Notable Irishwomen/Mary Leadbeater


A Quaker Authoress.

Mary Leadbeater,

Author of "Annals of Ballitore," "Cottage Dialogues," &c.


THE village of Ballitore, through which the Gordon-Bennett motor race passed several times, was once noted as a Quaker settlement. Mary Leadbeater (formerly Shackleton), has written its chronicles, which are very delightful reading. She herself was an authoress of no little repute, her "Cottage Dialogues," published in 1810, being introduced to the public by a preface from Maria Edgeworth, who thought very highly of the book.

At the close of the eighteenth century the Society of Friends had become a power in Ireland, many of the richest merchants and traders—the Pims, the Bewleys, the Goodbodys, the Clibborns, and others—were Quakers. The village of Ballitore, in Kildare, was one of their strongholds, and was celebrated for a school of which Abraham Shackleton was the founder. It was at this school that Edmund Burke, Napper Tandy, and many other men of mark, were educated.

Ballitore derives its name from its former marshy condition, Bally in Irish signifying a town, and togher, corrupted into tore—a bog. The first settlers were two Quakers, Abel Strettel and John Bar croft. They planted and builded until they made the valley into a garden of the Lord. In "A Tour through Ireland," published in 1792, it is thus described:—

"Within a mile of Timolin, on the right, our eyes were enraptured with the most delicious situation, where through the lofty trees w^e beheld a variety of neat dwellings. Through a road which looked like a fine- terrace walk, we hastened to this lovely spot, where Nature, assisted by Art, gave us the most perfect gratification. It is a colony of Quakers, called by the name of Ballitore. The River Griese winds its stream very near the houses, and the buildings, orchards, and gardens show an elegant simplicity peculiar to this people. Their burying-ground, near the road, is surrounded with different trees, whose verdure made us imagine it a well-planted garden till we were informed otherwise. The hedges that enclose the meadows and fields are quick-set, kept of an equal height, and about every ten yards trees regularly pierce through them, forming beautiful groves of a large extent. Industry reigns among this happy society, all their works are executed with taste, corrected by judgment, and seem to prosper as if Heaven smiled on their honest labours."

Prose seemed all too poor for Mary Leadbeater to describe her beloved Ballitore, so she celebrates it in a very long poem, of which one specimen may be given here:—

"Then come, my friend, and taste once more,
The beauties of sweet Ballitore;
This charming spot, where joys abound,
By rising hills encompass'd round—
Fair hills, which rear the golden brow,
And smile upon the vale below."

The famous school, kept first by Abraham Shackleton, and then by Richard, his son (father of Mary Leadbeater), was principally intended for Quakers, though some of the pupils did not belong to the society.

The three young Burkes—Edmund and his two brothers—had such an aversion to a cross old woman who had been teaching them, before they went to Ballitore, that one evening they set out for her cabin with the intention of killing her. Fortunately she happened to be out. Very different were Edmund Burke's feelings towards his schoolmaster, Abraham Shackleton, and as for his love for Dick Shackleton, his schoolmaster's son, it partook of the same nature as the love of David for Jonathan. After he entered Trinity College, Burke wrote to his "dear Dicky" continually, criticized his poetry, and fondly recalled incidents of his school-life at Ballitore.

Mary Shackleton was the daughter of Richard Shackleton, Burke's friend, and was born at Ballitore in 1758. Her daily life in this quiet community of Quakers has been admirably described by herself.

All were equal here, and the shady courts, the spotlessly clean kitchens, and the clipped yew trees, resembled a scene in Pennsylvania rather than in Kildare. Joseph Willis, in his gold-laced hat and waistcoat, used to go round pulling up the latches of his friends' doors, to inquire what they had for dinner, "even going so far as to poke his stick into the pot on the fire, for the inhabitants of Ballitore mostly sat in their kitchens in the forenoons." And then there was the excitement of the school continually going on, the busy hum of voices sounded in little Mary's ears, and she took in everything with her grave observant eyes.

"As I could read when four years old," says our little Quakeress, "I was able to peruse 'Stephen Crisp's Short History of a Long Travel from Babylon to Bethel,' an allegory I by no means understood. Believing the whole to be literally true, I was wonderfully desirous to see that house which was to be the end and reward of so wearisome a journey. I frequently ascended a sloping flower bank in the garden, to gaze with awe and admiration at a house called Willowbank, which I thought was at such a distance that it must be the object of my ardent desires. How I was undeceived I know not, but undeceived I was, and on my grandfather's return from the London yearly meeting, thinking that Bethel was surely the object of such a long journey, I approached him with the inquiry if he had seen God's house."

