Eagar, Margaret Alexandra ('Margaretta') (1863–1935), nursery nurse to the Russian imperial family, was born in Limerick on 12 August 1863. She was the fifth of eleven children born to Francis MacGillycuddy Eagar and his wife Frances Holden. From 1855–80, Francis Eagar was governor of Limerick county gaol. Both parents were members of the Church of Ireland, and well-connected in society, especially in Kerry. Her maternal ancestry included two music publishers and composers in Dublin, both called Francis Smollet Holden, who are credited with preserving some important traditional Irish melodies.
Nothing certain is known of Eagar's education, but she spoke French well, trained as a nurse in Belfast, and is said to have been matron of an orphanage. A family friend, Emily Loch, who was lady-in-waiting to a relative of Alexandra, tsarina of Russia, recommended Eagar for the post of nurse in the Russian imperial household. Probably much to her surprise, she was invited to take up the post, and travelled via Berlin, to St Petersburg in January 1899. The British embassy in Berlin asked her to take charge of an important bag containing dispatches for the embassy in Russia; with great difficulty, Eagar kept it in her sight throughout her journey, refusing to allow Russian officials to open the seals. The thirty-six year old was startled from sleep on her first night in the Winter Palace, St Petersburg, when a young English diplomat walked into her bedroom to take delivery of the bag.
Eagar was in charge of the grand duchesses Olga (b. 1895), Tatiana (b. 1897) and Maria (born just a few weeks before Eagar came to the palace in 1899). Anastasia was born in 1901. The Irishwoman, with assistance from Russian nursemaids, cared for the children for six years and became very attached to them; she stayed with them night and day, nursed them through childhood illnesses and typhoid fever, and taught them English. It is possible she taught them to read and write.
The relatively informal home life of the royal family was in considerable contrast to the ceremonial of the court, and the splendour of the many palaces; Eagar describes a baby bath of solid silver, and rooms so big that the children could toboggan down an artificial hill indoors. She accompanied the family on frequent journeys to their summer or winter residences, and on visits to other royal courts, in Darmstadt and Copenhagen. King Edward VII talked to her on several occasions, calling her 'my Irish subject'.
It is not clear why Eagar left her post in the imperial household in October 1904, just after the birth of Alexei (b. 12 August), the heir-apparent. Eagar later said that she left for personal and private reasons, or that she had resigned on health grounds, and also claimed that she was in receipt of a handsome pension. It is possible that the arrival of the longed-for baby boy, soon discovered to be haemophiliac, meant that Eagar's nursing skills were regarded as no longer sufficient.
However, rumours had been circulating in St Petersburg from February 1904 that a British nurse was a spy, and it was later alleged that a nurse had possibly stolen papers from the tsar's desk and been thrown out of the country. As the only British nurse who had recently returned from Russia, Eagar felt she had to challenge the allegations, and published letters in newspapers and several magazine articles describing her successful career in Russia. In 1906 she brought out a volume of reminiscences and descriptions of Russian life, apparently with the consent of the tsarina. In this memoir she remarked that her letters home had frequently been intercepted, and it is possible that the Russian security service or officials, perhaps even the tsar himself, had chosen to view unguarded comments about Russian life or politics as unhelpful to the regime.
Eagar's reminiscences are of some historical interest, as they are an unequalled source of information about the childhoods and personal lives of one of the most celebrated families in European history, but as her friend Emily Loch had noted in her letter of recommendation, Eagar was somewhat unsophisticated, and her awestruck descriptions of European royalty, court life and Russia, are interesting enough, but not very lively. She kept in touch for many years with the children she had looked after, and they sent her presents and letters. When news came in 1918 of the horrific deaths of the imperial family at the hands of the Bolsheviks, she was heartbroken but possibly not surprised. It is interesting that in several places in her 1906 book, she went out of her way to enumerate auspicious omens which seemed to promise that 'my dear little charges will never go astray' (Eagar, 1906, 203).
Little is known about her life after 1906. From 1908, she was running a guesthouse in Holland Park, London, and in the 1911 census, she was staying in Belfast with her sister's family. She died in a nursing home in Keynsham near Bristol, England, on 2 August 1936. Eagar's nephew, Waldegrave [Waldo] MacGillycuddy Eagar (1884–1966) was a very significant figure in the establishment of Boys' Clubs in England, and was also secretary general of the National Association for the Blind, 1928–49. He was especially involved in developing the 'talking books' service for the blind. Margaret Eagar's great-nephew, R. M. C. Eagar (d. 2003), was a noted geologist in England.