His­to­rian Julie Peak­man un­der­took some com­plex 18th-cen­tury ge­nealog­i­cal re­search for her new book on a no­to­ri­ous Dublin cour­te­san

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Ex­plor­ing the life of a Dublin cour­te­san us­ing 18th-cen­tury re­sources

Peg Plun­kett was one of the most no­to­ri­ous Ir­ish cour­te­sans of the 18th cen­tury, a woman of ex­tra­or­di­nary per­se­ver­ance and in­trigu­ing al­lure. A cel­e­brated brothel-keeper who en­ter­tained many of the elite men of Dublin, her affairs with aris­to­crats such as the Duke of Rut­land, Lord Lieu­tenant of Ire­land, made the na­tional news­pa­pers, and it was com­mon knowl­edge among her friends that she kept her bed warm for the Duke of Le­in­ster.

She caused scan­dal and up­roar wher­ever she went and on one oc­ca­sion stormed a theatre when the man­ager banned en­trance to women of ill re­pute. Many of the most im­por­tant and wealthy men of Dublin at­tended her soirées, and sol­diers from the Bri­tish army were her con­stant vis­i­tors.

Peg be­came mis­tress to a string of men and ran a high-class ‘en­ter­tain­ment’ es­tab­lish­ment for many years. In her later years, her looks and en­ergy be­gan to fade, and she de­cided

to re­tire from the busi­ness. How­ever, her re­tire­ment plan seems to have con­sisted of call­ing in her IOUs, which were not ful­filled and the promised an­nu­ities never ma­te­ri­alised. In her mem­oirs, she re­calls: “I cer­tainly had in bonds, prom­is­sory notes, and IOUs, up­wards of two thou­sand pounds that was due to me; but what value could be set upon the obli­ga­tions of un­prin­ci­pled men of fash­ion, and a par­cel of aban­doned pros­ti­tutes.”

None of the IOUs were of any use. When pre­sented with such pa­pers, her debtors sim­ply re­fused to pay up. She found her fi­nances “so very much deranged” that she was forced to sell her house in Pitt Street, Dublin, along with all her fur­ni­ture. Un­able to curb a life­time of ex­trav­a­gant spend­ing, she even­tu­ally fell into fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties and landed in debtors’ prison.

Re­ly­ing on the only re­source she had left, that of her own wit and ca­pa­bil­i­ties, she be­gan to write her mem­oirs in a bid to make some money. Peg sent out a man­u­script ver­sion to all the peo­ple she knew, and this pulled in some money. Threat­en­ing to make pub­lic a list of all the men who had let her down, some of them no doubt paid up to pre­vent ap­pear­ing in the pub­lished ver­sion of th­ese mem­oirs.

When the first vol­ume of The Mem­oirs of Mrs Mar­garet Lee­son was pub­lished in 1795, the whole of Dublin rushed to see who would be in them. Peg used the name ‘Lee­son’, which she had taken from one of her early lovers – many mis­tresses took the name of lovers to as­sume a sense of mar­ried re­spectabil­ity. I dis­cov­ered he was the 2nd Earl of Mill­town, Joseph Lee­son III. He was known to own a large es­tate in Kil­dare where he took Peg to live with him for about a year. She re­mem­bers him fondly in her mem­oirs as he had al­ways been kind and gen­er­ous dur­ing the time she lived with him.

Oth­ers, in­clud­ing the love of her life ‘Mr Lawless’ with whom she lived for five years and in that time bore him as many chil­dren, had left her dis­ap­pointed. He aban­doned her while she was still griev­ing over the loss of her chil­dren, who died from var­i­ous fam­ily pa­pers, gov­ern­men­tal records, wills and so on. One of the first things I did was to search the Ro­man Catholic parish reg­is­ters, avail­able on mi­cro­film at the NLI (and in an ex­cit­ing re­cent de­vel­op­ment, now browseable for free at reg­is­ Th­ese con­tain the ear­li­est records of bap­tisms and mar­riages for all Ir­ish coun­ties – al­though buri­als were not al­ways recorded. Not all ar­eas and dates are cov­ered and ex­ist­ing records are very ir­reg­u­lar. The qual­ity of the reg­is­ters re­lies very much upon ill­nesses. Lawless in­tended to go to New the dili­gence of the parish priest who wrote York to try to make his for­tune, but de­spite them up. spend­ing four years in Amer­ica, his plans The start dates of the reg­is­ters vary from, came to noth­ing. Mean­while, Peg was left for ex­am­ple, the 1740s and 1750s in some with no means of mak­ing a liv­ing and it was city parishes in Dublin, Cork, Gal­way, then that she turned to open­ing up a Water­ford and Lim­er­ick, to the 1780s and lux­u­ri­ous brothel. 1790s in coun­ties such as Kil­dare, Wex­ford,

