Cork woman Beth Hallinan tells Siobhán Cronin the extraordinary story of her great grandfather’s unique relationship with Queen Victoria and how she came to own a portrait of a now-famous Indian servant
WHILE the Stephen Frears movie Victoria and Abdul, starring Judi Dench, is tipped for numerous awards, few people know of its strong Cork connections – or that a special painting of Abdul himself is currently given pride of place in a house in Ballydehob.
Abdul Karim, the Indian man who was brought to the UK to serve as one of Queen Victoria’s staff, was in fact ‘found’ by a Cork man – Major General Sir Thomas Dennehy.
Thomas Dennehy, who served under the Queen with the British army in India, was tasked with sourcing 12 servants for the Queen for her English residences.
Two servants initially made the journey – and the recent hit movie tells their story.
While diaries discovered in 2010 revealed the extent of Abdul’s relationship with Queen Victoria, the story was no surprise to Ballydehob resident Beth Hallinan.
‘I remember my father talking about “The Munshi”,’ she explained, using the name Queen Victoria had affectionately used for Abdul – meaning ‘teacher’.
Beth’s great grandfather was Major General Thomas Dennehy, a gentleman in waiting to Queen Victoria, and a member of the Queen’s royal household. His family had been among the ‘Wild Geese’ who left Ireland for France after the Treaty of Limerick. As a result, he was educated in Paris, before later joining the British army.
So close were the Corkman’s links to the Queen that his only child, Beth’s grandmother Elizabeth Dennehy, was the Queen’s godchild.
Beth even has an item of furniture which was a gift from the Queen to her grandmother, in her home in Ballydehob.
‘It’s a lovely little piece of furniture, which turns into a music stand.’
And there is another link with West Cork – because Beth says the Major General’s great grandmother’s family were part of the famous O’Mahoney clan that built Dunlough Castle at Three Castle Head on the Mizen peninsula, along with Rossbrin Castle on the Sheep’s Head.
Having watched Victoria & Abdul in Bantry cinema recently, Beth admitted she was surprised how much she enjoyed it, and how accurate it was in its historic detail.
Her father had passed down stories from his own grandfather, relating to the Munshi’s unusual relationship with the Queen, including the fact that he taught her to write and speak ‘Urdu’, that she didn’t initially realise he was a Muslim, that he had brought his wife and mother-in-law to live on the Queen’s estate, and many more details, all included in the movie.
The painting which Beth now treasures, of Abdul himself, is one of four in total which she has in her home. Major General Dennehy commissioned large paintings of all 12 servants for the Queen, but had them copied later, in smaller format, by artist Rudolph Swoboda, for himself.
Swoboda also designed the beautiful livery for the servants.
The originals now hang in the dining room of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. The house was once a royal residence and Beth has seen them hanging there herself.
‘I used to run a restaurant near Southampton and I visited Osborne House from there,’ said the former chef, who is now enjoying her retirement in West Cork.
The large painting of Abdul takes pride of place in the film and reflects its huge significance in this unusual story.
After Queen Victoria’s death, Abdul – who was hated and held in high suspicion by her household – was treated very badly by the British, who evicted him from his home on the royal estate, and sent him and his family back to India, despite their years of loyal service to the Queen.
They also burned all correspondence between Abdul and the Queen, although his private diary was smuggled out of Britain in 1947– leading to the revelations of recent years.
‘I often wonder if my great-grandfather fell from grace after that,’ Beth said, ‘given that he had brought him to Britain in the first place.’
Abdul’s fellow Indian servant, Mohammed, died while in service to the Queen, and is portrayed as something of a rebel in the movie.
But Beth doesn’t know what eventually happened to the other 10servants.
‘I remember my father saying they weren’t really a great success.’