Ellen Odette Cuffe, Lady Desart, was an Irish politician, president of the Gaelic League, company director and philanthropist who has been described as "the most important Jewish woman in Irish history".
She married William Cuffe (1845–1898), the 4th Earl of Desart, on the 29th of April 1881 at Christ Church in Down Street, Mayfair. 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.
After the death of her husband Lady Desart left the house in Cuffesgrange and moved to her home Aut Even (a transcription of Áit Aoibhinn, the Irish for Beautiful Place) in Talbots Inch Village 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, Capt. Otway Cuffe, who was mayor of Kilkenny.
She commissioned the village of Talbots Inch to be built by the architect William Alphonsus Scott along with several other projects she and Capt. Cuffe developed together. These included; Kilkenny Library, Aut Even Hospital, the Greenvale 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.
On the 3rd of 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. She donated the land after she purchased it for £600. She also paid to furnish the building. The building itself was funded by Andrew Carnegie another philanthropist.
She was appointed to the Irish Free State Seanad Éireann as an independent member in December 1922 by the President of the Executive Council. She was one of four women elected or appointed to the first Seanad in 1922. She was the first Jew to serve as a Senator in Ireland. 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. 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. 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.
Talbots Inch Handball Alley
Talbots Inch Village 1933
Kilkenny Theatre interior
Talbots Inch Suspension Bridge
Chimney of the Greenvale Woollen Mills