Most people were unsure how to take the arrival at the Galway Races in 1828 of the handsome Prince Hermann Ludwig Heinrich von Puckler- Muskau. Especially when they heard that he was looking for a wealthy wife.
Born in Saxony in 1785, the prince had inherited vast estates but not the money for their upkeep, especially their gardens and parklands which he designed and adored.*
As an officer under the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he had distinguished himself in the wars against Napoleon. He married Countess Lucie von Pappenheim, for love; but facing inevitable ruin, Lucie and himself came to an amiable agreement that he would divorce her, but agreed to let her live on in his schloss, while he sought a wealthy new model.**
His amorous searches became legendary. He is described as a mixture of Byron, Flashman, and the legendary garden designer Capability Brown. His preferred method of courting was the written word. As I said last week he employed the fastest sprinter in Berlin to rush his love letters to a chosen one, declaiming such words as: “ I hardly know myself what I’m writing, tears interrupt every line, and my only wish is to die at your feet.” While each letter generally offered exclusive and eternal love for the recipient, a draft was always filed away in case it could be re-used, much to the delight of today’s historians.
The prince, while appearing a bit of an eejit, was an aristocratic gentleman, with a great sense of humour, and a kindly disposition. He was curious about the world, and had little difficulty in putting up with hardship in his quest for women and adventure. He was also sharply observant; and if in the end of the day he did not succeed in finding the wealthy wife that he sought (he did eventually find love in the most unusual circumstances, which I will describe in the next week or so ), but much to his surprise, enjoyed a modest income from his travel books which were best sellers in his own country.
After an unproductive search in London Prince Puckler-Muskau arrived in Dublin on August 11 1828, where he was entertained by the great and the good. He met Captain Netterville Blake of Birmingham House, near Tuam, and was invited to come west and stay with him.
The invitation to travel to the ‘wild part of Ireland which foreigners never, and natives seldom, visit’ excited the Prince. He was later to travel to far more exotic places such as the Arabian deserts and Africa, but the ‘wildness’ of the west of Ireland appears to have satisfied his curiosity at that stage.
We share the Prince’s humorous observations as he describes life in Birmingham House. “ My host is one of the notabilities of the county, but his house is no better than that of a moderately wealthy German nobleman. There is little trace here of English elegance or luxury. Candle-wax, like claret and champagne, is unknown. Sherry and port wine are imbibed, but above all whiskey-punch. The coffee is detestable, but the cooking, though plain, quite nourishing and healthy...”
“ The rain (for it is unfortunately the case that it rains ), runs through quite merrily under the window and forms several romantic waterfalls from the window sill where an old carpet thirstily soaks up the flood.”
“ In the fireplace excellent peat is burning, or rather glowing, which, apart from the warmth it dispenses, covers all objects with a fine ash, when it erupts like Vesuvius...None of this is exactly sumptuous - but nonetheless these trifles are more than outweighed by the patriarchal hospitality and the light-hearted and unceremonious friendliness of the family!”
Lots of asses
“I like my host very much . He is 72 years of age and still as hale and hearty as a 50-year-old. He must have been of a very attractive appearance. His virility being proven by 12 sons and seven daughters, all from the same woman. She is also still alive but unwell, which is the reason why I have not yet set eyes on her.”
‘A large part of his family is here at the moment, which makes the abode rather noisy. This is increased yet more by the musical talents of the daughters, who perform daily on an instrument that is dreadfully out of tune, a circumstance that does not bother them in the slightest.’
“As a rule the men only talk of hunting and riding and are somewhat unknowledgeable. A local squire, for instance, today searched lengthily and untiringly for the United States on a map of Europe until his brother-in-law finally gave him the bright idea of trying his luck on a world map.”
The ignorance of the gentry amused the Prince greatly. The subject of magnetism was spoken of at breakfast without anybody having ever heard of it...’
“ In a company of 20 persons, there was no-one who knew where in the whole world Carlsbad or Prague might be...”
“Where do you come from, if I might ask?” one of them inquired.
“ From Brobdingnag,” I answered in jest.
“Ah, is that on the sea?” asked another.
“ Do they have whiskey there too?”
Indeed my host’s son even asked quite eagerly, when we were out riding and encountered some asses, whether we, too, had such animals in our country?
“ Alas, more than enough!” I replied with a sigh.
Next week: The prince’s plan to help Galway’s poor, - an unpleasant conversation, - and his assessment of Irish women.
NOTES: * Prince Puckler-Muskau, was regarded as one of the finest landscape gardeners of his time. His still existing Muskau Park now has UNESCO World Heritage status. He sold that estate in 1845, and lived in various places in Germany and Italy. His principal residence became Schloss Branitz, near Cottbus, where he laid another splendid park. The names of the park’s walks and lakes are called after many of his great loves, such as Luciesee, Helminenweg, Sophienweg, Sarah’s Walk. “ If you want to know me you have to know my garden,” wrote the prince, “for my garden is my heart.”
**His adventures are taken from his letters to Lucie, whom he appears to have retained a great affection for all his life, despite their ‘marriage arrangement’. Extracts are superbly presented in Eoin Bourke’s ‘Poor Green Eirin” - German Travel Writers’ Narratives on Ireland from before the 1798 Rising to after the Great Famine, published 2011, and on sale at Charlie Byrne’s.