Belfast Royal Academy - founded 1785


Our School – From the Archives…

Valentine Steinberger: A Life Less Ordinary

Early in 2015 an Australian visitor, Peter Heaney, called into the Academy. He was looking for evidence that a distant relative had taught at the school in the late nineteenth century. School records revealed that Valentine Steinberger, had indeed taught modern languages in the Academy between 1880 and 1886.

Mr Henry was then directed to Sandra Ardis of The North of Ireland Family History Society. She uncovered more information about Valentine Steinberger’s time in Ireland, and the unhappy end to his life here.

What follows, and the accompanying documentation (which you can find by CLICKING HERE), reveals a life lived over a century ago and the paper trail, accessible to everyone, that led to it being revealed anew in the 21st century.

Valentine Steinberger, pictured back row, far right

Valentine Steinberger, pictured back row, far right

Valentine Steinberger was a graduate of the University of Munich. He then taught briefly in Rome, Madrid, Lyons and Paris. The first reference to his presence in Ireland appeared in the Belfast Newsletter on 27th May 1879 when it indicated that was teaching in St Malachy’s College, as well as being engaged as a part-time teacher in Bangor Endowed School.

Despite this busy life, “Herr” Steinberger, as the Newsletter referred to him, found time to meet and marry Eliza (Elizabeth) Ferris of Coleraine in October 1880. In the following year a daughter, Cecilia, was born. Valentine, after part- time study, received an Honours degree in German and was engaged as a teacher of modern languages in the Academy. The Crombie Building (as it is now known) had opened in 1880 and the first pupils were enrolled. A son, Charles, was born to the Steinbergers, like his sister, in Coleraine, while Valentine, lived during the week in Cliftonville Avenue, taught in the Academy and acquired two additional degrees – also in modern languages.

In the accompanying photograph, which is in the school archive, Valentine can be seen on the right, standing, and with his arms folded. The photograph was taken sometime in 1885 or 1886.

In 1886 Valentine resigned from his position at the Academy, where he was evidently popular, since on his departure, the pupils presented him with a silver inkstand and a gold pencil. The Steinbergers moved to Galway where Valentine began a new career as Professor of Modern languages in what was then Queen’s College, Galway. Another son, Fritz Robert, was born in 1888. In the 1911 Census there was evidence of the birth of a fourth and final child. But the girl, Lillian Blanche, was not listed in either the 1901 or the 1911 Census of Ireland and Sandra discovered a record of her marriage in 1915 in British Columbia, then a record of her in the 1911 Census of Canada. In June 1913 Valentine became a British citizen. The apparently happy and successful life of Professor Steinberger continued.

However, in August 1914 the First World War began. Two years later, in April 1916, the Easter Rising broke out in Dublin. The lives of the Steinbergers were to be dramatically affected by the latter in a way that they could never have anticipated.

Just before the Rising there had been an attempt to smuggle guns from Germany to Ireland; Roger Casement, an Irish nationalist leader, had landed on the coast of Kerry from a German submarine; Patrick Pearse, leader of the Dublin rebels spoke of the Germans as “our gallant allies in Europe”. There had been some action in support of the rebels in Galway.

When the Rising was finally suppressed fifteen of those deemed responsible for it were executed, Martial Law was proclaimed throughout Ireland and 3,430 men were arrested. Valentine Steinberger, being German by birth, was one of these. When the number of prisoners threatened to overwhelm the military prison system, Steinberger and others were moved about among different types of Royal Navy ships. They were then detained for a time in Wandsworth Prison in London before being sent back to Richmond barracks in Dublin. Conditions were often grim. Liam Tannam, who had been involved in the Rising, later wrote of his imprisonment that at first he thought that he would go mad – then he wished to be mad – anything to replace the hunger and loneliness and darkness. On his release, Valentine Steinberger’s health deteriorated and he died on 3rd November 1916. His only known involvement in Irish politics was to attend a meeting in Portrush Town hall way back in 1896, to oppose the enclosure of the Giant’s Causeway in order to charge a fee to visitors. In fact, so law abiding was he that Sandra Ardis found records of his payments for a dog licence.

After her husband’s death Eliza Steinberger went back to live in Coleraine where she died in 1934. The first child Cecilia, reputedly the first Catholic girl to graduate from Trinity College Dublin, moved to England where she later married. As we saw earlier, her sister, Lillian Blanche emigrated from Ireland to Canada in 1910, where she eventually married a soldier, Sergeant Percival Bate of the Victoria Fusiliers. Her brother Fritz Robert also went to Canada. Charles became a seaman.

Valentine Steinberger’s life encapsulates many elements as disquieting today as they were in the first great phase of globalization before the first world war. The scholarly figure in mortar board and gown photographed with other masters in his last year at the Academy had moved about Europe before finding congenial work in the school. Shortly after the photograph was taken he moved again. As we saw, he married a local girl, supported his growing family, then became a citizen of his adopted country. He was, in modern parlance, an ‘economic migrant’. He was also a foreigner in times of political unrest: dangerous then as now. Unjustly arrested, never charged, harshly treated, he died shortly after his release.

The family of Valentine and Elizabeth did not remain in Galway. His widow moved to, and lived out the rest of her life in Northern Ireland, a state that did not exist when she was married. The children left Ireland. As we have seen, two of them also became ‘economic migrants’. Charles’ choice of career showed some of the restlessness of his father, while Cecilia’s determination to have a university education at a time when many regarded this as unsuitable for young ladies, has its echo in the struggle for girls’ education in parts of the world today.

Apart from one secondary source, Charles Townsend’s book on the Easter Rebellion, the story of the Steinberger family was rescued from oblivion by a chance encounter in the Academy with one of Valentine Steinberger’s descendants, and the archival work of Sandra Ardis – herself a former pupil of the school. The documentary evidence used accompanies this account. Many of the Academy’s records are available to pupils and membership of The North of Ireland Family History Society is open to everyone.

Perhaps there is a ‘Steinberger’ story in the archival record of your family?