First day, with its meetings and its long spells of silence, stood out prominently in the little Quaker girl's experiences. Sitting on her bench, she learned to love casement windows, for "one of these used to admit the light to each end of our meeting-house, and has often beguiled the lonesome hours by throwing the shadow of the trees in the grove in a fanciful manner to my view when seated in silence. Sometimes I thought these reflections of light and shade belonged to heaven and heavenly things, and I looked upon them with awe."

At that time, so our Quaker authoress informs us, a bright light-green silk apron was worn by the strict Friends when going to meeting, also a black silk hood with long ends or lappets, and no bonnet.

The less strict Friends blossomed out into those pale fawns and drabs, and those pure white bonnet-strings which are such a refreshment to the eye.

Charles Lamb, in one of the "Essays by Elia," waxes enthusiastic about the Quakers and their spotless array. He exclaims:—

"Every Quakeress is a lily, and when they come up in bands to their Whitsuntide conferences whitening the easterly streets of the metropolis, they show like troops of the Shining Ones."

The Ducketts were considered very genteel, at the yearly meetings in Dublin, all dressed in silk.

Molly Haughton, in her large black satin cloak, was something of a gossip.

"Well, what news?" she used to say. "Did thee hear so and so was married? And, by all I hear, it was a poor match enough. They tell me she had a fine fortune, but there's no believing the half one hears."

Our little Quakeress had her moments of naughtiness, which she takes pains to relate in full:—

"I was working a pair of pockets for myself in a shell pattern with green worsted. My brothers called in, and, willing to show my dexterity, I began to work, when suddenly I recollected it was First day! Alarmed at what I had done, I laid down my work in dismay, and went to my favourite window in the garret, which commanded a pretty view. While I was thus solacing my eyes and comforting my heart, the window-sash fell on my neck and made me a prisoner. I roared with all my might. My aunt heard the cries, which, being outside the house, made her fear that one of us had fallen into the Sconce. She ran about, greatly terrified, to search for us while the continued wailings resounded in her ears. At length, finding that no one came to the rescue, I made a desperate effort and disengaged myself, having escaped with a bruised neck and a scratched face. I fully believed that this accident had befallen me because I had broken the Sabbath."

Mary and some of her father's pupils used to plant their teeth when they dropped out, in the fond hope that some marvellous growth, like that of the teeth of Cadmus, would be the result.

Behind the house and garden was a large yard, with two squares of grass for the boys to play on. A broad walk reached from the garden gate to the old border of yew at the upper end of the kitchen garden, in which were planted several apple trees. "So far as the walk continued through the flower garden, it was gravelled, hence it became a grass walk, and had on each side thick yew hedges, on the ends of which, as they were intersected by cross walks, chairs were cut."

A great event in Mary Shackleton's quiet life was a visit to Edmund Burke at Beaconsfield, which she paid along with her father. Among the guests was the poet Crabbe, and years afterwards he wrote—"Mary Leadbeater! Yes, indeed, I do remember you; not Mary Leadbeater then, but a pretty, demure lass, standing a timid auditor while her own verses were read by a kind friend, but a keen judge—Edmund Burke."

This event was celebrated by the little Quaker maiden in some verses addressed to Burke. The verses are not remarkable, except for the occasion that called them forth.

"If I am vain, this letter read,
And let it for my pardon plead.
When he whom list'ning courts admire,
 A senate's boast, a nation's pride.
When Burke commands my artless lyre,
 I care not who commands beside;
And his reproof I value more
Than e'er I valued praise before."

After a visit to some cousins at Selby, in Yorkshire, who introduced Mary to their friends as "our coosin frae Ireland, that makes the bonnie verses," the peaceful life at Ballitore began again.

In June, 1791, Mary Shackleton was married, at the age of 33, to William Leadbeater, a descendant of the French Huguenot families of Le Batre and Gilliard. Being an orphan, he was placed when very young at Ballitore school, and his attachment for Mary Shackleton began from that time. Their married life—singularly peaceful and happy—lasted for 35 years. After her death he was never seen to smile, and his hair, which had been black, became white as snow.

