Irish Courtesan: Margaret Leeson (1727-1797)
Born to a wealthy landed family in Killough, Co. Westmeath, her birth name was Peg Plunkett, one of her mother’s twenty-two children. Because of her mother’s death and to escape an abusive brother she went to Dublin. She was abandoned by several lovers before turning to prostitution.
She became pregnant as a teenager and was kept by the child’s father until the child died. At this point she lost everything and took to being unmarried and relying on the support of men. She adopted the name Leeson to gain some respectability after several liaisons with a Dublin merchant. She never revealed his identity but he is thought to have been Joseph Leeson, 2nd Earl of Milltown. She is known to have had other children.
Profile of an Irish Courtesan
Reputed as the best known brothel-keeper of eighteenth century Georgian Dublin, she accommodated some of the most celebrated and titled gentry winning the seal of social approval when the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, 4th Duke of Rutland, became a client. She refused service to the Earl of Westmorland because he treated his second wife ‘shabbily’ and insulted the Prince Regent twice while visiting London. Her clients also included lawyers, conmen, journalists, theatre-folk and petty villains.
Her first establishment in Drogheda Street was run in partnership with her friend and courtesan, Sally Hayes, until it was vandalised probably by an unruly gang known as ‘Pinking Dindies’ from the upper class and others who roamed the city brandishing their swords. She then moved to Wood Street before settling most notoriously in Pitt Street on the site of the present Westbury Hotel. She led a colourful, if rackety, existence as leader of Dublin’s demi-monde accepting 500 guineas from Lord Avemore to discontinue her brief marriage to his gormless son.
After thirty years she decided to reform but found her collection of IOUs had become worthless and she was incarcerated in a debtor’s prison run by a former client, Captain Mathews, where she tried to commit suicide. To raise cash she decided to write her Memoirs “written by herself” documenting her life as a Madam and the vicissitudes of her retirement. She opened the work by noting “I shall now commence with the most memorable epoch of my unfortunate life ….” It appeared in three volumes. Script on the cover reads …“anecdotes, sketches of the lives and bon mots of some of the most celebrated characters in Great-Britain and Ireland”. The first two volumes sold well but the third appeared posthumously after she died from venereal disease resulting from gang rape on her way home from the Dublin district of Drumcondra.
Resurfacing for the first time in 200 years, a re-edited and annotated version by scholar-critic, Mary Lyons, embellished with period portraits and engravings, has been published as *Memoirs of Mrs. Leeson, Madam 1727-1797. Literary reviews describe her as a character of exuberant energy, determination and self-reliance … with immense style and gusto … portraying a vivacious, witty and outspoken woman, a prototype feminist, who gives an astonishingly detailed picture of high and low life on the decadent fringes of Georgian Dublin. There is a contemporary biography about her and in 2014 she was the subject of an Irish radio documentary on Peg Plunkett titled The Scandal of Mrs. Leeson.
She is said to have atoned for her life and had converted to Catholicism. She died aged 70. An obituary was published in the Dublin Evening Post on 17 May and she was laid to rest in the city’s ancient Saint James’ Graveyard. Closed to the public for almost thirty years the cemetery is now under rehabilitation through the efforts of a local History Association with the support of other partners.
Ita Marguet, June 2016
Note: Acknowledgement is given to sources used in this text. The re-edited *book is published by Dublin, Lilliput Press, 1995 xxiv (290 pp) with bibliography and reference notes. Mary Lyons was educated at Alexandra College and Trinity College, Dublin. Founder member of the Library Association of Ireland’s Rare Books Group she was formerly an antiquarian cataloguer and bibliographer in the British Library, and now writes and broadcasts as a literary critic and eighteenth century historian.