The Von Dornburgs and Von A’s of West Cork by Jos Godwin


A friend and follower of The Lilliput Press chronicled his recent experience with COVID-19, as written about earlier. He here offers another tale from his youth.

My very early childhood was spent in a village in West Cork, where my parents made a good living selling everything except their children to tourists. When I was three or perhaps four my hair was blond and my button nose freckled. Most, if not all, of the neighbours were swarthy and Iberian-looking. Nothing to do with Armadas! Much more ancient than that. Down in West Cork it’s a Milesian thing. Locals might ask ‘How’s it going boy?’ but they look like they’ve just popped over from Seville. I suppose we were the only blond family in the village back then. Blow-ins! Only arrived in the eighteenth century!

At that age I used to have a little red tricycle – the one with tassels of multi-coloured ribbon dangling from the handlebars, stabilizers at the back, I would peddle from my parents’ tweed shops on up to the local newsagents where people came to collect their papers and purchase the only available ice-cream for miles around.

And that’s why I went there, asking strangers if they would buy me an ice-cream. Begging basically. Several times a week, and always on a Sunday, an old lady and gentleman with funny accents would pull up in a car and buy their papers and maybe a few other provisions. He and his wife were both extremely tall. There were many similar couples living in the area at that time during the late sixties and early seventies.

My dad used to say they were Germans, whatever that meant? That she was the countess from what we then called Czechoslovakia and he a doctor of some description and German German. You can imagine how confusing for a small boy who now imagines the Sudetenland must have been HER homeland and perhaps Hesse or the Saarland his.

Their car was not very big so they looked like two giraffes in a wheelbarrow. He would get out, hitting his head on the door lintel going into the shop. He wore tweed. Just like the stuff my parents used to make and sell from huge rolls. Always tweed! Sometimes he’d wear this strange green hat with white feathers and shiny cord all around it, like a boat on his head, making him appear even taller! His wife, who nearly always stayed in the car with the engine running, also wore tweeds. She was as tall as he and when she occasionally got out banged HER head off the shop’s door frame. She was intriguing. Her hair was like blue candyfloss. In hindsight she looked, uncannily like Pope John Paul II in drag, bedecked in pearls and, like her husband, wore a heavy gold signet ring on the small finger of her skeletal left hand. I wondered how they both managed to fold their legs so neatly as to fit inside that car? Giraffes, always in a hurry. After a few encounters with this interesting old couple I’d be patted on the head and told how well behaved I was, apart from the begging for ice-cream that is. They were nice and I even showed them my teddies and my new kaleidoscope. On Sundays I’d get an ice-cream handed to me, just like that!

Mummy, whose family managed to keep land right through the Penal Times, found out about my hustling for HB later on and went ballistic!

Shortly afterwards I recall the Von Dornburgs visiting my parents with a sense of urgency. It seems they had sold up, were moving to South America, perhaps Brazil, or was it Argentina? They wished to say farewell to the village hetman who at that time would have been my father. No forwarding address save a P.O. box number and a request not to mention it to anyone for a while, as they would have to say goodbye to too many and perhaps upset them. How kind!

We were like royalty back then. We had the only coloured television in that village, we called our parents ‘Mummy and Daddy’, and regional dialect was torpedoed at table if it came within candelabra’s-width of the Russian princess’ silver dining service!

My own pedigree firmly established LOL: that of the Von Dornburgs must have counted among its gene pool people like Dracula when one thinks about it. Good old Vlad Tepes! Or perhaps Charlemagne!

A week or so after the exchange of priceless farewell gifts, the telephone started hopping. Mostly British newspapermen calling asking for my father or mother … by name (deeply implicated), about a certain couple known as the Count and Countess Von Dornburg, he having worked as Chief of Protocol for none other than … adolfball is stuck in my throat … Adolf Hitler!! The incessant calls were eventually ignored and the girls at the telephone exchange in the post office across the street quickly learned to unplug any request to connect to my parent’s number if the caller sounded cockney or thereabouts.

Now Mummy was always very pro-Jewish and for a time we all scratched our heads and wondered if there was more to that? She used to say, ‘They are God’s chosen people and though not Catholics have a very special place in Heaven beside the throne of the Almighty.’ My father was more circumspect and streetwise. He went down to the storeroom where vast amounts of mail-order parcels of shillelaghs and Waterford Crystal were kept prior to their voyage to Boston or Pacific Palisades or … Butte Montana. The departure gift from Dr Von Dornburg was left there unopened for safekeeping. In those days you never opened a wrapped gift on receipt in case you expected a studded- leather harness and instead received a set of coasters with those awful John Hinde photographs of Ireland in toxic colours that must have spoiled entire rivers in their manufacture. Remember the red-headed brother and sister collecting turf with a donkey? This, between dalliances with Russian princesses and German counts, was my childhood world.

