Ellen Cuffe, Countess of Desart

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Ellen Cuffe
Lady Desart
Portrait painting of a young Ellen Cuffe
Born Ellen Odette Bischoffsheim
(1857-09-01)1 September 1857
London, England
Died 29 June 1933(1933-06-29) (aged 75)
Waterloo Road, Dublin, Ireland
Resting place Falmouth, Cornwall
Residence Aut Even, Kilkenny
Occupation Irish politician, company director and philanthropist
Known for Philanthropy and Politics
Notable work Kilkenny Library, Aut Even Hospital, the Woollen Mills, Kilkenny Woodworkers, Kilkenny Theatre, the Tobacco Growers Association, Desart Hall, Talbots Inch Village and Talbots Inch Suspension Bridge.
Title Countess of Desart
Movement Gaelic League
Spouse(s) William Cuffe (1845–1898)

Ellen Odette Cuffe, Countess of Desart (née Bischoffsheim; 1 September 1857 – 29 June 1933) was a London-born Jewish woman who was best known as an Irish politician, company director, Gaelicist (President of the Gaelic League for a time) and philanthropist[1] in Ireland. She has been called '"the most important Jewish woman in Irish history".[1]


She was the daughter of Henri Louis Bischoffsheim, a wealthy Jewish banker of German origin. He was responsible for founding three of the largest banks in the world; The Deutsche Bank, Paribas Bank, and Societe Generale.[2] Her younger sister Amélie Bischoffsheim was married to Sir Maurice FitzGerald, 20th Knight of Kerry.[3]

She married William Cuffe (1845–1898), the 4th Earl of Desart in on the 29th of April 1881 at Christ Church in Down Street, Mayfair.[4][5]

Life in Ireland[edit]

Interest in Gaelic Revival[edit]

After the death of her husband Lady Desart left the house in Cuffesgrange and moved to her home in Aut Even (a transcription of Áit Aoibhinn, the Irish for Beautiful Place) on the outskirts of Kilkenny city. She was interested in the Gaelic revival of the time and became a member of the Gaelic League and was elected its president, succeeding her brother-in-law, Captain Otway Cuffe, who was mayor of Kilkenny.

She commissioned the village of Talbot's Inch to be built by the architect William Alphonsus Scott.[6] along with several other projects she and Capt. Cuffe developed together. These included; Kilkenny Library, Aut Even Hospital, the Woollen Mills, Kilkenny Woodworkers, Kilkenny Theatre, the Tobacco Growers Association, Desart Hall and Talbots Inch Suspension Bridge.

In relation to her support of the Irish language, Lady Desart reminded the people that her own people, the Jews, had in their new Palestine colony revived a forgotten language and used it to re-unite the scattered remnants of their nation.[7]

On 3 November 1910, Lady Desart formally opened the Carnegie Library for the very first time with a silver key supplied by P.T. Murphy, Jeweller, High St., Kilkenny.[8]

Irish Free State politics[edit]

She was appointed to the Irish Free State Seanad Éireann as an independent member in December 1922 by the President of the Executive Council.[9] She was one of four women elected or appointed to the first Seanad in 1922.[10] She was the first Jew to serve as a Senator in Ireland.[2] She was appointed for 12 years in 1922 and served until her death in 1933.

Lady Desart as president of the Women's Committee from 1908–33, was directly involved in the rescue of approximately 300,000 women and children. She is buried along with her Anglo-Irish husband William Cuffe (from Desart Cuffsgrange, County Kilkenny) in Falmouth, Cornwall.[11] The tombstone reads "They were together in their lives, and in their deaths they shall not be divided". She died on the 29th of June 1933 at Waterloo Rd, Dublin, aged 75.[4] On her death her probate recorded a will of £1,500,000. All of this money was donated to the various charities that she was associated with.

She is commemorated in the city of Kilkenny's Lady Desart pedestrian bridge, which was unveiled by Kilkenny City Borough Council in 2014.[1]