Empress Sissi of Austria: The Irish Connection
The Habsburg or Hapsburg was one of the principal dynasties of Central Europe from medieval to modern times. The family originated in Switzerland in the tenth century. It secured the title of Holy Roman emperor in 1452 and established a hereditary monarchy in Austria in 1828. Austrian and Spanish branches were created when Charles V divided the territories between his son Phillip II and his brother Ferdinand; the Habsburg ruled Spain 1504-1700 while the Habsburg rule in Austria ended with the collapse of Austria-Hungary in 1918.
Known as Sissi to family and friends, she was born in Munich on Christmas Eve 1837 as Elisabeth Amalia Eugenie von Wittelsbach, the fourth child of Duke Maxmilian and Duchess Ludovika of Bavaria which was an independent kingdom at that time and the largest in the west of Germany bordering on Austria and Bohemia. Always free spirited young Sissi enjoyed a protected and carefree childhood with her siblings. Later she was to become Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia.
In 1854 at age sixteen she married Franz Josef of Austria. They had four children, three born in quick succession, Archduchess Sophie (1855-57) who succumbed early to illness, Archduchess Gisele (1856-1932) and the much hoped for crown prince Rudolf (1858-1889) who was later to commit suicide in a pact with his young mistress Baroness Mary Vetsera in his hunting lodge at Mayerling in the north of Austria, a scandal known as the Mayerling Incident. Following their enthronement as King and Queen of Hungary, Elisabeth gave birth to a fourth child, Marie-Valerie, born in 1868, to ensure the succession in Hungary.
Weakened and exhausted by the demands of court life and devastated by the death of her first child Elisabeth’s marriage suffered from early days followed by the loss of Rudolf in 1889 to whom she always felt very close. She was increasingly absent from Vienna to escape her sumptuous surrounds and overpowering ceremony, exhausting protocol and other obligations. She struggled and interceded with her husband against the matriarchal dominance and interference of her despised mother-in-law who, with her husband’s agreement, had taken charge of their first three children. Claiming ill health she became an inveterate traveller often visiting health resorts abandoning her hard working, military disciplined and adoring husband to the affairs of state. Their dysfunctional marriage became one of frequent farewells and exchanging regular correspondence. He was inconsolable at her death adding to his grief for Sophie and Rudolf.
Beautiful and melancholic, a deeply romantic and restless spirit, she had a penchant for writing dark poetry. To avoid the stifling court life of Habsburg Vienna, Elisabeth spent the last forty-four years of her life relentlessly travelling far and wide always clad in black - in the words of author Gordon Brook-Shepherd - a “ghost in her own life”. Her shattered life, mental and physical fragility are extensively documented in historical and other literature. In 1898 whilst walking from her hotel in Geneva to take a steam boat on the lake she was randomly and fatally stabbed with a sharp instrument by a young Italian anarchist. Her body was transported to Austria where she was entombed in the Imperial Crypt. Her legendary beauty and life have inspired portraits, films, television series, theatre and ballet. The 1950 Sissi film trilogy starring Romy Schneider has become a Christmas classic on Austrian, German and French television.
Sissi’s extensive travels in Europe involved a large retinue that included transport of horses for her riding.* She travelled to England more than once and met Queen Victoria for courtesy or protocol visits. As a gifted and passionate horsewoman she heard about the equestrian and hunting tradition in Ireland and was invited to the estate of Lord Langford in County Meath. In a letter to Franz Joseph, Queen Victoria requested him to persuade his wife from going because of what she considered to be a risk to her safety amongst those in Ireland who may have a grudge to bear. Sissi chose to ignore the advice and travelled twice to Ireland where she rode the fiercest fox hunts. She later said it had been the happiest period in her life.
The Irish Connection * “An Irishman’s Diary”
“Monday, February 24th 1879, began as a routine day for the 500 or so students at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth. They rose at 6.30 a.m, went to the chapel for meditation and mass, studied for an hour, ate breakfast at 8.30 a.m and settled into a well established schedule of lectures, study, recreation and meal breaks. They could have no expectation that it would become one of the best remembered days in the college’s history.
In Ashbourne, the members of the Ward Union Stag Hunting Club knew that the same Monday would be a special day. For the first time they would be riding with the Imperial Highness, Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, Sisi to her friends and the sporting empress to her admirers, a lady whose equestrian skills were known throughout Europe. At 11.00 a.m they assembled at Battlestown Station to meet a special train from Dublin that carried 40 other members and guests and 40 horses. They rode resplendent in their scarlet coats and buckskin breeches to nearby Parsonstown House and were joined by Sisi who had ridden a few miles from Summerhill House, the home of Hercules Rowley, Lord Langford, which she had rented.
