Journal Volume 4 2004

Lead, Kindly Light? Education and the La Touche Family  (continued/3)

Kirwan House (Female Orphanage)

Peter and his brother John, whose country house was at Harristown in Kildare, were governors of the Female Orphanage for which the La Touche Bank acted as Treasurers. The Home was opened, to receive destitute girls aged between five to ten years, early in 1791.

One year later Elizabeth took up the reins as Chief Custodian. She supervised the move to new specially-built buildings on the North Circular Road, which were set in three acres. A further fourteen acres were provided in the Phoenix Park for cattle grazing to supply milk for the girls. The girls were to be “lodged, clothed and taught reading, writing and common Accounts, carefully instructed in the Christian Religion and habituated to cleanliness and industry in proportion to their age and strength, to spin, knot and, when able, to make their own clothes”. They were also to learn “every part of household work to qualify them for useful servants”. They would be kept on until sixteen when they were to be apprenticed or put out to service. This pattern of education continued until 1931, by which time the girls' preparation for life would have been very limited as the only openings for the girls, suitable to their training and experience, were in domestic work or caring for children. Thereafter the girls attended national school.Walter B Kirwan (

In his history of Kirwan House, the name given to the orphanage in honour of Dr Walter Blake Kirwan, who preached annually at its fundraising service, the Reverend Charles Carter pointed out that “qualified domestic servants had no difficulty in finding employment when the Orphanage was founded. In deciding to give the girls a sound training for such work the Governors were fulfilling a double purpose: a) girls would be assured of finding work in homes chosen by the Governors at a minimum rate of wages and b) the girls so placed would fulfil a genuine need in Society”. This would seem to confirm an observation about Society's habit of balancing the needs of the needy with those of benefactors' own needs and motives. The La Touche family contact with Kirwan House continued unbroken until 1942, on the death of Miss Mary La Touche, a governor.

The third generation La Touches married non-Huguenots. By the end of the century they had reached the peak of their success:

    • in their family connections, they moved in the same Society circle as their clients, the landed gentry

    • in business, the La Touche Bank was Ireland's leading private bank

    • in politics, five of the family sat in the last Irish Parliament right up to the Union and many others sat in Westminster in the first half of the nineteenth century

Elizabeth La Touche's School at Bellevue, Delgany

In 1793, just seven years before the legislation that brought about the Union, some Catholics were given the vote, although they were not yet allowed to sit in Parliament That same year, 1793, the death was noted in the burial register of Christ Church, Delgany of a Margaret MacKenzie. Her address was given as Mrs La Touche's School. It is thought the school was located at Bellevue near to the present back entrance to Delgany Golf Club. John Ferrar, the tourist writer, described the school in 1796: “The lower storey contains the kitchen and school where Mrs La Touche passes much of her time, the upper storey containing the dormitories where everything is comfortable, neat and regular. The schoolmistress ‘McDonald’ ... discharges her duties with diligence and tenderness”. There were up to twenty-four children at anyone time. Mrs La Touche took them to church herself and they all sat together beside the railings in front of the La Touche monument. Ferrar watched them one Sunday and noted they walked happily back to school with their benefactress.

Another travel writer of the day, de La Tocnaye, noted that when the girls left the school, Mrs La Touche would give them a dowry and marry them off to labourers of good character. She hoped this would ensure the cottages in the village and on the estate were kept neat and tidy. And her husband Peter’s Will revealed that he had bequeathed “...£10 each to such girls as shall be in the school at Bellevue at the time of my death on their respective marriages”, as long as his wife agreed!

One of the girls at Mrs La Touche's school was the daughter of a well-known rebel, Joseph Holt. He had been captured in the Wicklow hills after the 1798 Rising and brought before Lord Powerscourt. Holt's wife pleaded with both Mr and Mrs La Touche for them to intervene on his behalf. They did and the death penalty was changed to transportation to Australia. The La Touches paid for his wife and son to accompany the rebel while Marianne Holt, then aged only seven years, was left in Mrs La Touche's care. The good lady declared she would take good care of Marianne's education, health and morals. It was highly unusual for a transportee to return. But when Holt's twelve-year sentence was over, he and his family did manage to travel back to Ireland and, in 1812, were reunited with Marianne.

At some stage boys were admitted to the school. “The means of domestic industry are supplied and the females and children of both sexes, carefully instructed by masters and mistresses appointed for that purpose and the progress of their education constantly examined by their worthy patrons”. We are told that the La Touche policy was to encourage the diligent by “rewards and commendations”.

A Village School in Delgany

Elizabeth opened a day school in the village of Delgany in 1801. There she had “proper mistresses to teach any of the young children and young women of the parish who choose to attend all manner of plain work and spinning in addition to ... reading, and writing”. Mrs La Touche's schools were not, however, the first in Delgany. There had been a school in the parish as far back at least as 1665, in which year the school master, Richard Card, being paid £1 5s 8d (£1.28) per quarter.

Although it is certainly not the intention to downgrade the splendid and caring achievements of Elizabeth La Touche, it has to be said that her efforts mirrored the effects of social and religious movements among the nobility and gentry in the early part of the nineteenth century. In 1822 the Sunday School Society issued a book of Hints advising the nobility and gentry that Protestant intervention in the lives of their tenants and dependents through instruction “would improve the habits and manners of the poor” and an awakening and “reclaiming of parents” by the example of their offspring. Inevitably there were accusations of proselytism. Even in Delgany there were suspicions which Bishop Doyle of Kildare and Leighlin highlighted after a visit to Bellevue. He suspected most of the children had Catholic parents who, “driven by temporal wants”, had exposed their offspring to “the danger of losing their souls” by allowing their children to be educated there. He did temper his rebuke, however, by remarking that at least he knew the children's morals were “being guarded with the strictest care” by their benefactress.


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