From Leningrad to Louth – Frank McNally on a little piece of Ireland that is forever Russia
Graves with Russian crosses in the Church of Ireland cemetery in Collon, Co Louth. The village was once home to a small community of Russian émigrés, made homeless by the revolution. Photograph: Courtesy of churchnewsireland.org
Like many Irish villages, Collon in Co Louth is built around a simple crossroads. But if you ever visit the Church of Ireland cemetery there, you may be struck by a number of less conventional crosses– the Russian Orthodox kind, with three horizontal bars, the bottom one of each (like the village and churchyard) steeply sloped.
These are a vestige of a period in the last century when the village housed a small community of Russian émigrés, made homeless by the revolution. Thanks to them, for a time, Collon was the place to go in Ireland if you wanted to learn Russian. The old courthouse hosted up to 50 students a week at its height.
A persistent rumour has it that these at one point included the “Cambridge spies”– Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, and Donald Maclean – who, if so, may have appreciated the fact that the aforementioned church was modelled on the chapel in King’s College, Cambridge.
But another student from around the same time, the late Conor Cruise O’Brien, had his doubts about the legend. He attended weekly classes in Collon for two years and told this paper’s Moscow correspondent once: “I don’t believe for a moment that they were there.”
The man who established the school and community was Nicholas Couriss, born in St Petersburg in 1896 and later an officer in the Imperial Army, who fought for the “White Russians” in the civil war before fleeing the Bolsheviks.
Couriss spent most of the 1920s in Greece. Then somebody persuaded him that Ireland was “a wonderful place where you could stand on your head and nobody would notice”. So he and his wife Ksenia (also sometimes spelt Xenia or Ksana) moved to Collon in 1931.
Joining them later was his cousin Prince Alexander Lieven. Later again came the Tolstoys, Michael and Myriam, who were usually called Count and Countess Tolstoy, although their titles were unofficial.
Michael Tolstoy was at most a very distant cousin of the novelist, but he was directly descended from another famous Russian, Gen Kutuzov, whose tactical retreat broke Napoleon’s armies in 1812 and who Leo Tolstoy considered a great hero.
After his death in 1980, Michael Tolstoy was also claimed to have been a Soviet spy in earlier decades. But in Collon, like the Courisses, the Tolstoys were market gardeners. If you visited the farmers market in Drogheda on a Saturday in the 1950s, you could have bought home-made jams, chutneys, and vegetables from the countess in person.
As mentioned in an Irishman’s Diary of the period, they were also said to be manufacturing a strange thing called “yoghourt”, which the Diary helpful explained was a “sharp, creamy stuff formed by the action of certain bacteria on milk and recommended by the health-food experts”.
The Tolstoys later moved to Wicklow and set up their own Russian school in Delgany. The Couriss family, meanwhile, stayed in Collon and remain there to this day.
One of the graves under the Orthodox crosses is that of their son Ilya, who died in childhood. Another holds Ilya’s mother, who followed him in 1967. After that, at the age of 70, Nicholas Couriss became an Orthodox priest, serving in Dublin until his death in 1977, when he too was buried in Collon.
Its reinvention as a Russian language school, with or without the Cold War intrigue, capped a turbulent period for Collon Courthouse. The building also features in a recent book, John Bowman’s centenary anthology, Ireland: The Autobiography (2016), for the unusual situation it found itself in early 1922.
Speaking of crossroads, the whole country was at one then.
The Anglo-Irish treaty had just been enacted, bringing a Free State into being. The Civil War had yet to begin. But the Revolutionary Courts had already replaced the old British ones, which were everywhere ignored.
Hence a letter from the resident magistrate for Collon, CH Robinson, to the under-secretary in Dublin Castle, explaining that the county council had recently sold the courthouse to “Messrs Rea, Timber Merchants of Antrim”, a company with the contract to fell trees on a local estate.
Finding alternative premises was pointless, he added: “There are no RIC to bring cases to my courts and if any civil cases were brought, there is no body to execute our warrants or enforce our decrees.”
He had instead reached an understanding with Messrs Rea that the legal books would be kept in a secure area and the premises made available “in the event of the impossible happening, namely a court being required”. In the interim, the building was engaged mainly in “the manufacture of brush heads”.