Wild Goose Nest – Frank McNally on a castle-collecting Croatian hero, Count Laval Nugent von Westmeath

An Irishman’s Diary

In her classic account of travels through 1930s Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West visited a castle formerly owned by one of Ireland's Wild Geese, Count Laval Graf Nugent Von Westmeath.

It was an ancient castle, some of it dating back to Roman times, on a steep hill called Trsat, in the Croatian city of Rijeka.

And yet it was arguably only the second most famous attraction on the hill, even for Irish tourists.

Wild geese connections and all, Trsat had once, according to legend, witnessed a much more remarkable feat of flight, when the family home of the Virgin Mary landed there in the year 1291, staying for three-and-a-half years, en route from Nazareth to its final resting place in Loreto, Italy.

West had visited that site too, and had been enchanted by the “nonsensical” story, while also noting its convenient proximity to the castle, which in the 13th century was the seat of one of Croatia’s great aristocratic families, the Francopans.

The castle itself brought her back to earth, in more ways than one. She was very intrigued by the burial customs of the Nugents, who were all interred on the premises. And not just in the gardens, as she added, but “in niches of the house, above ground, their coffins set upright behind slabs of marble”.

This was puzzling. "The only people I have ever heard of as being buried upright are the ancient Irish, whose monotony of mind made them wish to be discovered at the Day of Judgment ready to face their enemies," she wrote, "but the Nugents are English by origin and never saw Ireland till the days of Queen Elizabeth. "

Maybe West, who had been born in Kerry before moving to Edinburgh in her teens, was not here long enough to go native. But presumably the Nugents had absorbed at least some of the ways of the ancients.

They had been well-established at Ballynacor, Co Westmeath, by the time Laval Graf Nugent was born there in 1777, although he soon followed his father (who died when his son was an infant) and uncle to central Europe, as part of one of the great military branches of the diaspora.

By 1918, this country's contribution to Habsburg armies would total seven field-marshals (Nugent included), more than 100 generals, and nearly 500 officers. No fewer than 1,250 Irish soldiers had been decorated for courage in some way, with 26 winning the empire's highest honour, the Military Order of Maria Theresa.

Nugent got that too. And the many prizes he accumulated in an illustrious career extended well beyond militaria. He was a life-long collector of art, sculpture, coins, and Greek vases. Indeed, he collected castles too. Trsat was only one, albeit the greatest, of a set of six.

By the way, when Rebecca West visited there, she was also interested to learn (from a gardener) that among the Nugent tombs was interred – for no apparent reason – an aunt of George Bernard Shaw.

Thinking they'd misheard this, her multinational tour group sought confirmation in several languages ("La Zia del Signore Bernard Shaw?" "Die Tante Von Herrn Bernard Shaw?" etc), to all of which the gardener nodded.

But before they could find out how the Jane Shaw named on a tomb ended up there, their tour guide interrupted in anger, having seen a notice on a wall that implied they had all been overcharged on the way in.

So the group never found out why Shaw’s aunt had been buried in the castle, and this may have been just as well, because she hadn’t.

The Jane Shaw in question was no relation to the playwright.

That was one of the minor revelations of a conference in the University of Zagreb last month, on "Irish Nobility in Croatia from 18th to 20th centuries".

Co-hosted by the Irish Embassy and addressed by Prof Terry Dooley of Maynooth University as well as local academics, it explored Ireland's contribution to a Croatia that was not yet independent then, but to which Nugent is now a national hero.

He did not live to see it emerge from the Hapsburg Empire, having died in 1862. But by piquant coincidence, that empire ceased to exist on the 141st anniversary of his birth: November 3rd, 1918.

Croatia had already declared independence a few days earlier, while simultaneously uniting with local Slovenes and Serbs in a pan-Slavic state, a forerunner to the Yugoslavia that Rebecca West visited 18 years later, in attempt to understand what she called “the powder keg of Europe”.