by Kevin McKenny
For International Woman’s Day, I am going to briefly look at the life of Anna Marie Fortescue who was born on 6th July 1773 in Toulouse, France. Her father was Thomas Fortescue from Dromiskin and her mother the Honourable Mary Packenham from Dublin (see Photo of Anna).
Anna Maria FORTESCUE and William Parkinson Ruxton of Red House Ardee MP were married on 18 January 1802 and it is very fortunate, especially for the poor and illiterate of Ardee, that these set up residence in what was then the old Red House, which they replaced with the splendid Regency House that is there now (see two photos of the house taken sometime in the 1850s showing the adopted children and perhaps even Anna)
The Ruxton name in and around Ardee has often been much maligned by people with little knowledge of history. I will deal more fully with the Ruxton’s and Parkinson Ruxton’s in a later contribution to restoring their correct standing in Ardee Society.
They first came to Ardee in the 1650s when Captain John Ruxton was granted lands there in lieu of payment for his military service in the Cromwellian Army that came to Ireland in 1649. It was one of his descendants, Captain Charles Ruxton, who married Elizabeth Parkinson from Red House and it was their son William who took the name of both his parents. From then on, we have William Parkinson Ruxton who created the dynasty associated with Red House while the second was in Ardee House (now Saint Joseph’s Hospital).
While they had no children of their own, when Anna’s brother, Chichester Fortescue, died in 1826 (his wife had died in 1824) Anna immediately took in the orphaned children. The eldest boy was later elevated to the peerage when he was created Earl Clermont. The younger brother, Chichester Fortescue, was later to become Earl of Carlingford and sat in the British Parliament. Anna and her husband were responsible for setting up many schools in the area and also of setting up a Dispensary to look after the ill of the Town and Parish.
After her husband’s death in 1847, no doubt caused by his habit of visiting the sick in their Cholera infested cabins, Anna continued the caring of the poor of Ardee. The benevolence of Anna was described in the Dublin evening packet of 5th September 1848.
‘Mrs. Ruxton, of Red House, Ardee, last winter finding that there were a great many persons unemployed in the neighborhood, took into her employment nearly forty men in addition to her regular number. To those, she paid 1 shilling a day and kept them constantly employed until sometime in March, when the spring work was about to commence when she parted with them. However, she made each of them a present of a pair of shoes. Shortly after discharging the men, she hired upwards of forty boys, varying in age from 12 to 20. The wages given to them varied from 4 pennies to 1 shilling per day according to their age. Finding, in consequence of their daily employment, that their education was neglected, she engaged a person to instruct them in the evenings and provided them with books and every requisite for a school. After work and before they went to school a supper was provided for them at her expense. She raised the wages of her regularly engaged workmen from a shilling to 14 pence per day, to enable them to meet the pressure accruing from the loss of the potatoes. Besides their regular wages they had other advantages such as milk and food etc. Mrs. Parkinson Ruxton has for many years constantly supplied the poor of the neighborhood with blankets and flannels and other necessities.
It would also seem that around Ardee she encouraged people to reclaim waste ground and to turn it into a garden where she provided vegetable seeds such as carrots etc. The hope was that these gardens would provide food for the poor of the town.
The same paper concluded its article by saying that ‘Mrs. Parkinson Ruxton expended a vast amount of money she might otherwise have kept. It has, however, not been all sacrificed as in parts of the ground reclaimed there are now valuable crops of carrots, etc growing. How many gentlemen have acres of ground waste and overgrown with weeds, which the application or outlay of a little money would render profitable to themselves and those around them who are dependent on employment to earn their daily sustenance’.
When she wasn’t attending to the poor it seems that Anna took great pride in her own garden with her fruit and vegetables winning many prizes in Louth Horticultural Society’s shows. Her apples became wildly sought after as they were renowned for their sweetness. During the Great Famine, when the potato crops had failed, she had her gardeners’ experiment with different varieties of potatoes looking for a blight-resistant crop. She finally succeeded and was able to pass out seed potatoes to her tenants.
Her love of gardening can be seen in a letter in 1858 sent by Edward Lear who had been staying at Red House. ‘But the wonder and crowning part of Red House is the aunt, Mrs. Ruxton. At 85 years she has all the activity of mind and body of persons at 60. Out in the garden at 7 and not to bed before 11.’ The same writer said, ‘she is, in a word, a tiptop Christian multiplied by 20 and I never believed so much to admire in any old lady’. (See Photo of Anna in her carriage outside Red House taken shortly before her death)
Anna worked tirelessly for the poor of Ardee long after the Famine years. In the High Society circles she moved in she was constantly looking for donations to alleviate the sick and the poor. When an Ardee Relief Committee was set up by Myles Taaffe and William Hatch in 1863 Anna was only one of three women who subscribed to it and she donated one of the highest amounts. (see photo)
In 1854 Anna set up the Ardee Ladies Association for visiting the sick and poor in the town and surrounding areas. Their work was funded by subscriptions of the local landed gentry (see photo)
Anna took to what was to become her death bed in mid- July 1865. It was reported in the press that she was attended to by her nieces and nephews who she had fostered and had brought up as her own. By the 2nd August, it was reported that Lord and Lady Clermont paid her a visit as she was then dangerously ill.
Anna Parkinson Ruxton died 25th August 1865, aged 92. The Newry Examiner and Louth Advertiser on 30 August 1865 reported on her death. At Red House, Ardee, on the 25th. Mrs. Anna Parkinson Ruxton aged 92 years. Deceased was aunt to Lord Clermont and the Right Honorable Chichester Fortescue, M.P. Her demise is universally regretted by all classes and parties, but especially the poor to who she was always and all seasons most charitable and kind. Her constant attention was bestowed in relieving the distress of all who presented themselves, and those who were unable to attend were sought after by her ever vigilant and charitable disposition. Truly the people and poor of Ardee and vicinity may well exclaim, ‘We shall never behold her like again’. May she receive that reward so bountifully promised to all who love and relieve the poor. The funeral takes place at 11 o clock this Wednesday.
By all accounts the funeral was massive and she was laid to rest beside her husband in the vaults of Old Saint Mary’s. The above is only a snippet of all the philanthropic work she had been engaged in for the people of Ardee Town and Parish. One wonders why Ardee people erected a monument to Frederick Foster of Glyde Court for his efforts in alleviating the poor. Anna matched, if not bettered, the efforts of the Foster brothers. The answer perhaps can be found in that this was a period, at least amount the landed gentry, when a woman’s place was seen to be in the home running the household. After her husband’s death in 1847 Anna not only ran the Red House household, but also its large estate. On top of this, she took the poor and the sick of Ardee into her care and worked tirelessly in support of them. She certainly was a woman ahead of her time and I personally think it is not too late to have a monument erected in her honor in the town.