The unopened present from the Von Dornburgs was taken upstairs to the inner sanctum where my late father counted all of his money and ensured as little as possible went to the taxman. (Bono is quite right if he can get away with it. There’s terrible waste in the public service.) Inside the beautiful morocco presentation box lay a glorious ivory-and-gilt bronze ceremonial dagger! My father said it looked like something Napoleon would have had: ‘Sure I can use it for opening bills.’ Mummy grabbed the item and with a scream to the Heavens said the thing was a profanity to humanity and must be dumped. Under the gilt bronze eagle was a somewhat discreet swastika! Rather more recent than Bonaparte. I wonder how they’d react on the Antiques Roadshow? This item was never seen again until many decades later when my nephew was found out the back of the old family home, playing cowboys and Indians with the grandchildren of sworn-enemy neighbours, brandishing the thing. Count Von Dornburg must have loved my parents deeply, or feared going through half a dozen airports on his way to Brazil with a swastika-emblazoned piece of bling that doubled up as a dangerous weapon. I imagine the fleeing count being met at Buenos Aires airport by a customs official named Jacobo Garcia-Finkelstein and asked ‘WTF is this?’

My brother put it up on eBay and the weirdos who contacted him were legion, so I believe he had it blessed by the parish priest and sort of exorcized.

Fast forward ten years and I was swimming in a magnificent cove called Poolgorm. It must have been 1978. I made the acquaintance of a terribly nice fellow blow-in who spoke with an American accent. His grandmother had been a movie star in Hollywood way back in the thirties and forties, and lived part- time locally. I began to boast that my father this and my mother that. This kindred blowhole (sorry Conor) told me, ‘My gran bought that estate by the waterfront and when the decorators stripped back the ceiling paint of the grand salon, to their horror found it to have been painted red with a large white circle and something resembling a St Brigid’s Cross but not quite. It was an enormous swastika!’ The Von Dornburgs must have goose-stepped during cocktail hour! They certainly left their mark. Mayor Ed Koche of New York stayed that month in the said house as a guest of the said granny/former Hollywood movie star, and I’m sure he was none the wiser of what had once been scrawled across the ceiling of that wonderful New England style room.

To be fair, Von Dornburg had gone through Nurnberg and, a bit like Leni Riefenstahl or Albert Speer, was acquitted of crimes against humanity. Not a poster boy of virtue but I’d imagine a conveniently distressed aristocrat who knew all about how the new chancellor ought to conduct himself while luncheoning with King Karol of Romania or exchanging brown-bread recipes with Lady Redesdale. The giraffes in the wheelbarrow were ancien regime victims of a world that offered either land-confiscation followed by firing squad, or assimilation into the new Reich, followed by firing squad.

There were many wonderful Dutch, English and German neighbours in the village in those days. My parents always said it made the place a little more with-it than much bigger towns and cities in other parts of the country.

We had the first outdoor café seating and bureau de change in Ireland after all. When the British aristocracy (who had nestled there, after downsizing from vast Palladian mansions in the Home Counties to colonial style Arts and Crafts villas) panicked with the advent of the Troubles part two in ‘69, they sold up for a song, and the Germans and Dutch swooped in.

One delightful Dusseldorfer, who became like the Normans more Irish than the Irish themselves, told me of another West Cork Nazi. Much later on in the 1990s Marie, let’s call her, told me about this wonderful party-host who lived over by Skibbereen. He was Belgian but German-speaking and dwelt in late Georgian splendour with his wife – the two, also a count and countess, Count and Countess Von A, threw the most delightful dinner parties. It seemed only local Germans were invited except for Marie’s husband, who was not just Dutch but a decorated, Dutch resistance ace fighter pilot who brought down many of his dear wife’s countrymen during the war. The Von A’s did not know this as they entertained the great and good from ex-pat German West Cork society.

On this occasion it was 20th April, a special day of celebration. Marie told me that on entering the well-staffed house, all were German, staff included, with a pair of Irish wolfhounds sprawled out by the front door. The guests were greeted by a console table bearing candles and flowers, above which hung a black-and-white photograph of none other than Adolf Hitler, whose birthday it was! Brazen as that! In West Cork in the nineties!! Hard to imagine but nonetheless a fact.

I suppose the Von A’s were from a generation slightly younger that the Von Dornburgs, but on calculating I figured out our noble German-speaking Belgians would have been in their late twenties in those days of yore, quite capable of major activity on behalf of the Fuhrer had it been demanded. I’m not quite sure what became of them, although I expect they grew old and passed away down by Skibbereen. Marie too has passed away, a superbly vivacious, kindly lady who forgave those bombers who destroyed her childhood home and caused her birthday dress to melt into her skin on that day in 1945.

There were others but let us move on! After all, we are all friends now.