Clodagh Finn: Forget Daniel Defoe, let’s talk about Lady Ranelagh

Now that we are looking to the past for its lessons, let us recall the life of a Cork-born woman of ‘extraordinary talent’ and what she had to say about living through challenging times, writes Clodagh Finn
Clodagh Finn: Forget Daniel Defoe, let’s talk about Lady Ranelagh
A plaque dedicated to Lady Ranelagh at Lismore Castle. She was a medical practitioner, and a woman of science whose opinion on a range of subjects was widely sought in 17th-century London.

Now that we are looking to the past for its lessons, let us recall the life of a Cork-born woman of ‘extraordinary talent’ and what she had to say about living through challenging times, writes Clodagh Finn

A plaque dedicated to Lady Ranelagh (inset) at Lismore Castle. She was a medical practitioner, and a woman of science whose opinion on a range of subjects was widely sought in 17th-century London.

A few years ago, a tweet caught my eye. It mentioned a letter written in 1665 by Cork-born Lady Ranelagh to her brother Robert Boyle, the leading scientist of his day.

In it, she said Boyle had mentioned Oxford was plague-free but she hoped that did not mean he intended to travel in the near future.

A few weeks later, a second tweet, also posted by Evan Bourke, a postdoctoral researcher at Maynooth University, offered another fascinating glimpse into life during a plague that is back in the news thanks to our newfound curiosity about the epidemics and contagions of history.

In this one, she gave her brother directions on how to reach her in the countryside without crossing any of the plague hotspots.

There is a ring of familiarity to both of these snippets of history as we find ourselves looking to the past to see how it might guide us through our own experience of the coronavirus pandemic.

When the future seems so uncertain, it can be strangely comforting to cast an eye backward. Witness, for instance, the popularity of Daniel Defoe’s fictional account of the same plague.

Who could have guessed that the man who gave us Robinson Crusoe would become better known for A Journal of the Plague Year?

Then again, it is easy to see the appeal. Defoe’s book, heralded in some quarters as a ‘must-read’ for our times, has it all — the panic buying, the fake news, the travel restrictions and the fear of a deadly illness that claimed the lives of 70,000 Londoners, about a fifth of the city’s population.

It’s a good time, then, to recall that Lady Ranelagh or Katherine Jones, born in Youghal, Co Cork, to the first Earl of Cork, in 1615, also wrote about the plague in a paper that is as fascinating as it is illuminating.

While her discourse was intended for private circulation, Katherine Jones was a very influential figure in 17th-century England.

She was an intellectual, a woman of science, and a prominent member of the Hartlib Circle, an extensive association of friends who often met in her house to discuss the issues of the day.

In a week when an accused man told a judge in the Dublin District Court that he wouldn’t stand a chance if he was sent to prison and contracted the coronavirus, it resonates to read that Lady Ranelagh was also concerned about the lot of prisoners during London’s plague. “Prisons,” she wrote, “should be places of safe custody.”

During the plague, however, a prisoner’s health could not be guaranteed: A jail sentence was effectively a death sentence.

Lady Ranelagh’s biographer, Michelle DiMeo, takes up the point: “They did not use the term ‘social distancing’, but they knew that crowded conditions helped to quickly spread the plague.

Lady Ranelagh advocated for releasing religious and political dissenters who were being held as prisoners.

"She argued that the prisons were ‘murdering holes’ and that their only crime was following their conscience.”

It is also affecting to read how the plague, much more deadly than Covid-19, was raging to such a degree that everyone in the nation felt the “smart of its wounds”.

The many dead were taken by cart loads “to be throwne without order or ceremony” into mass graves while trade and commerce were “frighted from the city”.

Lady Ranelagh fled London too and went to the safety of Leez Priory in Essex where she lived with her sister.

Those with means left because, as DiMeo explains: “Life was a gift from God, so Londoners fleeing the city to guard themselves against the plague were fulfilling their Christian duty to preserve life.”

Lady Ranelagh was a medical practitioner, but she saw the plague as a judgement from God and hoped it would prompt people to examine their own consciences to improve society spiritually, rather than medically.

'The incomparable Lady Ranelagh'
'The incomparable Lady Ranelagh'

The work of this time, she wrote, was for every single person to examine their own hearts and ways, identify their sins, ask forgiveness and, with prayer, ask the Lord to heal the nation.

While Katherine Jones was a deeply pious women, she was also a respected woman of science whose opinion on a range of subjects — natural philosophy, religion, optics, chemistry, mathematics and horticulture — was widely sought in 17th-century London.

We might know little about her if she were not Robert Boyle’s elder sister. Her letters survived only because they were held in the Boyle family archives or those of the Hartlib Circle.

After that, we can thank historians such as Michelle DiMeo (whose biography Lady Ranelagh: The Incomparable Life of Robert Boyle’s Sister is due in October) and academics such as Evan Bourke who have brought her life to a greater audience.

Other women of science will come to the fore at this year’s Robert Boyle Summer School which will explore ‘Women in STEM, past, present and future’. It’s currently scheduled to take place in Waterford and Lismore in August, Covid-19 willing.

Visitors to Lismore Castle will see a memorial plaque to Lady Ranelagh that stands next to one of her brother. We have a young woman with a passion for history to thank for that.

Alicia Premkumar, a pupil at Scoil Mhuire Gan Smal in Carlow, was taken by Lady Ranelagh’s story and wrote an essay on her life.

It came to the attention of the National Committee for Commemorative Plaques for Science and Technology in time to mark the 400th anniversary of her birth in 2015.

In her day, Lady Ranelagh was celebrated as “a person of extraordinary talent”.

In recent decades, her life and legacy have started to emerge from the shadows. And what a life. She was held under siege at Athlone Castle during the Irish rebellion of 1641. She escaped to London only to find herself in the middle of a civil war.

Now that we are looking to the past for its lessons, let’s recall her life and what she had to say about living through challenging times.

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