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September 1: The Most Important Jewish Woman in Ireland

August 31, 2015

Ellen_Cuffe_with_husband_WilliamEllen Odette Bischoffsheim, a prominent German banker’s daughter who became president of the Gaelic League to urge the revival of the Irish language, was born in London on this date in 1857. Her father, Henri Bischoffsheim, founded three of the world’s largest banks — Deutsche Bank, Paribas Bank, and Société Générale. Through her 1881 marriage to the fourth Earl of Desart, William Cuffee, Ellen Bischoffsheim became Countess of Desart and the major employer and benefactor in the county of Kilkenny. Despite being opposed to women’s suffrage, she became the first Jewish senator in the Irish Free State legislature, where she served for twelve years. By the time of her death at 75, she had spent more than £15 million on public works in Kilkenny, including a hospital, a theater, a model village with a woodworkers’ factory, and a pedestrian bridge linking workers’ homes to mills. She also funded, along with her father and Baron de Hirsch (her uncle), the Poor Jewish Temporary Shelter in London, which provided refuge for thousands of Russian Jews and, later, for Jews fleeing Nazism. In 2014, Kilkenny opened a new pedestrian bridge in her honor; a bridge that she had built for her millworkers to cross to her mills had washed out in 1947. More than one historian has referred to her as “the most important Jewish woman in Irish history.”

“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.” —Wikipedia