Lady Desart and Kilkenny


Padddy Neary

Miss Ellen Bischoffsheim was the eldest daughter of a London Jewish banker and her marriage to William, the fourth Earl of Desart on the 27th April 1881 was the notable event of the London season. It was rumoured the bride brought a dowry of £150,000 with her with a similar sum to come on the death of her father.
On their arrival in Kilkenny the newly weds were greeted at the railway station by a large number of the citizens and were driven to Desart Court.
The village of Cuffesgrange was specially decorated and the road which branches off the main road leading to Desart Court was festooned with evergreens and banners. The Earl acknowledging the reception said he would never forget the occasion the longest day he lived. Her Ladyship said you are all very kind to me and I thank you very much.
Such was the introduction of the young Countess Ellen to her new home in Kilkenny.
The estate was listed in 1879 at almost 9000 acres, with a large tenantry. The Earl’s name appeared on many public bodies and he played an active part in introducing the Royal Agricultural Show to Kilkenny in 1884. The Earl died after a short illness in 1898, eventually the estate and title passed to The Hon Otway Cuffe, who became the Fifth Earl of Desart or better known as the Captain from his days in The British Army. He was not long establishing social and personal contacts in the City and County. The ideals of the Gaelic League and its aims such as fostering native industry, appealed to Otway Cuffe, he became a member of the local branch and President in 1904, a position he held until 1912. The Captain became more interested in reviving local industries, but this might never have happened but for the munificence of Lady Desart.
Captain Cuffe was asked to let his name go forward for the local elections of 1906, he agreed but on condition he would not canvass, he declared, the people can elect me of their own free will and I will do my best for them. The result of the elections saw the Captain victorious, and Lady Desart described the scenes afterwards as bonfires were lit all over the city, and the Captain carried shoulder high through the streets.
In 1907 and 1908 he was unanimously elected as Mayor of Kilkenny.
The official opening of the Woollen mills took place in April 1906. After lunch the guests were driven over the picturesque bridge erected in 1810 by the Second Earl of Desart, Captain Cuffes grandfather, and out to Greenvale. Many speeches were made and the function concluded to the strains of the Sheestown fife and drum band.
In 1910 two events occurred in which Lady Desart figured prominently. The first was the opening of the Public Library, Lady Desart assisted
in purchasing the site and offered to furnish it as well. The library was opened on the 3rd Nov. 1910 and to mark the occasion, the Countess was presented with a silver key, enamelled on one side with the Arms of Kilkenny and a suitable inscription on the other.
The second event occurred later that evening when the Freedom of the City was conferred on Lady Desart on the proposition of the Mayor Ald. Potter and seconded by Ald. Cantwell. It was recorded that the honour was being conferred on her Ladyship as a mark of sincere appreciation of her great and continued munificence during the past ten years to our City and especially for purchasing and presenting the site of the new public library.
In reply Lady Desart said she was elated at being singled out for such an honour seldom bestowed and never before offered by an Irish City to any woman. She spoke at length of the bonds of affection that bound her to Kilkenny and the privilege of adding her name to the roll Kilkennys worthy citizens. A member of the public called for a cheer for Kilkennys leading philanthropist and was warmly responded to by all present.
Captain Cuffes unexpected death in 1912 came as a great shock to his relatives and the people of Kilkenny, but Lady Desart was determined to
carry on with the Captains work and ideals.
The Countess proceeded with the building of Aut Even Hospital, Desart Hall, and the handball court. And was involved with The Woollen Mills, Talbots Inch, the Suspension bridge and Desart Hall, which is a story for another day. In recognition of her work and devotion to Kilkenny she was nominated a member of the First Senate of the Irish Free State in 1922, and made a number of contributions to debates.
Lady Desart died in Dublin on the 29th June 1933 at the age of 75. And was buried in Falmouth at the side of her husband the 4th Earl of Desart.

To day Aut Even Hospital, the City Library, Talbots Inch village, The Handball Court, and Desart Hall, stand as memorials to Ellen, Odette Countess of Desart and her brother in law, Captain the Hon Otway Cuffe.