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Tell Your Own Story

Using Picture Postcards to Craft a Memoir by Paul B McNulty

Article by Paul B McNulty ©.
Posted in the Magazine (Tell Your Own Story: , ).
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My aunt, May McNulty (1903-1966) of 15 Warrington Place, Dublin was a singer who trained in Milan in the early 1920s. She moved to Austria in 1924 as she sought to develop a singing career. Having failed to do so, she returned to Ireland and embarked on a stellar career in contract bridge playing at international level for Ireland.

When she passed away in 1966, I inherited an archive of 162 picture postcards most of which belonged to her. As a budding family historian, I was sceptical of their genealogical utility. So, I lay them aside until curiosity got the better of me. I then sorted them chronologically and transcribed as much of their content that remained legible and understandable.

An example is the card received by May McNulty in 1926. It was addressed to her at Bei Frau Rottermann, Wiener Neustadt, Hauptplatz 9, a small city just south of Vienna. There she had settled in 1924 after completing her singing apprenticeship in Milan:

Dear Miss McNulty! I send you hearty greetings from a very nice place.

We are going on to Graz to-morrow, as I have to do there on business purpose.

Please don’t expect the kiddies this week as we will not be back before the end of the week.

 Yours sincerely, Mrs Ida Ebner, Jeannie, Hans. 

The Ebner family at Mariazell gegen Hochschwab, Steiermark, Austria, 17.II.26.

(From left) The signatures of Hans aged 4, Jeannie aged 8, and their mother, Mrs Ida Ebner.

Mrs Ebner’s reference to her kiddies suggests that May McNulty had become involved in childcare as she sought to earn her keep while searching for a singing career.

I searched for Jeannie Ebner on Google and identified the eight-year-old girl (1918 – 2004), destined to become one of Austria’s distinguished writers. Her translation portfolio includes works by Irish authors: Walter Macken, Michael McLafferty, Francis McManus, Edna O’Brien and Peadar O’Donnell. Of these, only Edna O’Brien is still living. I had the audacity of messaging her in relation to Jeannie Ebner who translated The Country Girls as Die Fünfzehnjährigen in 1961. I wondered if the two great writers had ever met or corresponded. To date, I have not received a reply entered online to a link that seems to have vanished. More than likely, Jeannie’s interest in Irish literature arose from her youthful supervision by May McNulty whose late father, Thomas, had assembled a fine library at 15 Warrington Place, Dublin.

Having moved to Vienna, the musical capital of Europe, May received a New Year card from Nana Botstiber addressed to her at Muhlg 22/16, Wien IV:

Dear Miss Mac Nulty! What did you say, that I left Vienna so suddenly?

 I’m glad that I got the possibility to stay here.

 I find the place marvellous and I am feeling myself very well.

Be good and write me if you inclines.

All my love to you and best wishes for a happy New Year. Yrs affectly, Nana Botstiber.

New Year card from Nana Botstiber, Castel Tyrol, Merano, northern Italy, 26 Dec 1927.

Nana turned out to be Louisa, the wife of Hugo Botstiber (1875-1941), a Jewish musicologist whose home was frequented by notable composers, conductors, musicians and singers. He was founder and secretary general of the Vienna Konzerthaus Society until 1938. Even though he had converted to Catholicism in 1897, he fled Austria in 1939 and died in Shrewsbury, England in 1941. May’s interest in operatic singing would have been the inspiration for her introduction to the Botstiber family.

(From left) May McNulty and her nephew, Paul McNulty; Jeannie Ebner; Louisa and Hugo Botstiber, courtesy Christina Stahl, their great-granddaughter.

Also intriguing was the appointment of Robert T Boylan as the first head of department to The Botstiber Institute for Austrian-American Studies founded by Hugo’s son, Dietrich W. Botstiber, in 1995. Intriguing, because May’s mother was Mary Boylan (1863-1945), and many members of the Irish Boylans emigrated to America as indicated by a photographic album in my possession. Regrettably, a 2004 obituary notice in The Washington Post does not include his parentage. However, the naming of his two late wives, a daughter and two sons, and nine grandchildren provides an opportunity for further research.

Other notable picture postcards that helped to shed light on the life and times of May McNulty revealed that Frida Schad may have been a Holocaust victim; that J.McD in Donegal missed her singing; that M in St Mary’s, Dublin may have been suicidal; that a teaching role for May was indicated in a card signed Your little pupil; that the intriguing Liesl Wanka invited her to visit again at Vienna. Liesl is mentioned in A critique of Dr Paul Hasterlik by Helene König; in a letter by Hasterlik (later a Holocaust victim) to his son in 1935; and in the diary of Katharina Brömse who mentions Liesl’s involvement in an unspecified project.

I intend to publish a memoir of my aunt in due course under the title 15 Warrington Place: May McNulty, singer and international bridge player.

(c) Paul B McNulty

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Paul B McNulty’s research into family history inspired him to write historical fiction. His historical novels, Spellbound by Sibella (2013), The Abduction of Anne O’Donel (2014) and A Story of the Bodkin Murders (2015) have been published by Club Lighthouse CLP, Canada. He has also written plays based on these novels, one of which 1798: A Rebel Romance was staged by UCD Dramsoc on 18-22 April 2016. He is now working on a biography of his aunt, Margaret Mary ‘May’ McNulty who trained as a singer in Milan and played international bridge for Ireland.
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