On Franz Ferdinand’s wildlife stats, Shaw’s ruined opera, and Féchín’s fadas

Some readers have been sceptical of the suggestion here, last week, that Archduke Franz Ferdinand could have killed "half a million" animals in his career as a wildlife hunter.

That estimate was not mine. It’s from Rebecca West’s magisterial account of Yugoslavia between the wars: itself a prodigious thing of 1,200 pages, which I read, enthralled, on a Balkan road trip in 2019.

She attributes the number – “according to his own calculations” – to the man himself.

The scepticism sent me back to another book, David James Smith’s One Morning in Sarajevo. This, as I now remember, also includes a more precise figure for the Archduke’s career killings: 272,439.

The reason Smith can be so exact is that Franz Ferdinand recorded it in his “Schuss List”, now among the exhibits at one of his old family homes, which also includes multiple mounted trophies from his shoots.

For this lady . . . had stuck over her right ear the pitiable corpse of a large white bird, which looked exactly as if somebody had killed it by stamping on its breast

West must have seen this too and exaggerated or misremembered the total, unless she decided to round it up to the nearest half million, in which case she was perfectly accurate.

In any case, I’m not sure the downsizing of her estimate presents the Archduke’s achievements in a better light. That he “bureaucratically recorded” the details, “with sub-columns for different types of animals”, makes it somehow even worse.

As Smith comments: “The grand total […] is not bad for a lifetime’s work and, perhaps, in the early 1900s, did not seem as obscene as it does now.”

It was a different era, certainly, and not just in the Habsburg Empire. On this side of Europe too, Edwardian gentlemen had a penchant for shooting everything that moved.

Their wives often ended up wearing the results.

The thin end of the wedge included a ruined night at the opera, circa 1905, for George Bernard Shaw. In a letter to The Times, he ranted:

“At 9 o clock (the opera began at 8), a lady came in and sat down very conspicuously in my line of sight. She remained there until the beginning of the last act. I do not complain of her coming late and going early; on the contrary. I wish she had come later and gone earlier.

“For this lady . . . had stuck over her right ear the pitiable corpse of a large white bird, which looked exactly as if somebody had killed it by stamping on its breast, and then nailed it to the lady’s temple, which was presumably of sufficient solidity to bear the operation.

“I am not, I hope, a morbidly squeamish person; but the spectacle sickened me. I presume that if I had presented myself at the doors with a dead snake around my neck, a collection of black beetles pinned to my shirt front, and a grouse in my hair, I should have been refused admission.”

It was a golden era for taxidermists, at least. Speaking of things golden, a few years after Shaw’s letter, a writer for The Irish Naturalist was walking past a Dublin taxidermy shop when he was appalled to see a stuffed Golden Eagle in the window.

"This is no doubt the eagle which my old friend Mr Ussher told me he had seen on the Donegal coast north of Slieve League," he wrote, "the only Golden Eagle [he could trace] with certainty as existing in Ireland." That was in 1915, by the way: a year after the mania for wildlife killing may have peaked.

Leaving bloodsports aside and moving to an only slightly less dangerous subject – Irish grammar – my column on Saturday has also attracted questions, specifically about the number of fadas in the name St Féchín.

I used two then and do so again now, but nervously, because in a comment under the online version, David Stifter, professor of Old Irish at Maynooth University, suggests it should be one. That is, he adds, if I insist the name means “little raven”, as I did. By putting a fada on the “é”, he says, I make it “little warrior”.

Well, to tell the truth, I am never sure even of how to pronounce the name, which ranges from a soft, silent “c” (eg Templefeheen) in the west, to a loud, hard one (Termonfeckin) in the east. As to where I put my fechin fadas, I am even less certain.

But I seem to have at least one famous lexicographer in my corner here. Dinneen’s Dictionary has féchín meaning “little raven”, with no mention of warriors. Thus, for now – tentatively – I must hold to my two-fada raven: hoping, with the statue of a dying Cuchulainn in mind, that grammarian wildlife hunters don’t shoot either of us.