Irene fell pregnant quickly and gave birth to her first son Prince Waldemar on 20 March 1889. He was born in Kiel where Irene and Henry were at the time with her mother-in-law, who was now known as the Empress Frederick. After the birth, Queen Victoria wrote, “Thank God that all is so well over and darling Irene is well and had a quick, easy time and got as the Highlanders say, ‘a young son.’ Would you not all of you rather have had a girl? And how strange that he should be born on poor Fritz Carl’s birthday.1 However, we must all be thankful that the dear child is doing well.”2 Empress Frederick was shocked to find that neither Henry nor Irene read newspapers and she wrote that being with them in Kiel was like being ‘in Russia’ as the Romanovs also lived in total seclusion.3
Despite this, Empress Frederick became quite fond of Irene, not in the least because she managed to improve the relationship between the Empress and Henry. From the Köningliches Schloss in Kiel, Henry continued to perform naval duties, and he could indulge in his passion for cars. It soon became apparent that young Waldemar was a haemophiliac and it would take another seven years before Irene gave birth to a second son, named Prince Sigismund. A third son, named Prince Henry, was born in 1900. He too was a haemophiliac. Irene had been hoping for a girl while her sister Alix, now Empress of Russia, was fervently praying for a son.
Empress Frederick was by then seriously ill with cancer. Irene was among those who hurried to be by her side at Friedrichshof. She died, after a long and excruciating deathbed, on 5 August 1901. In 1904, in an eerily similar situation of the death of her brother Friedrich, Irene’s three-year-old son Henry fell from a chair and hit his head. He died of a brain haemorrhage shortly afterwards. Just a few months later, Irene’s sister Alix gave birth to the long-awaited Tsarevich Alexei – he too would be a haemophiliac. The truth was kept carefully hidden, but Alix confided in her sister Irene, who knew the anxieties better than anyone else. Although Irene’s eldest son was also a haemophiliac, he would live to the age of 56.
The outbreak of the First World War set the family relations on edge. Irene travelled back to Kiel, where her husband was in command of the German Baltic Fleet. She even let her English maid go and hired a German one. Her elder sister Victoria returned to England and Alix tried to assure everyone that the war was the fault of the Prussians and not the Hessians. Elisabeth, who had married Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia but was by then widowed, remained in Russia. Both Elisabeth and Alix would be murdered. Irene, Victoria and Ernest Louis remained hopeful that the rumours were not true, but intelligence later reported that the entire family had been murdered.
At the end of the war, Irene and Henry were in fear of their lives. Revolutionaries swept through Kiel, and they tied red flags to their car to make their way out of the city. During the flight, Irene was shot in the arm.4 They eventually reached Hemmelmark in Germany, where they lived in obscurity. During the 1920s, Irene visited Anna Anderson, who claimed to be one of her nieces, Grand Duchess Anastasia. She later wrote, “I saw immediately that she could not be one of my nieces. Even though I had not seen them for nine years, the fundamental facial characteristics could not have altered to that degree, in particular the position of the eyes, the ears, etc… At first sight, one could perhaps detect a resemblance to Grand Duchess Tatiana.”5 She added, “We had lived earlier in such intimacy that it would have sufficed had she given me the least sign, or had made an unconscious movement to awaken in me a feeling of kinship and to convince me. I could not have made a mistake.”6 She had been so upset by the entire affair that her husband forbade Anastasia as a topic of discussion.7
Irene would outlive all her sisters, her husband and two of her sons. She died on 11 November 1953 at Hemmelmark. The New York Times reported, “She was a chairman of honour of the Schleswig-Holstein branch of the German Red Cross for many years and in spite of her age worked for several welfare organisations until her illness forced her to retire. She founded the Heinrich Children Hospital in Kiel. A granddaughter, Barbara, nursed Princess Irene during her illness and she was with her when she died. The funeral will be held on Saturday at Hemmelmark Castle. She will be buried at the side of her husband.8
She had two grandchildren by her second son, of whom the eldest still has descendants.
- Prince Frederick Charles of Prussia (1828–1885) who had died of a heart attack and was the father of the Duchess of Connaught
- Beloved & Darling Child edited by Agatha Ramm p.82
- An Uncommon Woman: The Empress Frederick by Hannah Pakula p.568
- The New York Times
- Anastasia: The Riddle of Anna Anderson by Peter Kurth p.50
- Anastasia: The Riddle of Anna Anderson by Peter Kurth p.52-53
- Anastasia: The Riddle of Anna Anderson by Peter Kurth p.53
- The New York Times