Soon as a stag was “enlarged”, the hounds were released and the hunt began. The deer led his pursuers south towards Moyglane, and on past Maynooth towards the college. Coincidentally, contractors building a new church in the grounds had opened a temporary gate. When an elderly janitor saw the stag he opened the gate and let the animal run through. Other workmen then took it in charge and rescued it from the hounds. Moments later the hounds arrived led by the empress, wearing a black silk hat, a tight fitting heavy woollen habit with a stand up collar, and a narrow skirt and riding a small bay called Domino. No doubt, she presented an exotic sight to the young men who saw her and if there had been any women present, they might have remarked on her dark chestnut hair and her extremely thin waist, the product of genes, regular exercise and a sparse diet, and perhaps they would have envied her for being so well preserved at the age of 43.
The acting president of the college, Dr. William Walsh, a future archbishop of Dublin, and senior staff arrived quickly to greet the royal visitor and John Poyntz, Lord Spencer, a former and future lord lieutenant who was with her, made the introductions. The day was dry but cold and Elisabeth asked for a shawl, but as there was none in the all male college, Walsh gave her his academic gown. He then invited the party to refreshments and asked the empress to be allowed to welcome her more formally at a later date. Although she had brought her own altar from Austria so that she could have mass said at Summerhill, she suggested that she might come to mass in Maynooth on the next Sunday and Walsh naturally agreed.
On each of the following five days she hunted again, with the Ward Fox Hounds, with the Royal Meath Fox Hounds Club and with the Kildare Fox Hunt Club, the “Killing Kildares”, and according to a contemporary observer she never put a hoof wrong! On Sunday she arrived at the college in a brougham and four, with her entourage, and was given a chair and prie-dieu inside the altar rail of the Junior Chapel. After mass, she toured the college, gave Walsh a gold ring and persuaded him to give the students two free days.
Her visit didn’t go unnoticed in the wider world even though she travelled under one of her minor titles, the Countess of Hohenembs. On her progress through Dublin, on her way home, she was cheered by the populace and an enterprising bottler in Rutland (Parnell) Square advertised “mineral waters as supplied to the Empress of Austria”.
Elisabeth visited Ireland a second time in February 1880. She stayed again at Summerhill, hunted with the local clubs and attended mass in the college. On this occasion she brought a sculpture, executed in silver, of St. George in contention with a dragon. Later perhaps after receiving advice that the subject of the sculpture wasn’t appropriate for Ireland, she sent the college a highly decorated set of vestments made from cloth of gold.
That was her last visit. Queen Victoria who met her in England may have warned her that Ireland, which recently experienced the Fenian rebellion and was suffering from famine in the west, wasn’t a safe place for royalty, or her husband Franz Josef may not have wanted Victoria to be embarrassed by his wife’s popularity.
Elisabeth, a daughter of the Duke of Bavaria, had a troubled life. While her marriage at 16 to her cousin, the 23 year old emperor, was happy initially, she had continuing difficulties with her mother-in-law who considered her a “Bavarian provincial” and the couple began to grow apart after the death of their first daughter. She found solace in travelling and apart from Britain and Ireland she visited places as far apart as Corfu, Normandy and Madeira. *
Her (second) third child, (Ludwig) Rudolf, the heir presumptive committed suicide in 1889 after shooting his mistress and on September 10, 1898, as she was walking on the quay at Lake Geneva, an Italian anarchist, Luigi Luchini who had planned to kill the Duke of Orleans but couldn’t find him, targeted Elisabeth instead and wounded her fatally with a sharp file. A week later more than 600 students assembled for the Requiem Mass for the empress in the new chapel in Maynooth opened in 1891, which had been indirectly the cause of her visit to the college.
Summerhill House was burned down by the IRA in 1921.
The Wards, the Meaths and the Kildares ride on.”
Ita Marguet, December 2013
Note: Acknowledgement is given to all sources used including text *Quoting Denis Feahy - “An Irishman’s Diary”, The Irish Times, 20 April 2010. * Sissi Travels from 1855 in Europe and beyond are chronicled in the historical, political, cultural, health and family contexts of the time, including to health spas.