The fascinating story of the Belfast nurse who became a nanny to Russia's tragic last royal family
The Russian Revolution of October 1917 is seen as a stirring event, not unlike the Easter Rising of 1916, with an archaic and reactionary regime replaced by a vital new leadership. Lenin and Trotsky are charismatic figures, even if the most powerful of the troika, Stalin, is now better known as a ruthless dictator.
The drama of the October Revolution remains compelling, and yet I find the fate of the last Tsar's family - his wife, four daughters and sickly son - a distressing thread in the story. Boris Yeltsin called the murder of the Romanovs (the family were stabbed, bayonetted and clubbed to death - a slow and agonising process) in a cellar in Yekaterinburg "one of the most shameful pages in Russian history".
Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra, had four daughters - Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia - and in the early years of these girls' lives, they had an Irish nanny, Margaretta Eagar. She came from Limerick, one of 11 children. They were Irish Protestants and, in her memoir, she is firm about being "a subject of King Edward VII", although she is also quite clear about being Irish. She recounts Irish legends to her little charges and observes parallels between the religious fervour of the Russian peasants and "the Roman Catholics of Ireland".
Margaretta, who had been a nurse in Belfast and then a matron in a girls' orphanage, was 36 when she arrived in St Petersburg in early 1899, hired through personal recommendation. She seems to have taken immediately to the two elder girls, Olga and Tatiana, although in her memoir, Six Years at the Russian Court, the third daughter, Maria, becomes her special favourite. Maria was "born good", teased by her sisters, and deeply attached to her father.
Anastasia, the last daughter, regarded as the most spirited - there was an enduring, but fictitious, legend that she had survived the massacre - is less prominent. Miss Eagar also fails to mention that the son, Alexei, was, tragically, a haemophiliac.
Daughters were treated as second-best in many dynastic traditions and the disappointment elicited by the court to the births of four daughters may have contributed to the fall of the Romanovs. Helen Rappaport's touching biography of the princesses, Four Sisters, brings out the dynastic obsession with producing a son.
The Anglo-German Tsarina, Alexandra, had poor health and suffered in pregnancy but bore motherhood stoically in the hope of a boy. When the first girl, Olga, was born, the reaction was "a great joy, although it's a pity it's not a son". In London, the Pall Mall Gazette reported: "A son would have been more welcome, but a daughter is better than nothing."
Four girls spelled dismay, but, Tsar Nicholas adored his daughters: he was an autocrat but also a fond family man.
The parents' joy when a son was finally born was followed by the grief of a haemophilia diagnosis - his nappies were covered in blood.
And thus the family tragedy gradually unfolded. The monk Grigori Rasputin, a sort of faith healer, came to attend on the fragile Alexei, and his ministrations seemed to work. He drew on Siberian shaman traditions as well as on Russian Orthodoxy. The Tsarina became so focused on Alexei's care that rumours accumulated about Rasputin's power over the Tsar's wife and family.
Equal dynastic rights between daughters and sons might have saved the Romanovs - if not from rule, at least from their awful fate. If daughters had been accepted as having an equal right to inheritance, the obsession with a son might not have steered the events which occurred.
Yet, as Nanny Eagar observed, the early childhoods of the Romanov girls were often jovial and normal. Tsar Nicholas was pleased with her "excellent" care; the nursery was a "paradise" under her regime. She spoke English to the girls, who afterwards wrote her affectionate letters. They missed her a lot when she left St Petersburg "for private reasons". She always referred to them as "my" children.
Nanny Eagar's memoir, published in 1906, doesn't disclose very much and is padded out with too many generalisations about Russian life. She would have been paid a pension by the Romanovs until 1916 and later in her life she ran a boarding house in Kensington. It's a loss to history that some sharp journalist didn't do a more probing interview with her before she died in 1936.
George V, in London, could well have saved his cousin and the family but, having first offered asylum, he then withdrew it, warned by Lloyd George - concerned by the Irish situation - that there could be a Bolshevik revolution in Britain. George put his own survival first. The Labour leader Keir Hardie was particularly opposed to the "tyrannous" Tsar.
History always brings changed perspectives. The truth about the brutal murders of the Romanov family began to emerge in the Nineties, and the Russian government formally restored them to respect as "victims of political repressions". In 2008, the Russian Orthodox Church canonised the family as saints and, the last time I visited the exquisite St Isaac's Cathedral in St Petersburg, worshippers were queuing up to kiss the holy icons of Tsar Nicholas II, "Our Little Father". Yekaterinburg has now become a place of pilgrimage.