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setting a course

One of the questions on my daughters’s first-year, Christmas history test was ‘What is a dowry?’ Never a history buff she had no idea, but she made a stab. She replied that it was something to do with boats. Although her answer was not even vaguely correct, she might have been on to something by linking an ability to stay buoyant with financial security.

The more I look into Peg’s life, the more I believe her decisions were governed by the need for money and a desire for autonomy. The question is however, why did she choose such a radical way to make a living? The answer may lie with the situation around her dowry.

Born in Westmeath around 1740*, Peg was one of eight children. Her mother died from Spotted Fever when she was in her early teens. Her father who seems to be a craven, gutless sort of a person promptly gave up on life and allowed the eldest brother, Christopher, to become head of the family. Christopher was a mean, nasty, controlling tyrant. He employed both mental and physical abuse and also withheld her dowry, preferring to use the money to fund his gambling.

One wonders what Peg’s life might have been had her mother not died, her father not been a loser and her brother a sociopath. The family were comfortably well-off. Peg described her home as a “handsome property” and said that they lived in “elegant stile”. Her dowry might have been in the region of £30 to £300 pounds**. Her eldest sister married a Mr Smith who owned a malt house and brewery near Tullamore. Her next sister married a Mr Beatty who kept a china shop on Arran Street. The next sister in age married a Mr Brady (he actually wed her without a dowry as Christopher had begun his abusive-antics by this stage). We might assume that Peg too could have married a man in trade and helped her husband run the business. In fact local grocer did express an interest but Peg would not have him as he was fat, ugly and wore a wig.

These days we tend to chose our partners based on attraction. There can also be an element of choosing a person that fits your idea of yourself and the life you wish to live. In Peg’s day this was a new concept. Historian Lucy Worsely cites the popularity of the book Pamela as being instrumental in linking marriage with love. Peg, ever the modern girl, was perhaps more interested in happiness than security.

An attractive dowry might have provided Peg with a greater choice of suitors. But she was not without her admirers. She was pretty, she was witty and extremely flirtatious. She might have found a young man who lifted her heart and settled her down. But she didn’t. Instead, anxious to get away from her brother, she went to Dublin to stay with her sister in the china shop and jumped into bed with the first young bull she met. Even though she was still in her teens there was nothing shy or timid about her. As she said herself “I gave loose to pleasure, and banished every thought but of diversions that might recompense me for the evil hours I had spent at Killough [her brother's house]”.

And so to my project - the illustrations.

For the first image, I wish to capture that sense of starting out, a feeling that the story is beginning. When I look back to my teens I remember the fizzing, bubbling, excitement of discovering boys. My brother is possibly the nicest man in all of Ireland, so I have no experience of escaping from cruelty. But I do remember feeling that my life had just got a whole lot better.

For the illustration I want to reference her dowry becoming her brother’s gambling fund. I also want to bring in my daughter’s take on a dowry and show Peg setting sail on her adventures. I found images of eighteenth-century playing cards and a gaming chip which I liked. These mother of pearl counters were used when playing cards in a similar fashion to how we use poker chips today. I particularly like pattern on the reverse.

When it came to portraying Peg, I first thought she might be a bit nervous - a teenager, no mother, away from home, no financial provision - I was searching for poses that could convey this. I considered distress....

But that was not true to Peg. I next thought of pensive....

But again that was wrong. Peg is more gutsy. I finally settled a brazen type of calm.

Buoyant if you will.

Peg Plunkett (print number 1 - Jenny Dempsey)

* There is some uncertainty about Peg’s year of birth. She herself does not name a date. Her obituary cites the year 1727. Biographer, Francis Leeson believed she was born about 1736 and Julie Peakman, the author of Peg Plunkett: memoirs of a whore, prefers a birth date of about 1742

** Maria Luddy and Mary O'Dowd in 'Marriage in Ireland, 160 - 1925' write that cash provision for unmarried daughters in eighteen century wills varied enormously from small bequests from £5 to larger sums of £1,000 or more. They give an example of a farmer in Tipperary who left his daughter £55.

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