Dubbed Over – On the murky origins of Victor Herbert, and a Brexit-foreshadowing naval disaster

Figurehead of the HMS ‘Hibernia’ at the Malta Maritime Museum

Figurehead of the HMS ‘Hibernia’ at the Malta Maritime Museum

 

In suggesting last week (January 25th) that the composer Victor Herbert was “Dublin-born”, I was quoting at least one apparently impeccable authority on the subject: Herbert himself.

He claimed to be a Dubliner, and was proud of it. He spent his adult life immersed in the Irish community of his adopted New York. And when he died there in 1924, after a funeral procession on Fifth Avenue worthy of the St Patrick’s Day parade, he was buried in a green waistcoat and tie, as the affectionate expatriate, exiled since childhood, he assumed himself to be.

But what would he know? It turns out that his life-story had a twist worthy of one of the hugely popular operettas that made him the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day, except in this case, even he may not have seen it coming.

As you will have heard if you listened to Sunday night’s documentary on RTÉ Lyric FM, playfully titled Victor Herbert – Son of Dublin, he was in fact born on the island of Guernsey, 160 years ago this Friday.

The rest of his life – growing up in Germany, marrying a Viennese opera singer, then moving to the US – is beyond dispute. But notwithstanding his composition of the show Eileen (1917) as a post-Rising tribute to the land of his birth, it seems Herbert never set foot in Ireland, except in imagination.

According to the documentary, this only emerged after detective work by a woman named Marion Casey, who had been struck by the lack of a monument anywhere in Dublin to the birthplace of such an illustrious citizen.

The city is not normally reticent about marking such things: as noted here before, the plaque build-up in parts of it is a dentist’s nightmare. So Marion went digging, and found that behind the mystery of Herbert’s birth lay a scandal.

His mother Fanny – a daughter of the composer and novelist Samuel Lover (whose novel Rory O’More Herbert used a template for Eileen) — had first married at 16. But that didn’t last, and after she and her husband separated, she conceived by another man, Herbert’s father. She was then the subject of one of the earliest civil divorce cases in the UK. In the meantime, the product of the scandalous liaison, baby Victor, had been born in the discreet surrounds of Guernsey, his exile from Ireland more complete than he would ever know or let on.

Word is still leaking out, even now. The National Concert Hall will tonight mark the 160th birthday, two days early, of what it calls “Irish-born composer Victor Herbert”. The evening of operetta includes other writers of a genre the NCH says is noted for “sparkle, fun, and wit”. It might also have added “dramatic plot twists”.

***

Speaking of which, and of divorces, I was intrigued to read yesterday’s Irishman’s Diary, by Norman Freeman, on the 1872 assassination of the then viceroy of India, Richard Bourke, aka Lord Mayo. For only minutes earlier, elsewhere and by pure coincidence, I had been reading about Maurice Bourke (1853-1900), Lord Mayo’s son, whose memory is being indirectly resurrected by the scandalous divorce case that is Brexit.

Bourke jnr was one of the protagonists in a British naval disaster of 1893, in which the flagship of the Mediterranean fleet, HMS Victoria, collided with HMS Camperdown during manoeuvres off Libya. Both sank within minutes, with the loss of 358 lives.

Bourke survived, but as the Victoria’s flag captain, he faced court martial, in which he was cleared of all responsibility. Blame instead rested mainly with the (by then dead) vice-admiral George Tryon, who had gone down with the ship, and was blamed for bringing the Victoria into collision course with the Camperdown, carrying his second-in-command, and then refusing to change orders in time.

The event was a major humiliation for a navy that still considered itself the world’s greatest. But as a letter writer to the Financial Times has pointed out – that’s what I was reading – it now carries a warning for Brexit Britain. “One wonders if the UK’s own obstinate commander has the flexibility and presence of mind to prevent another epic collision and ensuing national humiliation”, the correspondent wrote.

The 1893 fleet, by the way, also included a ship called Inflexible. Ironically, that was not involved in the crash. But I was struck too by the location of the court-martial.

In keeping with naval practice, it took place on board a ship, moored at Malta. And what was the name of the vessel from which the great naval calamity and future Brexit metaphor was reviewed? Interestingly, it was Hibernia.

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