Born on Christmas Eve 1837, Elizabeth, the daughter of the Duke of Bavaria, was known from an early age as ‘Sissi’. At the age of fifteen Elizabeth was introduced to the Austrian emperor, Franz Joseph, who immediately fell in love with her and married her a year later. Elizabeth was absolutely miserable at court, she felt like a circus freak with people looking at her. Eventually she had a mental breakdown. When she recovered Elizabeth became more assertive and followed her interests in hunting, horse and her beauty treatments. Empress Elizabeth took up the cause of the Hungarians in the empire and a compromise was agreed where Hungary gained limited self-rule but still under the control of the Emperor. This would later serve as model for the demands of Arthur Griffith and Sinn Féin. An ancestor of Princess Diana’s, Earl Spencer, had been impressed by the hunting in Ireland when he served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and he encouraged the Empress to go to Ireland.
Hercules Edward ‘Paddy’ Langford, fourth Baron Langford, leased Summerhill House to the Empress of Austria as a hunting lodge in 1879 and 1880 and was her guest for these periods. It was not an official royal visit and there were no welcomes from the authorities. In fact the authorities resented the presence of the Empress. Elizabeth arrived by train to Ferranslough station. A room was converted as a private chapel, another as a gymnasium and a direct telegraph line installed to Europe. Her horses were not suitable for the Meath obstacles and she was given the loan a horse by Leonard Morragh, Master of the Hounds. The Ward Union Hunt met at Batterstown on 24th February 1879. At 1.00 am the hunt assembled at Batterstown Station to meet a special train from Dublin which carried forty members and guests and their horses. The Empress was driven to Parsontown Manor where she dressed for the hunt. Her dressing delayed the start of the hunt. Upwards of 150 followers of the chase awaited the word to go.
A stag was released and the hunt began. The stag raced southward through Moyglare and through a gap into the Maynooth Seminary with the hounds and the Empress in pursuit. The stag was captured and the President, Dr Walsh, came out to meet the group. The Empress of Austria complained of the cold and asked for a shawl. Dr. Walsh lent her his gown, invited them in for refreshment and she promised to return. The Empress managed to hunt nearly every day, hunting with the Ward, the Royal Meath Fox Hounds Club and the Kildare Fox Hunt. The many dangerous obstacles provided her with excellent challenges to her riding. The Empress presented a riding crop to the master of the Meath Hunt, Captain Robert Fowler of Rahinstown House. The riding crop which she presented to Fowler was sold at auction in 2010 for €28,000.
In the early spring of 1880 the Empress again visited Ireland, going straight to Summerhill. On the first Sunday she went to Mass at the seminary in Maynooth and presented a gift of a three foot high model of St George slaying the dragon. She was unaware that St George was the patron saint of England and when she was told of its significance she ordered a fresh present, shamrock covered vestments from Dublin. St. George is also the patron of horses and the hunt, so she may have had this in her mind when she commissioned the statue. The Empress left Ireland intending to return. However the unsettled political situation and the disapproval of Queen Victoria resulted in the Empress never returning to Ireland. The Empress was assassinated in 1897 by an anarchist in Geneva having dismissed her police guard. There are many parallels between the Empress and Princess Diana including marriage at a young age, being known for their beauty, trapped in unhappy marriages and death as a result of dismissing their police protection.