17 June 2023

Talking to Montenegrin
television in Dublin
about the ‘Ruritanian’
life of Prince Milo

Prince Milo of Montenegro … he lived out his final years in Dublin, Connemara and Limerick

Patrick Comerford

I have spent the past two or three days in Dublin, making a documentary with a television station in Montenegro about the unusual story of Prince Milo, a claimant to Balkan royalty who lived in Dublin and Connemara and who is buried in Limerick.

Much of Friday was spent in Christ Church Cathedral and in the crypt abd the chapter house as I was interviewed and spoke about Prince Milo, whose story has all the veneer of a Ruritanian romantic novel. And the invitation to take part in this documentary follows a lecture on Prince Milo I gave in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, five years ago (20 March 2018) as part of the cathedral’s 850th anniversary lecture series and the ‘Lunch Time History Focus’ programme.

Prince Milo’s grave in the churchyard at Saint Mary’s Cathedral is one of the most unusual graves in any churchyard in Ireland. The simple headstone of Prince Milo of Montenegro faces the great west door of the cathedral, and lies beside the boundary wall, looking out onto the banks of the River Shannon. But residents and visitors alike share the same bewilderment, often asking who was Prince Milo, where is Montenegro, how did he end up in Ireland, and why is he buried in Limerick.

For many people in Ireland, it may be difficult for people to tell apart Montenegro, Macedonia, Moldavia and Moldova. Indeed, this was a problem for Donald Trump at a summit six years ago (2017), and these geographical challenges have allowed a conman posing as a royal pretender to hoodwink high society on the Riveria.

The grave of Prince Milo of Montenegro at the west wall of the churchyard of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Montenegro, whose name means ‘Black Mountain,’ is a former Yugoslav republic and a sovereign state in the Balkans in south-east Europe. It has a short Adriatic coastline and it is encircled or surrounded by Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo and Albania. The capital and largest city is Podgorica, while Cetinje is designated as the Old Royal Capital.

Montenegro is a member of the UN, NATO, the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe and the Central European Free Trade Agreement.

In the ninth century, there were three mediaeval Serbian principalities in what is now Montenegro: Duklja, Travunia and Rascia. In 1042, the archon Stefan Vojislav led a revolt that resulted in the independence of Duklja from the Byzantine Empire and the establishment of the Vojislavljević dynasty.

Later, large portions of what is now Montenegro were ruled by the Ottoman Empire from 1496 to 1878. But in the 16th century, Montenegro developed a unique form of autonomy within the Ottoman Empire, allowing Montenegrin clans freedom from some restrictions. Nevertheless, the Montenegrins were disgruntled with Ottoman rule, and in the 17th century, raised numerous rebellions, which culminated in the defeat of the Ottomans in the Great Turkish War at the end of the 17th century.

Montenegro achieved de facto independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1711. From 1852, it was known as the Principality of Montenegro, although it only received formal international recognition as an independent principality in 1878. In 1889, Czar Alexander III said Prince Nikola of Montenegro was Russia’s ‘sole sincere and true friend’ in the Balkans.

The country declared itself the Kingdom of Montenegro on 28 August 1910. At the end of World War I, the king was deposed and Montenegro was forced into the newly-formed Kingdom of Serbia and Montenegro, which later became Yugoslavia.

The Montenegrin line of succession and family tree are difficult to disentangle

Prince Milo Petrović-Njegoš (1889-1978) was a prince of Montenegro and a direct descendant of Radul Petrović, brother of Danilo I (1675-1735), the first Vladika or Prince-Bishop of Montenegro from 1696 to 1735.

But the family tree of Montenegro’s royal family is difficult to disentangle. The first claimants to princely status were the Bishops of Cetinje. As Orthodox bishops, they were unmarried and both their episcopal and princely status passed from uncle to nephew, nephew to uncle, or cousin to cousin in an obscure, indeed whimsical and often capricious, line of succession, in which a bishop’s family member was chosen as his successor on the basis of favouritism rather than seniority, age, ability or even literacy.

All members of the family claimed the title of prince, and the Petrović family only began to take on the trappings of other European royal families during the reign of Danilo Petrović Njegoš (1826-1860). He came to office in 1851 after a dynastic power struggle, and as Danilo II he was the Metropolitan or Prince-Bishop of Montenegro. He stood down as bishop in 1852, declared himself Montenegro’s hereditary monarch, and as the renumbered Danilo I reigned as Prince of Montenegro from 1851 to 1860.

During his reign, Montenegro became, nominally, a secular state or a lay principality instead of a bishopric-principality. A constitution was introduced although, in fact, Danilo ruled as an absolute monarch, with all the trappings of an almost Ruritanian-style monarchy yet with the grip of a Balkan despot or tyrant.

