How Duchess of Abercorn, descendent of Tsars, was inspired by her daughter's nightmares during Troubles to help thousands of children
Lindy McDowell on the fascinating life and huge legacy of the founder of the Pushkin Trust, whose home was the Baronscourt Estate in Co Tyrone
How do you sum up a woman, not from here, but whose life is inextricably and forever linked with here — and the desire to make it a better place for all our children?
A woman descended from Tsars — but close to the hearts of everyone she met whatever their station in life?
A woman inspired by the glorious work of her Russian poet ancestor — and who used that in turn to fire the imagination of children in a divided land, to help them and to heal them?
If the late Sacha, Duchess of Abercorn, can be summed up at all, it is in the words of someone who knew her well, whose remembrance is lyrical with emotion and raw with the loss of a friend.
Shiela McCaul, chair of the Pushkin Trust, pays this heartfelt tribute to the 72-year-old Duchess, who died on Sunday: “Sacha was, quite honestly, one of the nicest, most genuine people I’ve ever met, and in the 30 years I’ve known her, I’ve never ceased to be amazed by her deep humanity, spirituality and the desire to do good, to make things better.
“From the great and the good, to the children in the schools she visited through the length and breadth of Ireland and beyond, she had time for everyone and had a unique way of making each person feel valued.
“Sacha had a life filled with ‘giving’. She shared her home, the Baronscourt Estate, and most of all herself, with countless people and always left a lasting impression. She brought people together — from all walks of life — and without exception they all seemed to have been imbued with her enthusiasm.
“We bought into her vision and beliefs. Above all else, from her work with the Pushkin Trust, she enriched the lives of the thousands of children whose laughter has been heard and still echoes in the valley around her home.”
Sacha’s heart and home was in that valley in rural Co Tyrone. But jostling in her lineage were Tsars and Grand Dukes, princesses and assorted European royalty. And, of course, Pushkin, Russia’s greatest poet and father of
The family tree of Alexandra Anastasia Hamilton, Duchess of Abercorn, OBE, was weighted with glittering titles and exotic tales. Tall, blonde, elegant and eloquent, she was known to all as Sacha.
She was born on February 27, 1946, in Tucson, Arizona, the first of the five children of Lt Col Harold Phillips and the aristocratic Georgina Wernher, a society lady distantly related to the Queen and, until her death in 2011, one of her closest friends.
Among Sacha’s many titled ancestors were Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich of Russia, Princess Charlotte of Russia, Princess Sophie of Sweden, William, Duke of Nassau, Sophia, Electress of Hanover...
But it was via her family link to Alexander Pushkin that she was best known in Ireland, north and south, and much further afield.
The Pushkin Trust, which she established in his name in 1987, aimed to encourage children to express their creativity through the arts.
And at a dark time in our history it also hoped, and helped, to heal.
Having spent much of her childhood in one of England’s most glorious stately homes, Luton Hoo, Sacha was 20 years old when she married James, the then Marquess of Hamilton, in October 1966. James, a liberal Unionist MP, succeeded to the dukedom in 1979, becoming the 5th Duke of Abercorn.
The couple had three children: Jamie, Marquess of Hamilton, Lady Sophia Hamilton, and Lord Nicholas Hamilton. The family seat of the Hamiltons, whose roots in Co Tyrone stretch back to the very early 1600s, is Baronscourt near Drumquin.
In an interview the Duchess once recalled her first impressions of her new home; “I’d thought of it as a land of fairy tales and of mystique and my first impression of it was that it was a land of magic. It was full of warm summer sunshine and the gorse was out...”
But within a few years the shadow of the Troubles had fallen across that same bucolic landscape.
Her daughter Sophie, then a little girl, began to have terrible nightmares, sparked by a fear of her family being attacked. Sacha, a trained counsellor, encouraged the child to express her feelings through writing and art. It helped.
And it was through this dealing with the nightmares of her own young daughter — and fearing the impact the Troubles was having on other children — that inspired Sacha to set up the trust that bears her ancestor’s illustrious name.
Alexander Pushkin, poet, playwright and writer, was born into a noble Russian family, descended from Abram Petrovich Gannibal, an African page who’d been kidnapped and presented as a gift to Tsar Peter the Great. His great verse novel Eugene Onegin is one of the classics of global literature.
The Pushkin Trust was founded in 1987, originally working with just eight schools.
Down the years since then it has worked with schools throughout Ireland. Tens of thousands of children have benefited.
Musician and songwriter Johnny McDaid of Snow Patrol was one of the first to take part in a Pushkin project. He recalls: “I was really inspired as a child that writing was something I could do with my life.”
Our own great poets, the late Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley, have been patrons of the trust. But its work in bringing children together, and kindling their creativity, was not always appreciated by all.
Back in 2000 Sacha was forced to cancel a visit to a local Catholic primary school following objections from a Sinn Fein politician who’d claimed that the Duchess was related to the British royal family (when actually it was the Russian royals to whom she was related).
The story caused upset and some outrage throughout the UK and Ireland — and further afield.
While the lady herself gracefully preferred to move on, others spoke out fiercely on her behalf.
In a swingeing letter to the Irish Times, Heaney noted: “Sacha Abercorn has been a passionate advocate of the value of creative writing in primary education, and for the past 12 years has been the inspiration of a cross-community, cross-border movement that has been its own reward, artistic and educational, for everybody.
‘It is a poor look-out, not only for nationalists and Catholics, but for people of every party and every denomination, if the enlightened work done under the aegis of the Pushkin Prize can be so crudely demeaned.”
Over the years the Duchess, via her trust, worked closely with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
Its CEO Roisin McDonough says she will be “fondly remembered”.
She adds: “A familiar figure in the broader culture, her work brought her into contact with the Arts Council many times over the decades and, on each occasion, the engagement was productive, community-orientated and inspirational.”
Arts Council head of drama and literature Damian Smyth knew her well.
“On the several occasions when I have worked on arts projects with Sacha Abercorn, her commitment to increasing creative opportunities for children, especially in creative writing and especially in schools, was very clear and an inspiration to all who came into contact with her.
“She was able to make things happen with persuasion, common sense and determination.
“Her legacy to so many children and to people working in creative education is considerable.”
And not just through her work with the Pushkin Trust.
In 1998, following the Omagh bombing, Sacha was made a trustee of the Northern Ireland Centre for Trauma and Transformation.
She was also instrumental in helping secure recognition for servicemen from Northern Ireland who played a pivotal role in the Arctic convoys in the Second World War. In 2014 the heroism of those veterans was finally saluted when they belatedly received the Russian Ushakov Medal.
In 2008 the Duchess was awarded an OBE for her charity work.
Other acknowledgements of her contribution included an honorary doctorate from the then University of Ulster, and the Princess Grace Humanitarian Award presented by the Ireland Fund of Monaco.
Those who knew her recall her vitality and her enthusiasm for life.
After an accident at an equestrian event some years ago, when she narrowly escaped very serious injury, she told an interviewer: “You realise that every minute is worth living when you get the choice. Life is so busy it tends to push us off that track and you forget that.”
There is amid those words some echo, perhaps, of her famous forebear in his poem: Tis time, my friend...
Days follow days in flight, and every day is taking
Fragments of being, while together you and I
Make plans to live. Look, all is dust, and we shall die.
How do you sum up the life of a woman so vital, so giving, so inspirational?
Sacha, Duchess of Abercorn will be missed most by her loving family and friends.
But also by those generations of children to whom she gave voice, whose laughter, as Shiela McCaul says, “has been heard and still echoes in the valley around her home”.