Sacha: an indomitable spirit

Sacha: an indomitable spirit Duchess of Abercorn Alexandra Hamilton – Sacha.
Mark Patrick Hederman
In a homily delivered in Belfast’s St Anne’s Cathedral, Mark Patrick Hederman OSB, reflects on the life of the Duchess of Abercorn Alexandra Hamilton – known as Sacha – who died on December 9, 2018.

Dear Friends of Sacha,

We are not here today to bury our beloved. That happened, most appropriately, some months ago at Barons Court, the place on this earth she loved the most. We are here in St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast at the end of May, when every part of these islands is in resurrection mode, to celebrate Sacha Abercorn alive.

As she says herself in Feather from the Firebird: “We stood by those seven small coffins in the centre of the towering Cathedral…the choir was assembling and rehearsing…time was put on hold and in the stillness of that second, I heard her say: Have no fear for us, it is we who pray for you. Love is never ending.”

While a larger world mourns the death of Sacha, Duchess of Abercorn, her family and friends have a much deeper and more lasting kind of sorrow to endure. The general public knew her as an icon of elegance and nobility, a tireless promoter of creativity, a catalyst for peace and reconciliation, but you, her dear ones, who had the privilege of knowing her as sister, wife, mother, grandmother, friend, nothing I can say will ease your pain or your loss. Nothing can efface her memory or replace her person. And it is good that this is so: Sacha will remain forever and for always wherever her memory is kept alive.

Those who might have been tempted to lose their faith in humanity, seeing, as they do, the hateful stories that fill our screens and newspapers every day, had only to come in contact with Sacha to renew their faith in the beauty, dignity, and delight of human beings at their best. She was ‘grace’ in person – and even those who might object to aristocracy or to titles, were forced to recognise ‘her grace’ when they met her in person.

Sacha is alive in some other dimension, and her indomitable spirit is guiding us. I can sense her right behind me now, saying: “Patrick, be short and don’t be foolish. James is already looking at his watch.”

The wisdom she worked for all her life, the values she embodied, the ideals she cherished, these must be nurtured and maintained. The Pushkin Trust, which she founded and promoted for over 30 years, provides hope for every child everywhere, to receive an education worthy of the name.

Purple flower

The four-petaled purple flower, which was her signature, stands for vital aspects of who we really are: one petal each for body, mind, spirit and emotions; all four linked at the stem to creativity. Under the umbrella of the Pushkin Trust, Baronscourt valley welcomed over 50,000 children from 28 of the 32 counties in Ireland. They met there, in a stunning natural environment, so many other children from differing backgrounds and traditions.

The tried and tested blueprint, which she elaborated over the years, must not be lost. The present board of The Pushkin Trust is firmly committed to carrying on this work, to ensuring that it is preserved and, furthermore, seeing that it is incorporated into whatever system of education we devise for our children in the future.

Russia was deep in Sacha’s heart. Descended from the Romanovs, she was great, great, great grand-daughter of Alexander Pushkin. She saw Ireland and Russia as sister souls: places where art, poetry and storytelling take pride of place. Northern Ireland become her second home when she married James, Duke of Abercorn, in 1966 and gave birth to Jamie, Sophie and Nicholas, her nearest and her dearest.


At a meeting in Luton Hoo, her ancestral home in Bedfordshire, on the 150th anniversary of Pushkin’s death in 1986, Sacha found the inspiration of her life. She recognised the power of art to bring together irreconcilable enemies.

She gathered seeds from a tree around Pushkin’s grave and planted them as saplings in Barons Court Valley. She saw the children of the world, North, South, East and West, climbing high into this tree where peace can come and make its home through friendship. She saw this tree, grown from seeds she had planted, becoming a massive oak spreading wide its branches in huge inclusive shade.

When the Omagh bomb tore the heart out of Co. Tyrone in August, 1998, Sacha was there in her quiet and effective way, visiting families of victims, Trustee for Northern Ireland’s Centre for Trauma and Transformation.

She was recognised and celebrated for her life’s work: an honorary doctorate from the University of Ulster in 2003; the Princess Grace of Monaco Humanitarian Award in 2006; the OBE for service to charity and education in 2008.

But, even more deeply touching for her was her appointment as Honorary Consul to the Russian Federation in Northern Ireland in 2014.

This gained her, a year later, the Pushkin Medal for outstanding contribution to cultural heritage. Nor did she neglect her Northern Irish compatriots, insisting that those who played a pivotal role in the Arctic convoys of the Second World War be awarded the coveted Ushakov Medal in 2014.

In February, 2003, she returned to her birthplace in Arizona and spent six days in the Chiricahua Mountains near New Mexico. She was determined to offer herself to whatever evolutionary Spirit is working for the benefit of our universe. She experienced there a spiritual transformation, something utterly transpersonal; something which mirrors a change taking place in our world today.

She recognised that such a change was both necessary and was happening: “we need to exchange”, she would say, “the love of power for the power of love”.

Dearest Sacha, 

Silent friend of many distances, feel

how your breath enlarges all of space.

Let your presence ring out like a bell

into the night. What feeds upon your face

grows mighty from the nourishment you offer.

Move back and forth into the change.

If drinking becomes bitter, turn yourself into wine.

In this immeasurable darkness, be the power

That rounds our senses in their magic ring,

tell us the meaning you discovered there.

And if this earthly world no longer knows your name,

whisper to the silent Earth: I’m flowing.

To the flashing water, say: I am.

Mark Patrick Hederman, former Abbot of Glenstal Abbey, Co. Limerick, is a Benedictine monk, teacher, lecturer and writer. Formerly headmaster of the school at Glenstal, he was later named academic dean.