The rebellion of '98 caused great disturbance in the Quaker community. Mary Leadbeater says "Colonel Campbell was willing to grant protections to all peaceable people, but none of the Friends applied for them, some doubt being entertained of its being consistent with their principles to apply for armed protection. We were thus exposed to the imputation of being disaffected, and the provision we had for our families was rudely taken out of our houses for the yeomen. This was an unpleasant sight for the soldiers who were with us on free quarters, and they hid our bacon for us and for themselves. Great waste was committed and unchecked robbery. One hundred cars, loaded with hay, potatoes, oats, &c., led by their poor owners, and guarded by soldiers, were in one day marched into Ballitore. Colonel Reamy urged his yeomen to take with a sparing hand, but he spoke to deaf ears. … One exception T must record. One of these men, quartered on us, refused to partake of the plunder on which so many of his comrades riotously feasted, yet he fell by the insurgents when the burst came.

"The village, once so peaceful, exhibited a scene of tumult and dismay, and the air rang with the shrieks of the sufferers and the lamentations of those who beheld them suffer. … I saw from an upper window a crowd coming towards our kitchen door, I went down and found many armed men, who desired to have refreshment, principally drink. I brought them milk and was cutting a loaf, when a little elderly man, called 'The Canny,' took it kindly out of my hand and divided it himself, saying 'Be dacent, boys; be dacent!' Encouraged by having found a friend, I ventured to tell them that so many armed men in the room frightened me. 'We'll be out in a shot!' they replied, and in a minute the kitchen was empty. One day as I was going to my brother's, a sentinel called to a man who was with me not to advance on pain of being shot. The sentinel was my former friend, 'The Canny.' I approached, and asked him if he would shoot me if I proceeded? 'Shoot you!' exclaimed he, taking my hand and kissing it, adding an eulogium on the Quakers. I told him it would be well if they were all of our way of thinking, for then there would be no such work as the present."

Relief came when the 9th Dragoon s appeared galloping along the high road from Carlow. Mary Leadbeater says:—"We saw the military descend the hill, cross the bridge, and halt before our house, when some dismounted, and entered asking for milk and water. As I handed it, I trembled. The dragoon perceived my emotion, and kindly told me I was not to fear, that they came to protect us, adding, 'It is well you were not all murdered.'"

It was long before the village recovered from this wave of disaster.

Mary Leadbeater was more successful with her prose than her poetry. Her "Cottage Dialogues," for which a London publisher gave her £50, is a very useful little book. Her two women, Rose and Nancy, talk together as Irish peasants do talk; Nancy is the careless, idle one, and Rose the industrious, frugal housewife. The "Dialogues" had one practical effect, Miss Edgeworth told the author, in making a dirty family of cottagers fill up the holes in their floors. A great compliment was paid to the book by a Connaughtman named Thady Connellan, who proposed translating it into Irish.

Surrounded by her children, her husband, and her relations, Mary Leadbeater passed away, universally beloved and regretted, June 27th, 1826, and is buried in the Quaker burying-ground at Ballitore. She kept up a long correspondence with Mrs. Trench, mother of the Archbishop of Dublin, and the letters which passed between them form a very interesting part of the "Annals of Ballitore," which v/as not published till 1862, more than thirty years after Mary Leadbeater's death. Her calm benevolent mind was incapable of any thirst for fame, she was contented to go on her peaceful way, happy in herself, and happy in giving joy to others. We, in these restless feverish days, may profitably take a leaf out of her book, and study to be quiet.

Mary Leadbeater's mind was, as one of her friends expressed it, " dipped in the deepest dews of delicacy." She instinctively shrank from all that was harsh, discordant, or uncharitable. Her niece says of her, " When we asked her a question that was not right to answer, she would begin the lines taken from her favourite poem, 'The Maiden's Best Adorning:'—

'The secrets of thy friends do not disclose,
Lest by so doing thou resemble those
Whose ears are leaking vessels, which contain
Nothing: but what's pour'd in runs out again.'"

For children she had a special love. One of her books, "Anecdotes taken from Real Life for the Improvement of Children," did much to brighten the literature provided for youthful Quakers, which had previously been of a very tough description. Nearly a century has passed away since Mary Leadbeater wrote in the peaceful seclusion of Ballitore, and now, as modern motors fly past the quiet village, perhaps some of us may give a thought to the calm, benevolent Quakeress with her spotless white muslin neckerchief and snowy cap, who once stood looking down on the River Griese, dreaming dreams of that far-off Bethel which she now gazes at with undimmed eyes.