Prince Milo was never in the direct line of royal succession

Prince Milo was never the son of a king or a reigning prince. His title of ‘Prince’ comes from being a member of this unusual family, and he was born in Njeguši on 3 October 1889, the son of Đuro Petrović and Stane-Cane Đurašković.

At the age of 12, he was sent to the Military Academy in St Petersburg, Russia, where he became a personal friend of Czar Nicholas II and Czarina Alexandra, and was introduced to various Romanovs and also to Rasputin.

Prince Nikola I of Montenegro upgraded himself among the royal families of Europe in 1910 by proclaiming himself King of Montenegro. He became known as ‘the father-in-law of Europe’ because his daughters married into so many royal families: Princess Zorka married King Peter I of Yugoslavia; Princess Elena married King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy; and other daughters married into Russian and German royal and noble families, including the Romanovs and the Battenbergs.

Prince Milo was a distant cousin of this extended, minor European royal family, and during World War I he was the commander of the Lovćen Brigade, leading his troops into Albania in 1916.

Montenegro became a part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1918. After Montenegro was absorbed into the new Yugoslavia, Prince Milo left Montenegro in 1919, and for more than half a century he moved around the world as an exile, engaged in a diplomatic campaign to secure the restoration of the recognition of Montenegro as a sovereign, independent state.

His distant cousin, King Nikola, died at Cap d’Antibes in the south of France, in 1921. Meanwhile, Milo was a wandering exile, moving from the Cote d’Azur, to Italy, Mexico, Shanghai, Beijing, and back again to Mussolini’s Fascist Italy. In Mexico, Milo was offered a home by the Mexican dictator. In Shanghai, he befriended Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek and Noel Coward. In Beijing, he flirted with Wallis Simpson, and they remained lifelong friends. In Italy, Milo’s cousin was Queen Elena, the wife of King Victor Emmanuel III, who became a puppet monarch in the hands of Mussolini.

Milo eventually moved to London in 1926, taking a job as a bank cashier and a renting a basement room at No 44 Bedford Square. Three storeys up, and in much higher society, lived the celebrity hostess Lady Ottoline Violet Anne Morrell (1873-1938), whose circle of literary and artistic friends included Aldous Huxley, Siegfried Sassoon, TS Eliot, DH Lawrence, Dora Carrington and Gilbert Spencer.

Helena Grace Smith and her daughter Milena

At an exhibition in the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly, Milo met both Doreen Powell, who would become his protector and patron, and Helena Grace Smith from Haworth in Yorkshire, who had returned briefly from the US to London.

Milo pursued Helena to the US, and they were married in Santa Barbara, California on 3 September 1927. A year later, their only child, Milena, was born in Los Angeles, and she was named at birth after the last Queen of Montenegro.

But Milo abandoned his young family the following year and returned to England. He settled back into London, where he ran an antiques shop near Grosvenor Square with the half-Irish Doreen Powell. They spent many hours together in Claridge’s, the Ritz, the Connaught and the Savoy, and he even reacquainted himself with the flirtatious Wallis Simpson; clearly, he had no intention of returning to Helena and Milena in Santa Barbara.

In California, Helena received her PhD at the University of Southern California in 1934; in London, Milo gathered a circle of Montenegrin friends around him, including Major Marko Zekov Popović.

Fleet Street feted him, and headlines proclaimed him as ‘The King Without a Throne.’ But it was his cousins, Prince Danilo (1872-1939), who renounced his claims in 1921 in favour of his nephew, and Prince Michael (1908-1986), who had inherited the royal claims of their predecessors while living in exile in France. Prince Michael survived arrest and internment on Hitler’s orders for refusing to head up a puppet state in Montenegro.

When the Italians invaded Yugoslavia at the beginning of World War II, Mussolini planned on setting up a puppet monarchy in an ‘independent’ Montenegro. When Prince Michael Petrović-Njegoš spurned the offer of the throne, it is said, it was then offered to Milo. But there is no evidence to support this suggestion, and instead Milo had chosen to move from London to Dublin.

Prince Milo in Dublin in March 1941

He first took a room in the Shelbourne Hotel on Saint Stephen’s Green, and then bought or rented a two-storey house on Arranmore Road, off Herbert Park in Dublin, while Doreen Powell moved into Harcourt Terrace. In Dublin, Milo acquired a Daimler, ZH 4685, and he and Doreen set up another antiques shop.

Prince Milo and his Daimler, ZH 4685, in Dublin

Milo’s daughter says it was at one of their dinner parties that he began what became, after Doreen Powell’s death, an affair with a woman named in his biography as Blanche Drummond, 12 years his senior. However, Turtle Bunbury and other genealogists and historians name the woman at the centre of this mid-20th century society scandal and source of gossip as Gladys (née McClintock), wife of Henry Arthur Bruen of Oak Park in Carlow. She was from Rathvinden House, in Leighlinbridge, Co Carlow, and the Bruens had been married for 26 years.

