t at the official table.

“But what President Havel did was he came in arm in arm with Bono and made sure that he got seated at the table. And Bono never forget that kind, thoughtful gesture. Bono and Edge were hugely respectful of him and huge admirers of him.

'Flying Man' by Peter Sís, photo: Czech Television
‘Flying Man’ by Peter Sís, photo: Czech Television

“Then when he died in December 2012 and my friend Peter Sís did this beautiful drawing called Flying Man, which appeared in Hospodářské noviny, I had the idea that we honour him with a tapestry, which had a dedication ceremony a year later in 2013. And the first two people to step up to the plate to want to fund that were Bono and Edge.”

How did you become aware of that drawing by Peter Sís? And what was the whole process of having the tapestry made?

“But Peter Sís has been my friend and a friend of Amnesty International for 10 or 12 years. At that time a campaign started to rename Prague Airport in Václav Havel’s honour and it was spectacularly successful in that he died in December and by March the government had decided to rename it.

“Then I had the idea, because Louis le Brocquy, an Irish artist and Amnesty International supporter had beautiful tapestries made in Aubusson, which was where Picasso’s painting Guernica was also made into a tapestry…

“And I thought, One of the ways to keep pressure on the government so they wouldn’t change their position – because decisions can be changed – was to tell them that we were going to honour them with this giant tapestry.

“This is almost 100,000 dollars worth of art. I felt if we committed to doing that it might make it a little more difficult for them to change their minds.”

Tell us about your involvement with the series of Havel’s Places. The first one in Europe was unveiled in Dublin.

“It was through Peter Sís. One of his classmates was Havel’s architect Bořek Šípek – a wonderful glass designer and wonderful artist – and Bořek came up with the idea in connection with Human Rights Day in 2014 of creating a public art installation in the form of two chairs around a table with a Linden tree growing through the middle.

“What he wanted to do was to create a space for democratic dialogue. The seats are at right angles so and the idea is you sit down and have a discussion with whoever you want. They are symbolic.

Dagmar Havlová, Václav Havel, photo: Jan Rosenauer
Dagmar Havlová, Václav Havel, photo: Jan Rosenauer

“The first was put in Georgetown but I wanted to have the first one in Europe in Dublin.

“With my friend [Oisín Quinn], who was the Lord Mayor at the time, we jumped at the opportunity. It was dedicated by the Lord Mayor and Karel Schwarzenberg on Human Rights Day in 2013.

“Since then there have been 10. I’m not saying we’re responsible for all of them – some have been installed by the Václav Havel Library in the Czech Republic – but we, meaning Art for Amnesty and the Václav Havel Library, have been jointly responsible for dedicating one in Barcelona, one in Venice and one in the Hague. And there are many more planned.”

You’re about to unveil a bust of Václav Havel at the Irish parliament, the Dáil. But what’s the connection between Havel and Ireland? If he’s the only non-Irishman honoured in this way, why him?

“He’s the first. And I suppose what is special about Havel is that the European Union that we have today we wouldn’t have without him.

“It’s very hard to say what the straw was that broke the camel’s back of communism and caused the break-up of the Soviet bloc. But I think Havel had a greater influence in the restoration of freedom across Europe than any other single person.

“There’s not a direct connection but Seamus Heaney, who was a revered poet here, everybody knew the strong feeling he had for Václav Havel. He was our last Nobel literature laureate.

“The one before that, in 1969, was Samuel Beckett. Beckett wrote 17 plays, including very famous ones like Endgame and Waiting for Godot.

“But a small and lesser-known play of his was called Catastrophe and he dedicated that in 1982 at the time of the Avignon Festival to Václav Havel, who was in prison at that time. That’s the only play of his that was dedicated to someone.

“So I think when it was pointed out to our parliamentarians that the literary gods of Ireland, Beckett and Heaney, thought so highly of Havel that had an impact.

“Of course lots of our politicians knew Havel as the president of the Czech Republic and would have known him as a famous dissident in the 1970s and 80s, so there was really no controversy about it and no debate about it.

“It just seemed like the right thing to do. As you say he becomes the first non-Irish person to be so honoured.

Bořek Šípek, photo: Lenka Kabrhelová
Bořek Šípek, photo: Lenka Kabrhelová

“There’s a very clear Czech connection in that the bronze statue was forged in the Czech Republic and designed by Marie Šeborová. She won a competition among 20 sculptors. Thankfully we will get more than one bust of the mould.

“The Irish one is being dedicated on June 18, but two weeks ago [in early May] I carried one with me to Mexico and it was dedicated in the Tlatelolco Cultural Centre at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

“There are plans for two more but they’re not across the line yet – you’ll have to watch this space to find out about those ones. Havel will be appearing across Europe.”

In broader terms do you feel there’s any connection between Czech and Irish people? Is there any reason they might get on better than some other nations perhaps? 

“I suppose it should be left to historians and anthropologists to answer that, but I would suspect the Czechs are the lost tribe of the Celts. I certainly feel a community when I visit Prague. I don’t feel I’m far from home.”

Tell us about your experiences in Prague – are you there often? What kind of things do you do when you’re there?

“Not often enough. But it’s probably the city that I’ve visited most in the last number of years and I’ve mentioned friends. Bořek Šípek. Peter Sís, who doesn’t live there but still has a home there.

“It’s a hard thing to put your finger on, but when I land there I feel very comfortable, I feel very happy there.

“Prague is full of history, it’s full of culture, and it’s also probably the only place that has more gory and gruesome statues than Ireland, so perhaps there are similarities between Ireland and the Czech Republic in terms of our troubled pasts.”