by Emily McMahon
Born in Athens on February 13, 1904, Irene was the second of the three daughters and the fifth of the six children of King Constantine I of Greece and Sophie of Prussia, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. The name Irene is derived from the Greek word for peace and the princess may have been given that name due to the so-called Macedonian Struggle, a period of violent skirmishes, guerilla warfare, and political assassinations in the Balkans that began the year of her birth.
Irene had five siblings:
- King George II of the Hellenes (1890 – 1947), married Princess Elisabeta of Romania, no children
- King Alexander of the Hellenes (1893 – 1920), married Aspasia Manos, had one child Alexandra who married King Peter II of Yugoslavia
- Princess Helen of Greece, Queen Mother of Romania (1896 – 1982), married King Carol II of Romania, had one child King Michael of Romania
- King Paul I of the Hellenes (1901 – 1964), married Princess Frederica of Hanover, had three children including King Constantine II and Sofia who married King Juan Carlos I of Spain
- Princess Katherine of Greece, The Lady Katherine Brandram (1913 – 2007), married Major Richard Brandram, had one child
The Greek royal family spent a significant amount of time in exile during Irene’s childhood. After her father’s death in 1922, Irene moved with her mother and younger sister permanently to Italy. Irene lived in Florence with her mother and younger sister in a somewhat ordinary villa. During Irene’s time in Florence, she trained as a nurse in a local hospital. She was also seen out at local dance halls and cafes and generally living the life of a typical young adult of the time. She was fond of the Scottish Highlands, regularly taking trips there with Helen. In late 1926, Irene and Katherine simultaneously came down with appendicitis, but both made quick recoveries.
Irene was linked for some time to Boris III of Bulgaria. Following her sister Helen’s disastrous experience as the wife of Carol II of Romania, Irene was said to have declared that she would not marry a Balkan royal. Irene was engaged to Christian of Schaumburg-Lippe, her distant cousin, in October 1927. The engagement was broken off reportedly due to Irene’s dislike of Germany.
Irene and her sister Katherine served as bridesmaids for their cousin Marina when she married George, Duke of Kent in 1934. As royal weddings tend to encourage gossip about other possible couples, talk of a future husband for Irene began to simmer again. She was mentioned as being linked to Nicholas of Romania, a family with whom her own already had two links (her sister Helen and brother George both married into the Romanian royal family). In the late 1930s, Irene was named as a possible bride to the widowed Leopold III of Belgium. Neither of these prospective marriages progressed beyond talks.
Irene was also instrumental in encouraging “Green Week” in Athens, a time when many trees were planted on the streets of the city to encourage natural beauty and shade. Her brother George II liked the idea and appealed to ambassadors of several different countries for donations of trees.
Irene again became engaged in May 1939 to Prince Aimone of Savoy, 4th Duke of Aosta. Aimone was the son of Emanuele Filiberto, Duke of Aosta and Hélène of Orléans, once a potential bride for both Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Nicholas II of Russia. Aimone was descended from Ferdinand VII of Spain, Louis-Philippe of France, and Victor Emmanuel II of Italy, and was at one time thought to marry Infanta Beatriz of Spain. The engagement between Irene and Aimone was considered to be “a love match without political significance,” although there was some speculation that the marriage was arranged to ease tension over Italian troops being stationed near the Greek border. The two had known one another for some time, as the Greeks in exile in Italy had become close with the Savoy family.
The couple married in Florence at the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore on July 1, 1939, in the company of numerous other royals. The ceremony was said to have been gorgeous, with the streets filled with flowers and scores of spectators. Aimone’s and Irene’s wedding was one of the last royal weddings before the outbreak of World War II in Europe.
The couple had one son:
- Prince Amedeo, 5th Duke of Aosta (1943 – ), married (1) Princess Claude of Orléans, divorced 1987, had three children (2) Silvia Paternò di Spedalotto, no children
Aimone was named King of Croatia in 1941. Croatia had been established as a puppet monarchy in control of Italy and Greece. He intended to rule under the name Tomislav II, but Aimone accepted the throne mostly out of duty. The region was unstable due to border disputes and the war in Europe; the theoretical monarch of Croatia also held little power as the Ustaše fascist organization controlled the country. Aimone abdicated the throne in 1943 on the orders of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy.
At the beginning of World War II, Irene began serving with the International Red Cross in the Soviet Union. In July 1944, after the Allies’ armistice with Italy, Irene, her infant son, her sister-in-law and her two nieces were interned by the Germans at the Hotel Ifen in Hirschegg, Austria, They were liberated by the French in May 1945.
After the fall of the Italian monarchy in 1946, Irene and Amadeo escaped to Switzerland while Aimone fled to Argentina. The couple was effectively separated after this time, having spent little time together during the preceding years. Aimone died in Buenos Aires in 1948.
Following her husband’s death in 1948, Irene established herself in Villa Domenico (Fiesole) in Italy, near her sister Helena, who lived in Villa Sparta. Irene died on April 15, 1974, at her home in Fiesole, Italy. She is buried at the Basilica of Superga in Turin, Italy.