Some visitors to the Irish Jewish Museum are surprised to find out that a Jewish woman, Ellen Odette Bischoffsheim was appointed to the First Irish Senate in 1922.
Ellen Bischoffsheim was born in London in 1857 to Louis Bischoffsheim of the wealthy Bischoffsheim-Goldshmidt banking family and Clarissa Biedermann whose father had been court jeweller to the Austrian Emperor.
She married William Cuffe, the fourth Earl of Desart in 1881, setting up home at their estate in Co. Kilkenny. Along with her husband, she became involved with many local initiatives including the establishment of the Woolen Mills and the Carnegie Library for which she was honoured to receive the Freedom of the City in 1910, the first woman in Ireland to ever receive such an award.
The Countess divided her public work between the Jewish and general communities. In England, returning to her country seat at Ascot, Berkshire after the death of her husband in 1898, she devoted much of her time to social and charitable work in the London Jewish community. The Countess was president of the Women’s Committee of the Jewish Temporary Shelter in London which provided relief for over 150,000 Russian Jews from Tzarist Russia.
In 1912 she took up residence again in Kilkenny and her work for the local area continued with the building of Aut Even Hospital, Kilkenny Theatre and Desart Hall. She championed workers’ rights, was a member of the Industrial Society of Ireland and threw herself into the ideas of the Gaelic League making comparisons with the revitalisation of Hebrew and Gaelic.
She rigorously and famously defended herself in the Jewish Chronicle of 1930. In a letter to the editor, she wrote emphatically resenting ‘the unwarrantable assumption in your issue of 5th September that I have “deserted the faith” of my fathers. I am and have been all my life, a staunch and practising Jewess far too proud of my faith and race not to feel extremely indignant at the slur you have tried to cast on me.’
Interestingly, her only sister Amelia also married an Irish Peer, Sir Maurice Fitzgerald, 20th Knight of Kerry and actively supported the Jewish National Fund. Her mother’s family, the Biedermanns were to lose all their wealth under the Nazi regime and many of her relatives were murdered in Auschwitz.
For her services to the cultural and economic welfare of Ireland, she was on the nomination of President Cosgrave, made a Senator of the Irish Free State in December 1922. When she died in Dublin in 1933, her body was brought by mail boat to England where she was buried beside her husband in Falmouth cemetery, Cornwall.
In 2014, the Kilkenny County Council commemorated Lady Desart with a pedestrian bridge in her memory. Local historian Gabriel Murray has spent years researching this amazing woman’s remarkable life and his forthcoming book “The Countess of Desart” will be sure to be a most interesting account of a significant Jewish woman Ireland’s history.