On June 19 2014 we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of Kathleen ffrench (1864-1938)
A strong woman for her time, she could relate to the women today who struggle to make their place. She was born into a Russian/Irish family and was torn between one culture and the other, always seeking to find her roots.
She inherited vast properties in the region of Simbirsk along the Volga River. Somehow she managed to keep it all going, with the help of a manager and servants although she was sometimes scathing about her workers:
…The manager from Polyanskaya is a crook, while the one from Epiphanovka is on the contrary very honest and hardworking, but too old to manage everything. The foreman is a madman who should be tied up, and Shoenberg – he is a scoundrel, who should be hanged…
Her careful storage of family papers and letters enable us to have a glimpse into her daily life and those around her. They unveiled a passion for life, a sad love story and an enormous commitment to helping others through her medical training at the war front working for the Red Cross.
Always in debt, she balanced one debt off against another and many times went to money lenders to beg for a renewal of her loan.
…I have been in such a difficult position lately, there has been no money even to buy provisions. Now things are better because we are selling potatoes and we are getting a bit of money every day. We had to borrow 500 roubles to pay Masha, and another 500 for the housekeeper. All this on top of the thousands of roubles borrowed for the running of the farm. No wonder I am grumpy at times…
However, she managed to travel frequently to visit her Irish father in exotic places in Europe “flitting from castle to castle, singing and dancing”a break from her creditors, banks and lawyers.
During the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution the Red Army took over her properties and destroyed a great deal of her beautiful possessions, works of art that had been in her family for generations.
…I cannot hold out much longer, the Bolshevki are like a pack of hounds attacking me…
The surviving family art and furniture are in the museum in Simbirsk. She was imprisoned along with many other aristocrats firstly in Simbirsk and later in Moscow. Released into the street one day she wrote a heartfelt letter to her Irish relations:
…I am in a position that would have filled St Francis of Assisi with delight, a brown dress, battered shoes and someone else’s pocket handkerchief…
She was not welcomed at her family home in Galway in the west of Ireland and retreated by cargo boat to China where she ended up in Harbin. Her body eventually was returned to Ireland where she was placed beside her father in the extravagant mausoleum at Monivea that she had built for him.
An Irish Woman in Czarist Russia
Published by HALSTEAD PRESS, Sydney, Australia
and ASHFIELD PRESS, Dublin, Ireland