A Man You Could Count On – Frank McNally on Richard Taaffe, aka ‘Uncle Yaxy’, who brought Austrian imperial secrets to Dublin
Mary Freiin von Vetsera: a supposed murder-suicide pact between her and the married Crown Prince Rudolf, heir-apparent to the Austro-Hungarian imperial throne, has long given rise to suspicions that all was not what it seemed
The past is a foreign country, as LP Hartley wrote. And in the case of Ireland’s past, it can be a surprisingly exotic one. I was reminded of this by an email from Doretta Delmonte, who now lives in the Netherlands, but grew up in Dublin during the 1950s and 1960s.
She was writing to me about another resident of the city from that era, Count Taaffe, the last in line of a famous Wild Geese family, whose grandfather had been prime minister of Austria in the dying days of the Hapsburgs, and who had since inherited the family castle in Bohemia before moving to Dublin, living in the Baggot Street area and drinking in Doheny & Nesbitts.
Doretta didn’t call him “Count Taaffe”, of course. He was “Uncle Yaxy” (a pet name – his real one was Richard) to her. And he may not even have been the most illustrious expatriate in her social circle. The email mentions in passing that while here, her family also “befriended the Tolstoys”. As she explains: “Ireland was like that then.”
How the email came about is that she was reminiscing one day recently with other Dutch friends who had lived in Dublin, about “the crazy people” they knew here.
One of these was “Dear Uncle Yaxy, the man with the ‘war-wounded leg’, the man who loved our dog and fed him chocolate biscuits, the man who stayed in the car while we went walking and always saw leprechauns when we were gone, the man with the most genteel manners who was an excellent cook and had his flat filled with the finery of his castle, and so on . . .”
This brought a laugh of recognition from one of Doretta’s friends whose father had worked in Weirs, the venerable jewellers on Grafton Street. Taaffe was well known there too, because in the nearest thing he had to a profession, he was a gemmologist.
Indeed, as previously mentioned in this column (An Irishman’s Diary, May 11th, 2018), Taaffe made a piece of gemmological history in 1945 when discovering a very rare stone among a batch he bought from another Dublin jeweller’s shop. Although already cut, it had until then been mistaken for a spinel, a type of mineral. Further investigation revealed it to be something so unusual it is now named Taaffeite.
A mystery that remained unsolved during Taaffe’s Dublin years, by contrast, was the role of his grandfather in the Mayerling Incident, a tragedy that rocked the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1889.
As depicted in several films, it involved a supposed murder-suicide pact between the married Crown Prince Rudolf, heir-apparent to the imperial throne, and his teenage lover Mary Freiin von Vetsera. But suspicions lingered long afterwards that the event was not what it seemed and might instead have been a double murder.
One man who probably knew everything about it was the prime minister of Cisleithania (the Austrian part of the empire, so named for the Leitha river that divided it from the Hungarian side), Eduard von Taaffe.
He had the task of organising a cover-up, at least to the extent of suggesting that the prince was insane, so that suicide would not prevent Christian burial.
Von Taaffe is also believed to have retained documents from the investigation and it is assumed that these eventually devolved to his grandson, although whether they were among the possessions Richard Taaffe brought with him to Dublin is unclear. The latter maintained his grandfather’s discretion, but Doretta (who found our columns on the subject when she started Googling after that conversation with friends) recalls that whenever asked about it he said the documents were in a bank safe somewhere.
He also claimed, without giving away details, that the story they told not was (in her words) “not at all as romantic as many people wished to believe, but rather banal and grim”.
In any case, having returned to the Ireland his ancestors had left centuries earlier, Count Taaffe died here in 1967. Almost 50 years later, in 2015, the National Library of Austria revealed the discovery of documents from 1889, long thought to be lost or destroyed.
These included Mary von Vetsera’s farewell letter to her mother, which begins: “Please forgive me for what I’ve done. I could not resist love.”
They had been deposited in the safe of an Austrian bank back in 1926 by an unknown person and had since lain there, forgotten, until a search of the archives.
Doretta suspects it must have been Uncle Yaxy, formerly of Doheny and Nesbitt’s, who deposited them.
I suspect she’s right. As to how she knew the Tolstoys while in Ireland, we’ll have to come back to that another day.