Princess Irene at 70: Queen Beatrix's self-willed and spiritual sister
Self-willed is what she is. All her life she has gone her own way. These days it's all about nature and spirituality and she has turned her back on politics. Princess Irene turned 70 this month.
Following the publication of her book Dialogue with Nature she has, according to royalty watcher Ben Kolster, been unfairly labelled as an otherworldly woman. "Her 'talking to trees' has been turned into a caricature. She is busy with a wide range of spiritual pursuits and derives energy from what she calls the source, Mother Nature herself."
Irene started following her own impulses at an early age. As a child she found it difficult to be "different", not to take part in everyday life. "People couldn't just come and play. They had to get past the fence, where there were guards. However pleasant they might be, they were still guards" is one of her own comments about her youth.
Prince Bernhard believed his daughters Beatrix, Irene, Margriet and Marijke should be brought up as princesses. Queen Juliana was of a different opinion. Is Irene like her mother in that respect? "Yes and no," says Ben Kolster "she also shares some traits with her father, Bernhard. He always argued: I am doing it precisely because it's not allowed" and Irene is just the same."
Dutch Queen Beatrix (L) and Princess Irene grief during a funeral service for Prince Bernhard, the father of Queen Beatrix, at the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft, near the Hague
There was a huge uproar in 1964 when Irene married the Spaniard Carlos Hugo of Bourbon Parma without the permission of parliament. She became a Roman Catholic and abandoned her claim to the throne. "You can hardly imagine the shock it caused at the time," says Ben Kolster. "The Eighty Years War against the Spanish was hardly over, so to speak, as far as the Protestant Netherlands was concerned. And then something like that happens."
Irene's family did not attend the wedding ceremony in Rome. They watched the vows on television at a little castle in Warmelo, the residence of Prince Bernhard's mother. "By chance, lightning struck," Kolster recalls. "They hadn't been invited and to make matter worse the wedding broadcast was off the air."
In the turbulent 1960s and later in the 1970s, she followed her husband Carlos in his political battle to claim the Spanish throne. In 1976 she narrowly survived an attempt on her life. During a memorial service on a mountain she just managed to duck into the woods when political opponents opened fire with machine guns.
"That was a terrible experience for her. When she saw how hard the battle and the political extremes were, what the consequences could be of an ideal expressed in meeting rooms and political rallies."
In the end Carlos Hugo did not ascend the throne. His defeat signalled the end of their marriage.
Irene's political awareness also showed in her presence at a demonstration against cruise missiles in The Hague in 1983. She was not on the official list of speakers but she spoke on her own behalf.
"The weapons we have now made have led us to the edge of the abyss" she told the protestors.
The princess has since abandoned politics. Ben Kolster believes her perspectives have widened. "World peace, the environment, climate change, the primal force which inspires her, those kinds of things." In South Africa at the moment she is working on nature preservation and particularly trying to inspire young people.
Speaking on Dutch television recently, she said: "These days our appearance determines who we are. Who we are on the inside is not seen and we do very little about it," A typical remark for Irene, says Kolster: she's no longer on the barricades; she's looking for the peace within herself."
Radio Netherlands / Expatica