Princesses Irene, Victoria, Elisabeth and Alix of Hesse in 1885.
She received her first name, which was taken from the Greek word for "peace," because she was born at the end of the Austro-Prussian War. Alice considered Irene an unattractive child and once wrote to her sister Victoria that Irene was "not pretty." Though not as pretty as her sister Elizabeth, Irene did have a pleasant, even disposition. Princess Alice brought up her daughters simply. An English nanny presided over the nursery and the children ate plain meals of rice puddings and baked apples and wore plain dresses. Her daughters were taught how to do housework, such as baking cakes, making their own beds, laying fires and sweeping and dusting their rooms. Princess Alice also emphasized the need to give to the poor and often took her daughters on visits to hospitals and charities.
The family was devastated in 1873 when Irene's haemophiliac younger brother Friedrich, nicknamed "Frittie," fell through an open window, struck his head on the balustrade and died hours later of a brain hemorrhage. In the months following the toddler's death, Alice frequently took her children to his grave to pray and was melancholy on anniversaries associated with him. In the autumn of 1878 Irene, her siblings (except for Elizabeth) and her father became ill with diphtheria. Her younger sister Princess Marie, nicknamed "May," died of the disease. Her mother, exhausted from nursing the children, also became infected. Knowing she was in danger of dying, Princess Alice dictated her will, including instructions about how to bring up her daughters and how to run the household. She died of diphtheria on 14 December 1878.
Princess Irene of Hesse and by Rhine, kneeling at left, with her grandmother Queen Victoria
and, from left to right, her sister Elisabeth
, brother Ernest Louis
, sister Victoria
and, sitting, her sister Alix
in February 1879, two months after the death of her mother.
Following Alice's death, Queen Victoria resolved to act as a mother to her Hessian grandchildren. Princess Irene and her surviving siblings spent annual holidays in England and their grandmother sent instructions to their governess regarding their education and approving the pattern of their dresses. With her sister Alix, Irene was a bridesmaid at the 1885 wedding of their maternal aunt, Princess Beatrice, to Prince Henry of Battenberg.