seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Margaret (May) Tennant, Promoter of Workers’ Rights & Public Health

Margaret Mary Edith (May) Tennant (née Abraham), promoter of workers’ rights and public health, is born April 5, 1869 at Rathgar, County Dublin, the only daughter of Dr. George Whitley Abraham, a lawyer in the civil service, and his wife, Margaret, daughter of Cornelius Curtain.

Abraham is educated at home by her father. Following his death in 1887, finding herself in financial straits, she moves to London, where she takes lodgings in Bloomsbury and works for Lady Emilia Dilke. Dilke is a social reformer and an advocate of trade unions for women, and as her secretary Margaret gains first-hand experience of the exploitative and unsanitary conditions afflicting women working in industry, a cause that she devotes the next decade to ameliorating. She is treasurer of the Womens’ Trade Union League, where she negotiates with employers on behalf of league members, organises meetings, and sends deputations to the House of Commons. From 1881 she coordinates a successful campaign to render regular government inspections of laundries mandatory (legislation is passed to this effect in 1908).

Abraham’s dedication to her work soon attracts wider recognition, and in 1891 she is appointed an assistant commissioner to undertake field inquiries for the Royal Labour Commission. In this capacity she travels incessantly throughout England and Ireland, gathering information and writing reports on often appalling working conditions. It is mainly because of this work that in 1893 the home secretary appoints her the first female factory inspector in England. Her new position marks a career shift from agitator to skillful and effective administrator. Traveling incessantly, the inspectors target illegal overtime, poor sanitation, and dangerous trades. In her first year alone she brings eighty prosecutions for illegal overtime.

In 1895 Abraham serves on a departmental committee at the Home Office on dangerous trades, where she meets Harold John Tennant, liberal MP for Berwickshire. The couple are married the following year, and have four sons and one daughter.

By 1896 Tennant is the superintending inspector of five more women inspectors, and her extensive experience in workers’ rights and public health is reflected in the book she publishes in that year, The law relating to factories and workshops, which runs to six editions. She finds it increasingly difficult to balance the pressures of her work with the demands of her private life, and she resigns her post soon after her marriage. However, she remains a committed social activist, serving as chairman of the Industrial Law Committee and on the Royal Commission on Divorce (1909). She is also an original member and treasurer of the Central Committee on Women’s Employment (1914–39).

During the World War I Tennant is chief adviser on women’s welfare to the Ministry of Munitions and director of the Women’s Department of the National Service Department. In recognition of her services the British government awards her the Companion of Honour in 1917, the same year that her eldest son, Harry, dies while on active service. Between the wars she turns her attention to women’s health, campaigning to improve maternal mortality and nursing care.

During the World War II, despite her failing health, Tennant works for the RAF Benevolent Fund. She is a member of the Central Consultative Council of Voluntary Organisations and the National Association for Prevention of Tuberculosis, chairman of the maternal health committee, governor of Bedford College, and a JP. She is also a director of the Mysore and Champion Reef Gold Mines, an enterprise of her husband’s family, and in this capacity travels to India and New Zealand in the mid-1920s.

The Tennants have homes in Edinglasserie, Aberdeenshire, and at 12 Victoria Square, London, as well as a restored country house, Great Maytham, at Rolvenden in Kent. She is a noted authority on gardening, and is director of The Gardener’s Chronicle (other interests included fishing, tennis, and gambling). After her husband’s death in 1935 she moves to a smaller house named Cornhill at Great Maytham, where she dies on July 11, 1946. Some of her correspondence is in the British Library, London.

(From: “Tennant (née Abraham), Margaret Mary Edith (May),” contributed by Sinéad Sturgeon and Georgina Clinton, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie)


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Birth of Mariga Guinness, Co-founder of the Irish Georgian Society

Mariga Guinness, architectural conservationist and socialite, and co-founder of the Irish Georgian Society, is born in London on September 21, 1932.

Guinness is born Hermione Maria-Gabrielle von Urach, the only child of the marriage of Albrecht von Urach, from Lichtenstein Castle, a member of the royal house of Wurtemberg, and Rosemary Blackadder (1901–1975) from Berwickshire in Scotland, a journalist and artist, who are married in Oslo, Norway in 1931. For the first few months of her life she is very ill. In 1934, her parents, both working as journalists, move the family to Venice. They later move again, to Japan. Her mother develops depression, and in 1937 tries to gain uninvited access to Emperor Hirohito‘s palace with her daughter. This results in her mother being arrested, sedated, and deported, which is the beginning of a decline in her mental health which culminates in a lobotomy in 1941 and spending the rest of her life in private mental institutions. Urach is returned to Europe, where she is raised by her godmother, Hermione Ramsden, in Surrey and Norway. She is educated by as many as seventeen governesses, with brief spells in boarding schools. Until the age of eighteen she is known as Gabrielle.

Urach meets Desmond Guinness in 1951, when she is nineteen, and they are married in Oxford in 1954. They have two children, Patrick (born 1956) and Marina (born 1957).

The couple moves to Ireland in 1955 where they rent Carton House, County Kildare. They share a love of Georgian architecture which results in them buying Leixlip Castle in 1958, and establishing the Irish Georgian Society on February 21 of the same year. Through the society they campaign for the restoration and protection of architectural sites such as Mountjoy Square, the gateway to the Dromana estate in County Waterford, the Tailors’ Hall in Dublin, and Conolly’s Folly in County Kildare. In 1967 they purchase Castletown House, also in County Kildare, with a plan to restore it, and make it a base for the Irish Georgian Society.

During the 1960s Leixlip Castle is a hub for those interested in architecture and conservation, and the Guinnesses work hands-on on a range of projects. By 1969, their marriage is in difficulties and Guinness moves to London. She later moves to Glenarm, County Antrim to live with Hugh O’Neill, and when that relationship ends, she returns to Leixlip Castle, but a divorce is finalised in 1981. Having lived in Dublin for a time, she rents Tullynisk House, the dower house of Birr Castle in County Offaly in 1983. Guinness becomes isolated and develops a problem with alcohol. While returning to Ireland from Wales on a car ferry on May 8, 1989 she has a massive heart attack which is compounded by a reaction to an injection of penicillin. She is buried at Conolly’s Folly.

Through Patrick, Guiness becomes grandmother of the fashion model Jasmine Guinness. Her daughter Marina is a patron of the arts and of Irish musicians including Glen Hansard, Damien Rice, and the band Kíla. Marina has three children of her own: Patrick (by Stewart Copeland of The Police), Violet (by photographer Perry Ogden), and Finbar (by record producer Denny Cordell).

In 2020, a new film on Guinness’s life and work, entitled Memory of Mariga, receives its United States premiere as part of the Elizabethtown Film Festival on Saturday, September 19, at the Crowne Pointe Theatre in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. In 2021, the same film receives its Irish premiere at the Fastnet Film Festival.