By John Fitzgerald
When we think of aristocracy in Ireland, images of oppression, exploitation, and aloofness come to mind. The lords and ladies are thought of as having been born with silver spoons in their mouths. We have a concept of toffs swanning around in their big house and not caring a whit for the plight of the “common” man or woman.
But there were honourable exceptions to this norm among the upper class elite. Ellen, Countess of Desart was one of them. This Jewish lady, born in 1858, was the daughter of a wealthy London banker and the widow of William Ulick O’ Connor Cuffe, Fourth Earl of Desart.
The Countess was a great benefactor to Kilkenny. She gave it a library, a theatre, a ballroom, a handball alley, a model village (Talbot’s Inch), a suspension bridge across the River Nore, a woodwork factory, a cricket team, a tobacco growing enterprise, a woollen mill and a hospital…among other useful and much needed facilities.
Her brother-in-law, Otway Cuffe, aided the Countess in getting her various projects off the ground.
In spite of having given so much to her adopted county, Lady Desart is seldom mentioned anymore. Many present day citizens of Kilkenny will never have heard of the Countess and her heart of gold.
The library she started opened up the world of books and free education to anyone who cared to pass through its doors. The theatre drew crowds from far and wide, who enjoyed quality drama at low cost.
Gazing through the windows of her house at Talbot’s Inch, the thought of cattle breeding popped into her head as she beheld the lush grazing lands of the district. She soon had a lucrative dairy farming enterprise up and running in the village. Not one to let the grass grow under her feet, she quickly became President of the Dairy Shorthorn Breeders Association.
Admiring the skill of Kilkenny’s hard-pressed woodworkers, Lady Desart put up the money to kick-start the Kilkenny Woodworkers in 1905…thus giving employment to sixty craftsmen. These men worked under the guidance of Otway Cuffe and an English foreman. The Arts and Crafts movement that flourished in England at the time inspired the whole concept of the guild system observed by the Kilkenny woodworkers.
Examples of their craftsmanship can be seen in some of the older city shop fronts, a fitment in the lounge of the Club House Hotel in Patrick’s Street, and on the carved panels of the entrance to Aut Even hospital.
The Kilkenny Woollen Mill, another employment boost, was built across the river from Talbot’s Inch, at Greenvale. She had the two areas linked by her famed “artistic flying bridge”.
The village of Talbots Inch dates from 1904 and is largely the creation of Cuffe and Lady Desart. Architecturally, it resembles the model craft villages of Southern England with their half-hipped gables, overhanging eaves, thatched roofs and decorative brickwork.
The Countess and Otway Cuffe were influenced by the philosophy of William Morris and the notion of developing villages dedicated to producing handcrafts. Following Cuffe’s death, Lady Desart effectively ran the village, adding new facilities to it, including the famous handball alley and a tennis court.
An experimental tobacco farm at Talbot’s Inch was another of her initiatives. This enterprise thrived for a few years and made a tidy profit. A cartoon of the time lampooned the novel concept of growing this crop in the county by depicting two farmers ploughing a field and holding umbrellas over them. One farmer complains to the other: “‘Twas bad enough before the crows took to chewing tobacco!”
Though a tireless benefactor, the Countess was oddly conservative in her political views. She feared that health insurance for workers might prove to be the thin end of a Socialist wedge. She disapproved of the Suffragette movement in England that fought for the right of women to vote.
She believed that granting this right to women would lead to the downfall of Western civilisation. She described the Suffragette campaigners as “militants and hooligans who will drag social life back to the crude roughness of the Dark Ages.”
Lady Desart died in 1933, leaving behind a rich legacy of achievement. Not much remains of the original Model Village of Talbots Inch…but it has retained a little of its scenic and architectural attractions and is deemed to be a vital part of Kilkenny’s heritage.
Even less survives of the kind Lady Desart’s involvement in the social and industrial life of Kilkenny. The old theatre on Patrick’s Street is long gone, like the tobacco growing and the woollen mill.
And her suspension bridge linking the mill with the village was swept away by the 1947 flood.