The Mysterious Pig-Faced Lady

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The above portrait by Fairburn, from 1815, shows an Irish lady of striking appearance and unidentified antecedents, described by a contemporary in the following terms:-

“[a] most extraordinary female about twenty years of age.. born in Ireland and of high family and fortune… her body and limbs are of the most perfect and beautiful shape but her head and face resembles that of a pig… She eats her victuals out of a silver trough, in the same manner that pigs do, and when spoken to by any of her relatives or her companion, she can only answer by a grunt. ”

Alas, the only clue to the identity of this mysterious lady is to be found in somewhat vague words scrawled on the back of a more mature portrait, by Morland, which describe her as a Mrs Atkinson, worth £20,000, born in Ireland and married to an Irishman. Perhaps not a very nice Irishman, however, as the writing also goes on to note that he was in the habit of calling her to her meals by the words ‘pig pig pig’.

There aren’t too many Atkinsons in Ireland; perhaps he was one of the Antrim ones. The couple  don’t seem to have had any descendants, or at least none similarly afflicted, hardly surprising in the circumstances.  Mrs Atkinson may have resembled a pig but her husband was certainly a boor and addressing a wife – particularly one with a good figure –  in such a churlish way is unlikely to encourage the granting of conjugal privileges.

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A Challenging Fashion Commission

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Much has been written about Irish fashion designer Sybil Connolly, yet one of her most challenging design achievements, for an unlikely client with very specific preferences, remains largely undocumented in her country of origin.

In the mid-1960s the American branch of the controversial Irish religious order, The Sisters of Mercy, commissioned Connolly to design new habits for their 30,000 members. Several designs were contemplated, including the waist-nipping ensemble above which the order considered “too stylish”. Instead, the sisters settled for a more relaxed line (below).

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Set off by gunmetal mesh stockings and cuban heels, the skirt length was a daring 12-14 inches off the ground. “I had thought in terms of 10 inches,” said Sybil, quoted in the Montreal Gazette of November 25, 1965, “but they didn’t want to take half measures.” The designer remarked that it was the older nuns who wanted a more radical break in costume. “They [younger nuns] felt they had married into the church and wanted to keep their wedding dresses,” she said.

The style may not have been entirely successful (or perhaps too successful?) as it does not appear that Sybil was asked to design for any other branch of the order.  Although online photos of the U.S. branch of the Sisters of Mercy disclose that they have ceased to wear Connolly’s outfit, there has been no newspaper coverage of this decision and it would require investigation beyond the ability or inclination of the present writer to establish exactly when, where and why they lost their designer habit.

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A Daring Dublin Dog Rescue

 

dogFrom no less an authority than ‘Brown’s ‘Biographical Sketches and Authentic Anecdotes of Dogs’ (1829) comes an account of a daring canine act of bravery at Carlisle (now O’Connell) Bridge.

“One day, as a little girl was amusing herself with a child, near Carlisle Bridge, Dublin, and was sportively toying with the child, he made a sudden spring from her arms, and in an instant fell into the river. The screaming nurse and anxious spectators saw the water close over the child, and conceived that he had sunk to rise no more.

A Newfoundland dog, which had been accidentally passing with his master, sprang forward to the wall, and gazed wistfully at the ripple in the water, made by the child’s descent. At the same instant the dog sprang forward to the edge of the water. While the animal was descending, the child again sunk, and the faithful creature was seen anxiously swimming round and round the spot where he had disappeared. Once more the child rose to the surface; the dog seized him, and with a firm but gentle pressure, bore him to land without injury.

Meanwhile a gentleman arrived, who, on inquiry into the circumstances of the transaction, exhibited strong marks of interest and feeling toward the child, and of admiration for the dog that had rescued him from death. The person who had removed the child from the dog turned to show him to the gentleman, when there were presented to his view the well-known features of his own son! A mixed sensation of terror, joy, and surprise, struck him mute. When he had recovered the use of his faculties, and fondly kissed his little darling, he lavished a thousand embraces on the dog, and offered to his master five hundred guineas if he would transfer the valuable animal to him; but the owner of the dog felt too much affection for the useful creature, to part with him for any consideration whatever.‘”

The exact location of the accident seems to have been at Aston Quay and it appears to have happened some time in the late 18th century.  The names of the child and its father are regrettably unknown, but the dog apparently belonged to a Colonel Wynn.

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The Brown Rats of Merrion

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Although today the part of Dublin halfway between Ballsbridge and Booterstown is genteel, maybe even staid, such was not the case in 1729, when the humble brown rat – first imported on a Russian ship from the Baltic seven years earlier – was causing fear, terror and consternation among the city’s inhabitants,

According to Walsh’s Imperial Newsletter, 1729:

“those outlandish Marramounts which are called Mountain Rats, which are now here, grow very common… they walk in droves and do a great deal of mischief …. ate a woman and nurse child in Merrion. People killed several who are as big as Katts and Rabbits. This part of the country is infested with them. Likewise we hear from Rathfarnham that the like vermin destroyed a little girl in the Field; they are to be seen like rabbit, and are so impudent that they suck the cows …”

After a few tense years of cohabitation, the invention of the bayonet – a key weapon in the battle between rat and man – led to the impertinent invaders being driven back to the ruins of Merrion Castle (pic above, just across from what is now Merrion Gates).  There, they holed up for a few years before disappearing from the newspaper archives.

Did they die out, diminish in size or simply lose their nerve?  Contemporaneous accounts are silent.

All that can be said is that Merrion today is no longer a place of mountain rats.

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The Drowned Baron of Ringsend

In the last decade of the 18th century, the Pigeon House, Dublin (shown above) was the scene of a sad series of tragic events, beginning with the death of Richard Power, Chief Baron of the Exchequer, a ‘morose, fat, fellow… very learned, very rich and very ostentatious’.  Having been accused of embezzling from the Court’s funds, and failing in an attempt to shoot his accuser, the Lord Chancellor, Power rode to the Pigeon House, handed his horse to a servant and entered the sea carrying an umbrella (it was a very wet day). His body was washed up some time later.

News of the death of such an eminent legal figure set off a rash of repeat drownings. In the months following, at least one attorney, and quite a few clients, also died by the same means at the same spot. Accounts vary as to whether Power killed himself out of guilt or chagrin at being wrongly accused. He was already extremely rich, but the origins of his fortune were somewhat murky. Peculator or sensitive soul bullied to distraction by the machinations of his colleagues, he retains one distinction.

As far as this writer is aware, he remains the only Irish judge to have died by their own hand during their term of office.

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