The first re­al­i­sa­tion I had on be­gin­ning Water­ford and Kilkenny. Many of the parish the re­search for my book Peg Plun­kett: reg­is­ters in coun­ties on the western se­aboard

Mem­oirs of A Whore was that the records are do not be­gin un­til the 1850s or 1860s. de­cid­edly patchy in Ire­land. A large num­ber Church records for some parishes in of cen­suses, parish reg­is­ters and the ma­jor­ity Dublin, Cork, Kerry and Car­low are of records for chris­ten­ings, mar­riages and avail­able on­line at ir­ish­ge­neal­ buri­als were lost in the fire at the Pub­lic There are also nu­mer­ous lo­cal re­gional and Records Of­fice in Dublin in 1922. religious ar­chives and other pri­vate li­braries.

The first port of call for any­one I be­gan to un­cover fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ries of re­search­ing fam­ily his­tory in Ire­land is the the Plun­ketts from wills, land doc­u­ments, Na­tional Li­brary of Ire­land ( NLI) in the let­ters and trial records dis­cov­ered on a cen­tre of Dublin. The NLI has an on­line va­ri­ety of ge­neal­ogy sites and in the cat­a­logue that boasts the usual records, Man­u­script Room of the Na­tional Li­brary

A re­searcher’s first port of call should be the Na­tional Li­brary of Ire­land

of Ire­land. This type of re­search was time-con­sum­ing but it was won­der­ful when I came across a name I recog­nised. I found ref­er­ences to a Garett Plun­kett in the reels of mar­riage records – but was this the brother that Peg men­tioned in her mem­oirs?

More promis­ing were the manuscripts re­lat­ing to land reg­is­tra­tion. Peg said in her book that she was born in Kil­lough in County West­meath but I could find no ref­er­ence to this name. There is, how­ever, a Kil­lagh in County West­meath and I re­alised that the spell­ing of the name had changed. It had also been mis­spelled ‘Kil­lu­lagh’ and I had to take into ac­count all th­ese dif­fer­ent spellings when search­ing.

Any­one un­der­tak­ing this kind of re­search needs to iden­tify the parish that their an­ces­tor came from – there are 63 civil reg­is­ters in West­meath, each of which con­tains many town­lands.

There are also divi­sions of bar­onies, a unit of land that was in­tro­duced by the An­glo-Nor­mans. West­meath is di­vided into 12 bar­onies, Peg came from one called Delvin. She tells us: “My father Matthew Plun­kett Esq pos­sessed a very hand­some prop­erty near Cor­bet­stown.”

If the orig­i­nal Plun­kett es­tate re­mains, no one has yet been able to def­i­nitely iden­tify it and it prob­a­bly no longer ex­ists.

I was ex­cited to find ver­i­fi­ca­tion of the land owned by her brother Christo­pher in ar­eas around Brack­lyn in Delvin, County West­meath, where the fam­ily had lived, in

Grif­fith’s Val­u­a­tion of 1847-1864.

Fur­ther­more, I found proof of the neigh­bours that Peg spoke about in her mem­oirs – the D’Ar­cys and the Feather­stones (again, with vari­a­tion of the spell­ing of the names) – in var­i­ous land reg­is­ters, so I could specif­i­cally iden­tify the area of her fam­ily’s land.

Even more ex­cit­ing was go­ing on a trip to the places where Peg had been. In Brack­lyn, I spoke to lo­cal res­i­dents who knew about the fam­ily line and pro­vided some new facts. I stood in the fields that Peg would have rid­den over en route to her neigh­bour’s din­ner par­ties.

I also vis­ited old 18th-cen­tury cas­tles that still stood and must have been part of Peg’s land­scape, and Russ­bor­ough House in County Kil­dare where the Earl of Mill­town’s fam­ily lived. Re­search­ing ‘on the ground’ pro­vides its own re­wards, es­pe­cially in the beau­ti­ful land­scape of Ire­land.

Com­mis­sion­ing a search

Re­searchers at Ir­ish her­itage cen­tres can un­der­take a pre­lim­i­nary search for a fee of €20, re­gard­less of the re­sult. They carry out re­search trac­ing an­ces­tors through the

church records and are af­fil­i­ated to the Ir­ish Fam­ily His­tory Foun­da­tion. The one I needed, Dun Na Si Her­itage Cen­tre, had ac­cess to the church records for County West­meath. Its church records go back to the late 1700s and cover up to 1900, but this varies from parish to parish.

