Historian Julie Peakman undertook some complex 18th-century genealogical research for her new book on a notorious Dublin courtesan
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 registers.nli.ie). 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 irishgenealogy.ie. 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.