Tom Cruise and a Dublin bishop


CONNECTIONS:THERE IS NO need to introduce Tom Cruise. American film actor. Good looking, good actor. Although, as we heightist begrudgers always have to add, a trifle small. Bishop Nicholas Donnelly, though, needs a little more input. In fact, bishops generally these days need quite a lot of input. Their image is not great.

Perceived as grumpy and pedantic, and muttering away ominously in the background of our daily concerns, they emerge into the limelight only when fighting yet another rearguard action over failures of the past.

Not so in bishop Nicholas Donnelly’s time. He was on top of his game.

Born in 1837, parish priest of Rathgar from 1882-1894, and of Bray from 1894-1904, he was auxiliary Roman Catholic bishop of Dublin from 1883. A member of every learned society with the word “royal” in its title, he was, obscure reference books now tell us, “a noted linguist, preacher, historian and musician . . . his translation of Hubert’s Magister Choralis was highly regarded”.

Donnelly died in 1920 and is now remembered, if at all, for his Short History of Some Dublin Parishes. Well thumbed by the compilers of parish newsletters and editors of freesheet newspapers and the like, this is a standard local history reference book.

Though a few of us do prefer his Hubert’s Magister Choralis.


Donnelly did not merely have other strings to his bow – his life was an entire orchestra of activity. Among his goings on, he more or less ran the famous Boland’s Bakeries, being the executor of its deceased owner, Patrick Boland. And that brings up a vital connection in this tale.

Being executor, he had come into control not only of the bakeries but also of the Boland children. He was their guardian, and maintained them in his household. He actually brought them up as his own children, assisted in this by one Adda Dillon, a cousin. It was, to all effects, a family. Unusual, yes, even for the zany Victorian times, but it turned out to be a very successful arrangement.

So, in 1888 – Tuesday, August 28th to be exact – there was a dinner party in number 63 Eccles Street, in Dublin. Dr Donnelly was invited, and he brought along a young visiting German lad, a contact of his adopted sons, the Boland boys.

One of these adopted sons he had educated at England’s Oratory School (run by his mate cardinal Newman), and later in Germany. That adopted son was John Pius Boland, in 1896 to become “Ireland’s first Olympic gold medallist”.

But that connection belongs to another day.

Back to the Eccles Street dinner party.

Also present was a young Dublin woman, Mary Hayden, invited no doubt because she herself had studied in Germany, and spoke the language. She recalls the event in her diaries (edited by yours truly).

The German lad was in fact a Prussian aristocrat. And, according to Hayden, “proved to be a very handsome young fellow, and was easy to get on with; he knew only a word or two of English so was left nearly wholly on my hands; my genders and cases were fearful, but I managed to talk at any rate”. She also mentioned that they “talked of ghosts”.

And well they might.

Because the ghosts of terrible times were hovering in their future.

The youthful guest was Count Friedrich von der Schulenburg. He was to become a professional soldier and diplomat in the German service. In the first World War he was chief of staff to the German crown prince. Then in the following years he became a nationalist member of the Reichstag under the Nazis.

Hitler went to his funeral in 1938.

That courtesy was not at all reciprocated by the family. Because the youthful guest at that long-before Eccles Street dinner party had become the father of Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenberg. Born in 1902, Fritz had himself become a Nazi party member and vice-president of the Berlin police. Then, considered a bit politically dubious, he was expelled from the party in 1940.

The Gestapo were dead right. He was dubious, proving it by becoming the pivotal figure in the coup plot against Hitler.

It was this von Schulenberg who recruited Claus von Stauffenberg to participate in the assassination plot. And we all know what happened then. American film-maker Bryan Singer recruited Tom Cruise to play Stauffenberg in his film Valkyrie, which is now, despite disgruntled reviews, to be seen at our local friendly multiplex. I haven’t seen it, yet. But when I do, I’ll see the connection between that diminutive actor and this long- dead Dublin bishop.