Turtle Bunbury says Gladys and Milo were introduced to each other by Doris Kane Smith and her husband, the solicitor Samuel ‘Sammy’ Roche, who lived at Bennekerry House, on the Carlow-Tullow road.

In May 1945, shortly before the end of World War II, Milo invited his 16-year-old daughter in California, Milena, to visit him in Ireland. But her mother was totally opposed to the visit and to any possibility of reconciliation.

Prince Milo’s former home near Roundstone, Co Galway, was on the market recently with an asking price of €470,000

Milo and Gladys moved into a house she owned in Errisbeg, near Roundstone in Connemara. There in the 1960s, they became friends with David Allen, who ran Mullen’s auction house in Bray for many years, and his wife Noreen, who ran Clifden Antiques.

When Gladys Bruen died in 1969, however, she was buried in the Bruen mausoleum in Carlow and Prince Milo stayed on in the house in Errisbeg, where he became a virtual recluse. Nevertheless, he continued to maintain his friendship with David Allen, who agreed to buy the house and land, allowing the prince to continue living there until he died.

For most of his life, Prince Milo was estranged from his only daughter, Milena. But as an adult she renewed her acquaintances with him after 39 years, and she visited him in Ireland several times from 1967 on.

Barrington’s Hospital in Limerick, where Prince Milo of Montenegro died 45 years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Milo died 45 years ago this year in Barrington’s Hospital, Limerick, on 22 November 1978, and was buried in a small plot he had bought nearby in the churchyard at Saint Mary’s Cathedral. Only two people were present at his funeral: his daughter Milena, and Reginald Miley, a retired banker living in Ballinteer, Dublin, and one of the few friends he had left in life. The modest and unassuming stone marking his grave is fading and in the rain it is almost impossible to read the wording.

His Connemara home, now known as the Prince’s Cottage, was on the market recently with an asking price of €470,000.

Princess Milena published ‘My Father, the Prince’ in 2001

Meanwhile, Princess Milena, a retired school principal, continued to live in California with her husband Malcolm Thompson. Like her father, she hoped to see Montenegro become an independent country once again.

In 2001, she published her biography of her father, My Father, the Prince. She died in Los Angeles on 14 February 2005.

The urn and plaque in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, commemorate Marko Zekov Popović, the Hereditary Royal Standard Bearer of Montenegro (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

But the story does not end there, for there is a strange connection with Montenegro that links the humble gravestone at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Limerick with an ornate casket in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

Marko Zekov Popović was the Hereditary Royal Standard Bearer of Montenegro, a member of the Montenegrin National Committee, and the author of Where is Montenegro? The Martyrdom of a Small Nation (1926).

When Popović died in London on 26 October 1934, he was cremated, despite Orthodox traditions. His ashes were later brought to Dublin by Milo when he moved to Ireland. In Dublin, Milo placed these ashes in an ornate casket on a shelf in the south ambulatory in Christ Church Cathedral, with an accompanying plaque. Part of Friday’s television interviews included answering questions about why this urn or casket ended up in a Church of Ireland Cathedral in Dublin 90 years ago when the man never lived in Ireland.

Montenegro … a former Yugoslav republic with a short Adriatic coastline between Croatia and Albania

Meanwhile, what ever happened to Montenegro?

At the end of World War II, the former Kingdom of Yugoslavia was succeeded in 1945 by the Federal People’s, later Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

After the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1992, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia formed separate, independent states, while the republics of Serbia and Montenegro together established a federation as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, renamed in 2003 as Serbia and Montenegro.

A year after Princess Milena died in 2005, an independence referendum was held on 21 May 2006, and Montenegro declared independence from Serbia on 3 June 2006. It was officially named the Republic of Montenegro until 22 October 2007.

When Donald Trump brusquely shoved aside the Prime Minister of Montenegro, Dusko Markovic, at the NATO summit in Brussels in 2017, it was yet another rude rebuff for the tiny Adriatic state, almost a century after the Western allies had forced it to be subsumed into the greater Kingdom of the Southern Slavs or Yugoslavia.

Russia’s President Putin must have been pleased with Trump’s rude behaviour. Montenegro’s government accuses Russian intelligence of plotting a failed coup in October 2017, while Moscow accuses Markovic and his government of being a mafia clique.

As the Economist reported, the meeting in Brussels in 2017 was supposed to be a celebratory preparation for Montenegro’s entry into the western alliance that year. But perhaps the Montenegrins had the last laugh when Trump lost the presidential election.

Prince Milo in London in 1930

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