Duchess of Abercorn, founder of Pushkin Trust, dies aged 72

The Duchess of Abercorn, who founded the Pushkin Prize to promote the creative arts, said she had a 'strong feeling every child needed a voice'
The Duchess of Abercorn, who founded the Pushkin Prize to promote the creative arts, said she had a 'strong feeling every child needed a voice'

The Duchess of Abercorn, who founded the Pushkin Trust to promote creative learning, as been praised as a “beacon of hope” following her death aged 72.

Alexandra Hamilton was born in the US but lived at Baronscourt in Newtownstewart, Co Tyrone.

The Duchess of Abercorn (centre) with Snow Patrol's Johnny McDaid, and Helen Cannon of Pushkin Trust Voices

The Duchess of Abercorn (centre) with Snow Patrol's Johnny McDaid, and Helen Cannon of Pushkin Trust Voices

Known as Sacha, the duchess was passionate about the creative arts, and helped inspire a number of talented writers and artists across Ireland, the UK and further afield.

She established the Pushkin Prize in honour of her acclaimed Russian ancestor, poet, playwright and novelist Alexander Puskhin.

Snow Patrol’s Johnny McDaid was the first Pushkin winner back in 1988 with his story ‘A Symbol of Hope’.

As the trust celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2013, he said: “Writing and creativity are hugely important to me and in the music industry they are key to any artist’s success.

“I was lucky enough to have been involved with the first Pushkin Prize when I was 11. I was really inspired as a child by the idea that writing was something that I could do with my life.”

The musician and songwriter added: “Education is vital to the success and transformation of Northern Ireland yet it is under extreme pressure and our youth is at risk of losing out.

“Thankfully, in the Pushkin Trust we have groups and individuals who are willing to make a change to ensure that pupils and participants are exposed to the creative and inspiring spirit.”

The organisation began with the goal of “uniting children and adults in a common bond of creativity which transcends all the factors that might otherwise divide them.”

Since then, it has evolved into an educational programme involving many areas of the school curriculum – including music, art, dance, writing and the environment.

In a Twitter post, poet Maureen Boyle said the duchess “was wonderful and worked for good, especially for children,” while Helen Costello, of Mercy Secondary School in Tuam, said: “A beacon of hope in the discourse of education has been lost to us today.”

Nobel laureate and Pushkin Prize patron Seamus Heaney denounced Sinn Fein in 2000 after the party forced the duchess to cancel a visit to a Catholic primary school in Pomeroy, Co Tyrone.

In a letter to the Irish Times, Heaney said he was dismayed that such a “passionate advocate of the value of creative writing in primary education” should be hindered from inspiring young people.

His letter went on to say: “It is a poor look-out, not only for nationalists and Catholics, but for people of every party and every denomination, if the enlightened work done under the aegis of the Pushkin Prize can be so crudely demeaned.”

The councillor who raised the objection, Finbar Conway, wrongly believed the duchess to be a member of the Royal family, but subsequently re-worded his complaint to describe her as “British aristocracy” who would not be welcome in a “nationalist” school.

A spokesman for the Abercorn estate described the duchess as a “warm-spirited” and “extraordinary”.

He said: “The Duchess of Abercorn was as gentle and warm-spirited as she was strong and determined. She forged an individual path following her passion to nurture the imagination in children’s education and her love for Russia. The two often overlapped.”

In 2003 she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Ulster, and in 2006 the Ireland Fund of Monaco presented her with the Princess Grace of Monaco Humanitarian Award. The duchess was also awarded the OBE for services to charity and education in 2008.

The estate spokesman added: “She always encouraged dialogue and healing through the arts. She enriched many lives and will be remembered with deep affection for her pioneering work and extraordinary generosity of spirit.”