13 April 2023

Looking for Kafka’s
Charlotte Street in
Prague … and in
Wexford and Dublin

Charlotte Street in Wexford runs between the Quays and North Main Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Franz Kafka is Prague’s best-known writer, and one of the main selling opportunities for many of the tourist shops and outlets in the Czech capital.

How times of changed. Under Communist rule, Czechs made samizdat copies of Kafka’s works such as The Metamorphosis. Now, along with the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle, Kafka has become a part of Prague kitsch. ‘He’s everywhere and he’s for sale everywhere,’ Jachym Topol, the author of five novels and a political dissident in the 1970s and 1980s, once told the New York Times. ‘It’s his last joke.’

In The Metamorphosis, Gregor lives ‘in the quiet but completely urban Charlotte Street,’ and he could have believed that from his window he was peering out at a featureless wasteland, in which ‘the gray heaven and the gray earth had merged and were indistinguishable.’

Charlotte Street is described as a desert, and Gregor feels less and less like himself as each day goes by. On Gregor’s Charlotte Street, the gray sky and gray earth have become almost indistinguishably fused, and Gregor can no longer tell the difference between his happiness and sadness. Because of his isolation, Gregor has lost his ability to relate to the outside world, causing him severe loneliness.

There may have been a Charlotte Street in Prague in 1912, the year in which The Metamorphosis is set, but I have not found it this week.

Charlotte and I are here for a few days, but we are unlikely to find Charlotte Street this week. BHowever, as I mused about searching for Gregor’s street in Prague, I reminded myself of Charlotte Street, Charlotte Row and Charlotte Quay in Dublin, Charlotte Street in Wexford, Carlow and Sligo, and Charlotte Quay in Limerick.

Charlotte Quay in Dublin … do the street names honour Princess Charlotte or Queen Charlotte? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Charlotte Street is a short street in the centre of Wexford Town, a mere 0.08 km in length, running from the Quays to a point on North Main Street facing the Ulster Bank, which closed last week.

Charlotte Street in Wexford is best known as the home of the Centenary Stores, one of the town’s most popular night spots, and the home of the Charlotte Street Festival, with live music, family activities and an outdoor beer garden.

But who is the Charlotte who gives her name to Charlotte Street in Wexford?

In the past, the street was called Custom House Lane. It may have also been called Courthouse Lane, according to local historian Nicky Rossiter. This may have been because of its proximity to the old Wexford Courthouse.

Nicky Rossiter suggests the street is named after Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales (1796-1817). Princess Charlotte was the only child of George, Prince of Wales, later King George IV, and his wife, Caroline of Brunswick. She was expected to succeed to the throne as Queen after the deaths of her grandfather, George III, and her father, George IV, but she died in childbirth before both of them, at the age of 21 in 1817.

Local historians offer the same explanation for the name of Charlotte Quay in Dublin. However, it is more likely that Charlotte Street in Wexford – and all the other streets with this name in Ireland – was named after Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), wife of George III and mother of his 15 children.

There were efforts to change the name of Charlotte Street to Colbert Street in 1920, after Con Colbert, who was executed by firing squad for his role in the 1916 Rising. But the planned name change was rejected in a plebiscite in 1932.

Charlotte Way in Dublin recalls the name of Charlotte Street, which was closed by ministerial order in 1992 and no longer exists (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Charlotte Street is a lost street in Dublin, close to Kelly’s Corner, where Camden Street now meets Charlemont Street, South Richmond Street and Harrington Street. The names of Charlotte Street and the once tiny Old Camden Street have disappeared in recent decades, although there is a reminder of the name of Charlotte Street in the name of the newly-laid out Charlotte Way.

The road south from Camden Street along Charlemont Street once marked the road to Milltown.’ What became Charlotte Street was developed in 1780, and it connected Camden Street and Charlemont Street.

The street’s name was chosen to honour of Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), wife of George III and mother of his 15 children. She founded Kew Gardens, was the mother of 15 children, a patron of the arts and is said to have commissioned Mozart. At this time, the area was on the edge of the city, but by the 1790s there were significant developments along the route.

Charlotte Street housed many small businesses over the years. The street was in terminal decline by the mid-20th century, and plans were drawn up to close the street and develop a modern office complex. Charlotte Street was closed by ministerial order on 28 July 1992, and no longer exists. But its past is acknowledged in the name of Charlotte Way running around the office complex, from the ‘Bleeding Horse’ pub to Harcourt Street.

A statue in Queen Square, London, of Queen Charlotte, wife of George III (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Queen Charlotte is also remembered in Edinburgh’s New Town in the namesof Charlotte Square and in London by the names of Charlotte Street in Fitzrovia and Queen Square in Bloomsbury.

Queen Square was once said to have been named in honour of Queen Anne, although she died in 1714, before the square was laid out. A lead statue in the square shows a queen in ornamental robes, and she originally held a sceptre. The plaque on the plinth is missing, and it was once thought to be Queen Anne or Mary II. However, most guidebooks now agree this is a statue of Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III.

The Queen’s Larder, the pub at No 1, dates from 1710. According to tradition, Queen Charlotte rented a cellar under a beer shop to store the king’s food while her husband was being treated by his doctor, the Revd Dr Francis Willis, during recurrent bouts of madness.

Although Queen Charlotte was married to the British monarch at the time of the American War of Independence, she is still celebrated over 200 years after her death in Charlotte, the city in North Carolina to which she gave her name.

Coincidentally, the city also has a large statue celebrating Franz Kafka and The Metamorphosis. Known as ‘Metalmorphosis’, it is a mirrored sculpture in the Whitehall Technology Park and is the work of the Czech artist and sculptor David Černý.

Strolling through Prague this week, we are in a city that is as far as I can imagine from Gregor’s experience of a place where the gray heaven and the gray earth merge and are indistinguishable. This is a joyful city to be in with Charlotte this week, and, unlike Gregor, I know the difference between happiness and sadness.

Charlotte Street seen from Wexford’s Quays, with the Centenary Stores on the left, the former Ulster Bank on North Main Street and White’s Hotel in the distance (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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