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Saturday, 18 March 2017

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18 March 1792: Lady Arabella Denny died in Dublin on this day. She is best remembered today as the Founder of the Magdalene Asylums in this Country. Arabella Fitzmaurice was born in County Kerry in 1707 to the family of Thomas Fitzmaurice, subsequently the 1st Earl of Kerry. He was notorious for his hot temper – a ‘tyrant’ according to his grandson - but he had showed courage and talent as a soldier. Her mother was Anne Petty, daughter of Sir William Petty, who was the only person who could calm her spouse.

From an early age Arabella showed compassion to those less fortunate than herself in this life. She set up a makeshift Dispensary on her father’s estate to care for his tenants medical needs. In 1727 she married Colonel Arthur Denny, M.P. for Kerry. They had no children and in 1742 the Colonel died of Apoplexy. She had to leave their Castle  & move up to Dublin City. By 1748 she was  living in Blackrock County Dublin where she resided at Peafield Cliff House (now Lios na Uisce/Lisnaskea House).

Due to her interest in charitable affairs she became involved in the Dublin Foundling Hospital which took in orphans and unwanted babies. She donated from her own funds a Clock that chimed every twenty minutes to help regulate feeding times for the suckling infants.

However Lady Arabella was struck by the terrible plight of unmarried pregnant girls on the city’s streets. Their fate was not a good one. She decided to found an Institution in Dublin that could take in these unfortunates and provide a safe environment for them to recover after birth and reform themselves. The first Magdalene Asylum was founded at Whitechapel in London England in 1758. We don’t know if Lady Arabella had been to the one in London or whether its mode of operation was recommended to her but in 1767 she founded the first one in this Country on Leeson Street Dublin for fallen women or penitent prostitutes, who were provided with accommodation, clothing, food and religious instruction. Lady Arabella was a member of the Church of Ireland and her idea was that Protestant girls and women in trouble could through Redemption become part of civil society once again regardless of their previous misdeeds. 

However Lady Denny while well off knew that such an enterprise cost money  and just as important in Georgian Dublin the sanction of the Protestant Ascendency. She roped in as many members of High Society to help fund her project as she could and she got no less a personage than Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III to act as patron. For good measure she also later established a chapel adjacent to the asylum and managed to rope in George Viscount Townsend the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland to attend the first divine service to be held there. As a result of such patronage many fashionable ladies were happy to attend  and donate their purses to alleviate the plight of others.

In 1778 Lady Arabella had reached her 71st year and decided to resign as the head of the Committee that ran the Asylum. She retired to her beautiful home in Blackrock where she lived out her days in the company of her niece Catherine Fitzmaurice. She became poorly but her mind was still active. What exercised her mind the most though was a morbid fear of being buried alive! She gave instructions that on her demise she was to be left on her deathbed for 72 hours before she was lowered into her grave. When she passed from this World her wishes were duly carried out.