Sadly, the ar­chiv­ists were un­able to help as the records for the parish of Delvin only start in 1785 and Peg was born in 1742.

Roy­alty and a race­horse

More fruit­ful were the news­pa­pers, where I un­cov­ered in­ci­dents of Peg’s cel­e­brated life – only oc­ca­sional snip­pets, but enough to con­firm her lo­ca­tion at var­i­ous times and to fill in small de­tails on her time­line.

The Dublin Evening Post re­ported that she had en­joyed the jol­li­ties of the Mug­glin fes­ti­val in late Au­gust or early Septem­ber of 1788, as well as a cel­e­bra­tion of Prince Ge­orge’s birth­day at Fiat Hill in­volv­ing “rac­ing pigs, danc­ing girls, grin­ning hags and cud­gelling-blades”.

She even had a race­horse named af­ter her. Ac­cord­ing to the Gen­eral Ad­ver­tiser of 13 Oc­to­ber 1786, Mr Dunn’s four-year-old grey mare, Peg Plun­kett, came in third place.

The digi­ti­sa­tion of Ir­ish records lags be­hind those in Eng­land. Some of the coun­try’s news­pa­pers have now been digi­tised, but only a few of th­ese are free to search with­out a sub­scrip­tion. The news­pa­per col­lec­tion in the Bri­tish Li­brary holds some digi­tised Ir­ish news­pa­pers and is in­valu­able when look­ing for an­ces­tors who made it into print.

Many of Peg’s lovers and clients in her var­i­ous es­tab­lish­ments were army men, cap­tains, lieu­tenants or their aides-de-camp. One of the most re­ward­ing sources for my re­search were army lists, which gave de­tails of some of her lovers.

Keen to find out more, I vis­ited the bar­racks in Dublin where many of the men had been sta­tioned. Now known as Collins Bar­racks, it was taken over by the Ir­ish army in 1922. Prior to that it was the Royal Bar­racks and for most of the 18th cen­tury sim­ply the Bar­racks, Dublin.

The Oral and Pub­lic Ad­ver­tiser for 25 March 1797 stated: “Mrs Mar­garet Lee­son, alias the fa­mous Peg Plun­kett, died in Fownes Street, Dublin, yes­ter­day night. This Lady was one of the most cel­e­brated Cour­te­sans in Europe. If this re­port speaks the truth, she had a pen­sion of three or five hun­dred a year upon the Ir­ish Es­tab­lish­ment.” Alas, ru­mours of Peg’s wealth were in­cor­rect and Peg died with noth­ing to her name. Her life, os­cil­lat­ing be­tween ex­trav­a­gance and penury, had taken its fi­nal toll. Amaz­ingly, I had been stay­ing in a Dublin ho­tel within yards of where Peg had spent her last night.

Af­ter a great deal of search­ing, I man­aged to find her fi­nal rest­ing place. Peg Plun­kett, oth­er­wise known as cour­te­san Mrs Lee­son, was in­terred in the ceme­tery of St James’s Church, Dublin.

Al­though the grave­yard had long been locked up await­ing re­de­vel­op­ment, I man­aged to find a key-holder and gain ac­cess. Un­for­tu­nately, af­ter scour­ing ev­ery plot, I re­alised her 18th-cen­tury grave must have sunk deep into the earth.

This was later ver­i­fied when I came across St James’s Grave­yard Pro­ject, run by a ded­i­cated group of vol­un­teers who try to save the graves and record the in­scrip­tions on the tombs. I read their find­ings – there was no saved in­scrip­tion for Peg, but there could be no doubt, I had been close to her bones.

Fi­nally, af­ter a great deal of search­ing, I man­aged to find Peg’s rest­ing place

18th- cen­tury Ir­ish cour­te­san Peg Plun­kett

Russ­bor­ough House near the bor­der of County Kil­dare, where the Earl of Mill­town’s fam­ily lived

A por­trait of Joseph Lee­son, later 2nd Earl of Mill­town (1730-1801) by Pom­peo Ba­toni, 1751

A mas­quer­ade ball at the Ro­tunda in Ranelagh Gar­dens, Chelsea, 1789, which Peg may have at­tended

TheTh DukeD k of f R Rut­land,tl d L Lordd Li Lieu­tenantt t of f Ire­land, was one of Peg’s favourite lovers

Read­ers can pur­chase a copy of PegPlun­kett (pub­lished by Quer­cus) at the spe­cial dis­count price of £16 (RRP £20) by call­ing 01235 827702 and quot­ing PEGPLUNK. Of­fer valid un­til 31/9/15.

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