An Irishman's Diary

 

EVERY schoolchild knows that Douglas Hyde was Ireland’s first President. But hands up who in class can tell me the name of Ireland’s inaugural first lady? All right, you at the back there. Yes, fair enough – but I was hoping for something a bit more specific than “Mrs Hyde”.

 Her maiden name, for example. Anybody? Just as I thought. Oh well. She didn’t survive long into the presidency, it’s true. And she never took up residence in Áras an Uachtaráin. But just for the record, the wife of independent Ireland’s first head of State was known to her parents – and her birth certificate – by the rather exotic name of Lucy Cometina Kurtz.

Born in England in 1861, she owed the last part of it to her father, a manufacturing chemist who had emigrated from Germany years before. It was a nondescript German surname then. Another 40 years would pass before Joseph Conrad gave it to his evil imperialist in Heart of Darkness, who would in turn inspire Marlon Brando’s monstrous Col Kurtz in the 1979 film Apocalypse Now.

But as if in premonition of the surname’s murky future associations, Ms Kurtz’s parents took out insurance in the form of her given names. Lucy is from the Latin “ lux”, meaning light (although the Christian St Lucy used to be portrayed carrying her eyes on a plate – supposedly because when a man admired their beauty once, she plucked them out for him as a present while asking primly that he let her get on with her prayers).

The “Cometina” bit, however, needs explaining. And even if Lucy’s date of birth is elusive, the date of her christening gives a clue. It happened in the first week of September 1861. So it seems safe to assume she acquired her eccentric middle name from an event that had dominated the skyline earlier the same summer.

The Great Comet of 1861 first appeared in the southern hemisphere, where it was spotted on May 13th by an Australian sheep farmer and amateur astronomer. From there, before the news could reach Europe, the comet itself did. On June 30th, a man in Bristol wrote to the Timesto report a “brilliant object” in the northwest sky before dawn, while someone in Kent claimed to have seen it the previous evening, but to have mistaken it for the rising moon.

The comet was certainly spectacular. An Athens-based astronomer suggested it was “not as bright as Jupiter”, but it was a lot bigger. And what really set it apart was its tail. Fan-shaped when seen in a telescope, it was also of extraordinary length: appearing to stretch out to several times the diameter of the moon and still growing even as the comet’s main body receded.

Adding to the drama, the Earth passed directly through the tail. In Nottinghamshire, on the last Sunday in June, a witness reported the effect during daytime: “The sky had a yellow, auroral, glare-like look, and the sun, though shining, gave but a feeble light . . . in our parish church the vicar had the pulpit candles lighted at seven o’clock, a proof that a sensation of darkness was felt even with the sun shining.”

That was the comet’s closest rendezvous with Earth. Thereafter, it receded again at a rate of six million miles day. By August it was no longer visible to the naked eye, even though telescopes could still pick it up until the following May.

Scientists later calculated its orbit at 409 years. So barring unforeseen developments, it should be back around 2270.

In the ancient world, comets were considered harbingers of great – usually calamitous – events. Having lived through the 20th century, which had no shortage of calamities but a marked shortage of comets (spectacular ones anyway), we know better.

But in America, at least, the 1861 version lived up to the myth. The astronomical “dark days” of that summer coincided closely with metaphorical ones, as the US slid inexorably towards the first battle of the civil war: July 21st at Bull Run.

A somewhat happier event, meanwhile, was nearing climax in Lancashire, England; albeit unnoticed except by those immediately involved. Another three decades would pass before, in 1893, Lucy Cometina Kurtz entered the orbit of a future Irish president. And then – as often happens with earthly bodies, whatever about celestial ones – there was intelligent design involved.

In this case, it was the hand of his sister, Annette. She had become friendly with the young Englishwoman since meeting her in Killarney the previous summer and calculated that a relationship with the bright and highly educated Lucy was just what Hyde needed. Sure enough, it proved an instant love match and the pair were married the same year.

Nearly half a century later, in 1938, Hyde was chosen by consensus as his newly independent country’s first citizen. He was almost 80 by then and the later years of his term were marred by a stroke.

Unfortunately, his wife was already in poor health when he took office, so she remained at the family home in Roscommon, while one of their daughters assumed the ceremonial duties of first lady. Despite her frailty, Lucy Cometina Kurtz’s demise soon afterwards was unexpected. In the event, she did not see out 1938: dying suddenly, and perhaps ominously, on December 31st: the eve of another year in which the lights would go out all over Europe.