VICTORIA WHITE: Why we should get in touch with our inner Hadji Bey for the future

The casually intertwined lives of Haratun Batmazian and my grandfather show us a Cork throbbing with opportunity as part of the British Empire.... Irish independence was terrible for Cork. From then on Dublin... sucked the energy out of the rest of the country.

JUST a small, round yellow box in a Christmas hamper, but what a flood of memories! Straight away I was back in our old sitting-room some Christmas in the distant past. My father had got the same small, round yellow box as a present and he was holding it aloft saying, “Hadji Bey!”

As a child we can take the temperature of our parents very well. I knew this wasn’t just politeness. He was stirred. I didn’t even like that powdery Turkish Delight, but I understood that Hadji Bey was a name with a special meaning for my father.

And I put the moment away the way children do, to be studied at some time in the future.

And so this was the moment. With my Christmas box of Turkish Delight in my hand, and the Internet at my disposal — a word my father had never heard when he died in 1980 — I decided to find out. And I opened up new ways of understanding my father and my history.

As soon as I saw a picture of Hadji Bey’s wedding cake of a shop on MacCurtain Street I knew my father must have loved it when he was growing up in Cork. I am sure his parents brought him there. My grandfather was an accountant on the South Mall, so he was exactly the type of client Haratun Batmazian was seeking to attract.

My grandmother had a lot of notions about herself so she too would have been a classic Hadji Bey customer. She used to leave her Christmas shopping until Christmas Eve so that she could feel the buzz of the city. I picture her between the gleaming glass presses of Hadji Bey’s, mesmerised by rich pinks and yellows.

As I now know from Hadji Bey: Milseain na Tuirce I gCorcaigh, which I missed on TG4 last year, Haratun Batmazian, who founded Hadji Bey, came to Cork for the Great Exhibition in 1902 and stayed. He was proud to be a subject of the British Empire. Which was another reason for my grandparents to frequent the shop. My grandfather was an Englishman who came to Cork from Birmingham in 1914 and was followed by my grandmother.

The casually intertwined lives of Haratun Batmazian and my grandfather show us a Cork throbbing with opportunity as part of the British Empire. Which led to a sudden realisation: Irish independence was terrible for Cork. From then on Dublin, which had been no more than an administrative centre, sucked the energy out of the rest of the country.

As time goes on, I’m more and more attracted to our British past, not because I want to go back there, but because it was a time when we were part of a big, multi-national union. I grew up loving the teddy-bear shape of Ireland on my green passport. Now I see the nation-state as a passing, 19th century fashion. I want an Ireland which is open and connected, and I recognise that there is no such thing as full sovereignty for a country as small as ours.

Haratun Batmazian was an Armenian Christian who came to Cork to escape the racial pogroms which the Ottoman Empire was carrying out. The flexing of the muscles of different empires led inevitably to the First World War. The collapse of empires led to the heyday of the nation state.

But interestingly, Batmazian, escaping the Ottomans, clung ardently to another empire, the British one. When his shop was burned down, probably by veterans from the Munsters’ disastrous campaign against Turkey in Gallipoli, he published a moving public letter under the heading, “Live and Let Live!” in which he explained that he had come to Britain because he had heard that there he would find “freedom”.

I wonder how he felt about Irish independence? I wonder how my grandparents felt about it? My father said they were staunch Unionists. I imagine they just pretended it wasn’t happening. My grandmother still considered herself a blow-in when she died after more than 60 years in Cork. “I don’t know what folks do here”, she would say, and once I heard my Cork-born aunt respond, “Granny, you’ve lived here longer than I have.”

But despite the unionism there is the intriguing fact that my grandfather left England and settled in Ireland as a young man in 1914. Was he escaping the draft? Or was it just, as my uncle said, that he had a working-class background and couldn’t rise in the accountancy profession in England? Who knows. But these two adoptive Corkmen tell a story about the cosmopolitanism of the city at that time. Cork had the advantage of one of the best natural harbours in the world. But it was also important that the city was part of a political and trading union which covered half the globe.

And I think my father went into Haratun Batmazian’s shop as a young boy and decided he was going to Constantinople. It took him years. He was the first in his family to go to university, winning a scholarship in Greek to study Persian and Arabic. He was aiming to go to the BBC but he ended up in The Irish Times and RTE and finally, as deputy president of the European Broadcasting Union, got to Constantinople, now Istanbul.

I grew up fasinated by the orthodox icons and I still am. My first holiday from college I got a train from Dublin to Istanbul along the famous Orient Express route and went to see the famous Byzantine cathederal of Agia Sofia.

THE origin of all this obsession may well be a shop in Cork fragrant with rose, almond, lime, tangerine and bergamot. Little round yellow and pink boxes. How they must have turned the head of a romantic young boy.

But even as my father grew up, his city was shutting down to the world. Hadji Bey was sold in 1971. But it has been revived by L.C. Confectionery in Kildare who are already focussing on exporting the sweets. It shouldn’t be hard. The Batmazians used to sell to Harrods.

We should never forget how much opportunity there is in international co-operation. No-one would want to go back to imperial structures, but I have to admit that I would have no problem with a stronger, more cohesive Europe.

The euro was badly designed but its collapse would kill the EU. And we have teetered on the brink. I was interested to hear Minister Leo Varadkar say earlier this year that he had been reading about the collapse of currency unions, particularly the crisis which followed the end of the Austro-Hungarian union in 1931. I hope he encouraged his fellow Cabinet members to study their history.

We assume the presidency of the EU in four days’ time and I hope we can help lead the Union further away from the brink. I want my children to grow up in an Ireland which is part of a bigger, broader world, as it was when my grandfather and Haratun Batmazian came to Cork.

Over the next six months, I hope we will all get in touch with our inner Hadji Bey.


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