Their Man in Eblana – An Irishman’s Diary about Poland’s Hibernophile diplomat Waclaw Dobrzynski
President Douglas Hyde and Polish consul Waclaw Dobrzynski at the match between Ireland and Poland in 1938
One of the more interesting guests of the nation during Free State Ireland’s formative years was a man named Waclaw Dobrzynski. He came here first as the official consul for Poland, itself newly liberated by the first World War.
Then, after the job fell victim to budget cuts, he returned in an honorary role. And finally, after cataclysmic events engulfed his country again, he served in a doubly-irregular capacity as the honorary representative of a Polish government in exile, who helped ensure that what was by then the Irish Republic would not recognise the communist regime in Warsaw until 1957.
In the process, he became deeply involved with Ireland’s cause too. It’s a well-known risk of the diplomatic profession that envoys may “go native” in host countries. But in Dobrzynski’s case, it seems to have been a love affair, platonic, which he was able to carry on for decades without ever being unfaithful to Poland.
A comic vignette from the early 1930s illustrates the point. He was at a theatrical event in a Dublin college one night when he found himself sitting behind Donal Ó Buachalla, the Free State’s governor-general, nominally the representative of the British monarch but effectively a Trojan horse for de Valera’s republic. During an interval, Ó Buachalla turned around and addressed Dobrzynski “in Gaelic”. And although the consul spoke six languages, that wasn’t one of them. “Quite inappropriately,” he recalled years later, “I replied in [Polish].” Whereupon, as he added, “the conversation fizzled out”.
His relationship with Ireland was no youthful infatuation. Born to a wealthy family in Kiev in 1883, Dobrzynski was an urbane and well-travelled man by the time he arrived in Dublin. Trained in law but also musicianship, he had been music critic with a Kiev newspaper and, as devotee of Wagner, was a frequent visitor to the Bayreuth festival in Germany.
But his trips abroad also included one to St Petersburg before the war, when he visited the street where Rasputin lived and saw a large crowd gathered for an audience. As a watching policeman explained, there were always “idlers” hoping for a blessing from the “staretz” (saintly man). “And he looks to-day in a jolly mood.”
Called up during the war, Dobrzynski fought on the Russian-German front and saw the collapse of the Russian army during the revolution.
Then when Poland regained its independence, he joined a volunteer force fighting against the Bolsheviks.
But he wasn’t surprised by Lenin’s triumph in Russia, nor did he consider it a real revolution. The secretary of the Communist Party replaced the Tsar, he wrote, and apparatchiks replaced the aristocracy, “but the bureaucracy, army, secret police and, in particular, the apathetic and fatalistic millions of peasantry, remained where they were”.
It was in 1929 that Dobrzynski came to Ireland. And after the brief, budget-enforced hiatus in 1931, he returned on a voluntary basis to spend the rest of his days here. For the next 30 years, he immersed himself in the life of the evolving Republic while also educating it about Poland at every opportunity, especially through public lectures.
Against the gathering gloom of events that would turn his country upside down again, ironically, it was for his innocent role in a 1938 soccer match that Dobrzynski made his most controversial intervention here.
Before Poland’s first-ever game in Dublin (the teams had met earlier that year in Warsaw), he invited the President to join him in Dalymount Park.
Accepting happily, Douglas Hyde enraged the GAA, whose infamous Rule 27 forbade attendance at “foreign” games.
He was removed as patron, never to be reinstated.
Had he lived long enough, Dobrzynski might have been astonished by the frequency with which Irish soccer teams played Poland – the FAI’s favourite opponent to date with 27 games, including 23 friendlies – during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.
But after discouraging Irish recognition of Poland’s communist regime as long as he could, Dobrzynski died in 1962. He was duly buried in Irish soil, in Greystones, where be might now be forgotten.
Fortunately, he had left behind an Irish daughter, the late Krystyna, who wrote a biography in 1998, and who in turn passed the inherited memory to her son, Ian Cantwell.
Their combined research has now resulted in an exhibition on Dobrzynski’s life, which opened at the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, this week. It will run there until May 16 before touring Limerick, Cork, and other Dublin venues. polishconsulexhibition.ie