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Soldiers, statesmen and Poets – reflections on the Irish in Vienna

posted Jan 21, 2020, 9:02 AM by Reinhard Schoeller
The house where I lived in Vienna for the best part of five years (up to my return to Dublin in late 2010) was situated on Hartaecker Strasse in the Doebling area of the northern suburbs – a very pleasant leafy area with nice parks and good transport connections. (However, one of my successors decided it was best to move on to another location closer to the city centre so, alas, the residence of the Irish Ambassador is no longer there.) From my back window, if the weather as anyway clear, I could enjoy the pleasant prospect of the steep Kahlenberg ridge which overlooks the city from the north side, as well as the foothills with their forests and the vineyards on the slopes leading up to the ridge with its spectacular views. It was not too far away to be able to walk up to those heights and, even if one did not have the time or the stamina to make it to the top, there were plenty of attractive places to stop and linger en route, such as Grinzing, Nussdorf or Neustift am Walde, with their quaint garlanded heuriger and, of course, the seductive pleasures of the local Gruener Veltliner or Riesling to dally with for an hour or two. One could set off, staff in hand, on a Sunday full of good intentions to complete a two or three hour climb up the hills but might never get beyond the first port of call and a satisfying, but somniferous, experience of schnitzel and weiss-wein. The effort was still worthwhile.

The Kahlenberg, of course, has a special significance in Vienna’s history – and one that has a strong Irish element attached to it. In the late 17th century the Holy Roman Empire was creaking under the pressure of trying to defend its vast territorial reach on many fronts and came under such considerable strain that its very survival was in question. Not for the first time, Vienna itself was threatened in 1683 by the great army of the Ottoman Empire under the Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha, and was under a prolonged siege. The Ottomans possessed formidable military technology, particularly in the field of ballistics and explosives and the Turkish sappers had been systematically undermining and breaching the ancient walls of the city in preparation for a final assault. The Emperor Leopold had retreated to Passau, leaving the city to be defended by the Count von Starhemberg with a relatively small defensive force (one of his more prominent assistants in this difficult task was an Irish man called O’Hussey – but that’s another story). After a two-month siege, only the arrival of a large reinforcement army under the Polish King Jan Sobieski and Prince Eugene of Savoy prevented the city from falling to the Turks.

The decisive battle was fought on the slopes of the hills leading down from the Kahlenberg, where Sobieski’s army had pitched camp, to the city; the Turkish headquarters was in the Turkenschanze (from which the lovely park situated a few hundred yards from my old home takes its name). Beside the present-day park, to which I often used to walk or jog, is the botany and horticulture school of the University of Vienna of which the guiding light in its early days was the monk Gregor Maendel who pioneered the science of plant genetics and DNA - but I digress.

In the cavalry charge – reputedly the biggest of its kind ever staged - which swept down the hills into the Turkish camp and overwhelmed it, one of the foremost officers from the combined Austrian –Polish forces was a young Irishman, originally from Ballymote, Co Sligo, His name was Francis (or Franz) Taaffe, and it was he and his hussar unit who captured the standard of Mustafa Pasha, a significant moment in what became the rout of the Ottoman army. He was the first to achieve fame in the service of Austria of a family line which was to become one of the most illustrious in the history of the Habsburg Empire. His family had originally been the Anglo-Norman Catholic (or Old English) barons of Carlingford, Co Louth but, because of their opposition to the English Parliamentarians, had been removed to Sligo. However, they retained the claim to the title of Carlingford. Young Francis Taaffe, who was educated by the Jesuits in Austria as a young man, was to take be knighted for his valour in battle and was to be admitted to the most prestigious chivalric order of the Empire, the Order of the Golden Fleece, in 1694. He is one of seven either born in Ireland or of Irish émigré descent to be awarded this exclusive honour. A descendant of his was the famous Count Taaffe who became Chief Minister to the Emperor Franz-Joseph in the 19th century.

The lifting of the siege and the defeat of the formidable Turkish force marked a turning point in the balance of the conflict and from that point on the threat posed by the Ottomans to central Europe was broken irretrievably. It is hard to imagine that those present-day pleasant, suburban leafy streets and parks around Doebling which I loved to stroll around had in the past been bloody battle-grounds in which the fate of Europe and its culture was decided in a few tumultuous hours.

If I were on my way up to the Kahlenberg on a sunny summer afternoon I might well stop for a rest at Neuwaldegg, where there is a park just off the street that begins to wind its way up the hills through the outskirts of the Wienerwald. In that woodland park, which was once the grounds of the Schwarzenberg Castle, there is another reminder of the historic links between Ireland and the Austrian Empire. Standing in splendid isolation there among the trees is an impressive monument, which on closer inspection reveals itself as the mausoleum or vault of a famous figure, buried there in 1801; it is inscribed with the name and some details of Field Marshal Franz Moritz de Lacy, another of the illustrious seven Irish names which are celebrated in the military archives as members of the Order of the Golden Fleece. He was the son of another famous warrior, Peter De Lacy, who had achieved fame in the service of the Czar of Russia. Franz Moritz became the chief adviser to the Emperor on military matters made President of the Imperial War Council of the Empire in 1766 and undertook a major restructuring and reform of the imperial armed forces.

He was a scion of a famous family – again one originating in the Norman Old English Catholic tradition. While the most famous of the line is probably Hugh de Lacy who was one of the most important of the Norman knights who invaded Ireland and held it for Henry Ii of England, who became the Lord of Meath and later conqueror of Ulster (that line died out within a couple of generations), the branch of the family from which Franz Moritz de Lacy came was a cadet branch from Co Limerick.

It was Franz Moritz De Lacy who introduced the renowned Dublin singer Michael Kelly to Mozart in Vienna in the 1770s; Kelly in his memoirs recounts his embarrassment at meeting senior Irish generals in the presence of the Emperor Joseph II and being unable to understand when one of them addressed him in Irish, which he regarded as a peasant tongue.

The culture of Ireland (including its ancient language) still holds respect in Vienna, I am glad to say, and one of the things which gave me most satisfaction during my tenure at the Embassy there was the establishment of an Irish Studies module in the University. It consolidated already existing course on Irish history and literature and expanded them by enabling short-term residences by visiting lecturers, mainly, though not exclusively, in the field of Anglo-Irish literature. we were very fortunate in finding a Director for this programme in the later Prof Werner Huber, a man gifted with great enthusiasm and energy, who had a special interest in the surrealist writings of Flann O’Brien (aka Myles na Gopaleen); this led to the foundation of a European association of Flann O’Brien enthusiasts – who became known by the name of the “Flannoraks” - which continues to flourish – though, unfortunately, Prof Huber passed away prematurely a few years ago.

That Irish Studies programme also facilitated the visit to Vienna for a European Irish Studies conference of Nobel Laureate, the late Seamus Heaney and his talented wife, Marie, in September 2009, which was an unforgettable pleasure for all of us there at that time. Seamus and Marie had visited Vienna on their honeymoon - a detail of which I was unaware until they told me – and were delighted to be back again for a few days. Seamus delivered an enthralling keynote address to a packed audience at the University entitled ‘Mossbawn via Mantua’, which ranged widely and deeply through his poetry tracing its European influences from the classical Homer and Virgil through the Tollund man, the Vikings and Dante to modern European writers, finishing up with his own new translated version of the medieval poem Pangur Ban (the original text of which is to be found in a manuscript in a monastery in Carinthia):

“Day and night, soft purr, soft pad
Pangur Ban has learnt his trade
Day and Night, my own hard work
Solves the cruxes, makes a mark”

Frank Cogan
Former Irish Ambassador to Austria