Council tribute to aristocrat who was Ireland’s first lady of giving

By Rosa Doherty, January 30, 2014
Ellen Odette Bischoffsheim

Ellen Odette Bischoffsheim

A council in Ireland has honoured the figure regarded as “the most important Jewish woman in Irish history” by opening a bridge in her name.

Kilkenny City Borough Council was due to unveil the Lady Desart pedestrian bridge this week as a tribute to philanthropist Ellen Odette Bischoffsheim — known in Ireland as the Countess of Desart after her marriage to a local peer.

Council member David Fitzgerald said: “She was a great innovator for our city.

“She has done so many charitable things and has made a significant impact on the lives of those who lived here.

“She was one of the first female members of the Irish parliament in 1922, and only recently have we learnt about her relevant Jewish history.

Ms Bischoffsheim died in 1933, having spent over £15 million in funding public services in Kilkenny.

Local historian Gabriel Murray, a member of Kilkenny Archaeological Society, has spent 20 years researching her life.

He said: “She was the most important Jewish woman in Irish history. She came from an aristocratic family and a lot of her money went to help Jews.

“As well as her work in Ireland, she also was involved in funding the Poor Jewish Temporary Shelter in London, which provided refuge for thousands of Jews from Russia from 1881 to 1914.

“I’m glad that she is able to be acknowledged because her story is remarkable and not widely known.”

The bridge, which spans the River Nore, was funded by the Irish government at a cost of 600,000 euros.

Millions spent on mitzvahs

Ellen Odette Bischoffsheim was born in Ireland in 1857. Her maternal grandfather was a Slovakian Jew.

She was one of the first Jewish members of the Irish parliament after the country was declared a free state in 1922.

Her family was immensely weathy, her father Henri Bischoffsheim having founded three of the world’s largest banks — Deutsche Bank, Paribas Bank, and Société Générale.

She dedicated herself to charitable causes, helping to fund the Poor Jewish Temporary Shelter in London which provided a refuge for Russian Jews and, later, Jews fleeing the Nazis.

In 1881 she married William Cuffe, the 4th Earl of Desart. After his death she settled in Kilkenny, where she funded a variety of public projects, including the city’s library and theatre.

She was interested in the Gaelic revival, drawing a parallel with the Hebrew being spoken by Jews in Palestine.

She died in Cornwall in 1933 leaving £1.5 million to charity.

Last updated: 11:45pm, January 30 2014