long read Womens History

The brilliant and ballsy life of Ireland’s favourite courtesan, Peg Plunkett

How a 'fallen woman' became not only Ireland's most prolific courtesan but one of histories ballsiest bitches

‘Chastity I willingly acknowledge is one of the characteristic virtues of the female sex. But I may be allowed to ask—Is it the only one?’ 

This is one of the opening lines of Peg Plunkett’s 1795 memoir. An archetypal good girl, who became a fallen women and then rose to become Ireland’s premier courtesan, Peg built much of her adult life on challenging what society expected of her.

The story of her life is jam packed with scandal, sex and good times, it’s a proud middle finger up to gendered morality. But I have to tell you right now, this won’t just be a rollicking romp through Dublin’s red light district. Peg’s life was littered with tragedy, she was a victim of abuse and experienced a terrifying level of violence. But each time she somehow managed to come back, more brilliant and ballsy than before.

Peg Plunkett was one of histories greatest survivors and I cannot wait for you to meet her

Quick trigger warning this article contains mention of domestic violence, violence against women and miscarriage.
Peg Plunkett
portrait of Peg Plunkett, artist unknown

Peg was born in Killough sometime between 1727 (gaged from her last memoir) and 1742 (from modern historian findings.) If you’re thinking ‘dear god this is a ridiculous piss take of a lady never revealing her age’ then you’re right!

Peg was deliberately vague about when she was born. And not only that. A lot of what we know about Peg (especially in her early days) comes from her memoirs. However like most of us do when recounting a story, she totally omits anything she finds boring. So sure she might regale us with anecdotes of her incredible life, but she’ll do it leaving out dates, times and locations. Which works in the context of telling a great tale, but is really bloody annoying when it comes to studying her life. However, there are some facts about her childhood that we do know.

Pegs dad and mum were first cousins and had a whopping 22 children, although only eight survived. Three boys and five girls, with Peg falling somewhere in the middle.

With a family of eight in rural 18th century Ireland around the time of a mass famine, statistics wise, Peg should have grown up on the breadline, but she was one of the lucky ones.

Her dad was a wealthy landowner so could shield his family from the harsh realities that waited just outside their door. Behind the gated walls of the families country house, Peg enjoyed warmth, music, dancing and got a solid education.

She was expected to became a respectable woman, to marry well, perhaps a business man like two of her sisters already had. She’d pop out some babies, make a nice home and be a good wife. The end. Not exactly the most exciting life, but solid and dependable. Her future was set.

But then everything came crashing down when fever swept the family. Peg was quickly sent away, to live with an uncle. By the time she returned home her mother was dead, her older brother was dead and her father was broken. Unable to cope he handed over the running of the family to Pegs elder brother, Christopher.

Just like that all hopes for Pegs future were set ablaze.

Christopher was an out and out dick and as such relished his role as head of the household, ruling with an iron fist. He spent wildly, bullied those around him and basked in the endless power he now had over his sisters. He was in charge of the money that would be used to help secure them good marriages and so of course it was that of money that he spent with such gay abandon.

To get away with this finical delinquency, he decided to refuse any proposals that came his sisters way. By doing this he could carry on splashing the cash and his sisters would remain stuck at home, free for him to bully them as he pleased. A true win for Christopher, or so he thought.

You see after a while one of Pegs older sisters decided she done with this BS, packed up and moved to Dublin (Peg doesn’t give her sisters name, which isn’t super annoying at all…)

Soon the sister met a man who was happy to marry her without all the bells and whistles. And so they did. But not before she came back to publicly call out Christopher for being a total and utter ass hat. Declaring she would rather become a woman of her own making than Christopher’s servant.

Oh and as an extra middle finger to Christopher, the sister took 15 year old Peg to Dublin too.

f you
A modern depiction of Peg leaving home for Dublin (probably)

Peg fell in love with Dublin. She roamed the city, taking in all it had to offer and in return flirted up a storm with every eligible man she met. Here she flourished, her bright wit and beauty making her the centre of attention. She discovered a love for entertainment, dizzying nights out in foggy rooms and of course, the company of smart, handsome men.

By the time Christopher demanded her return home, Peg had a flock of suitors and proposals. It was a get out of jail free card that Christopher wasn’t going to bend to. He’d let one sister get away and it wasn’t going to happen again. He not only refused Peg’s dowry and rejected proposals, he actively worked to scare men away from her.

With Peg and her younger sister now successfully trapped at home, Christopher turned all his attention to extinguishing Peg’s new light (he didn’t want her getting ideas after all!). 

That’s when the beatings started. Christopher would whip Peg until her body was covered in bruises and welts. He wanted her weak. A crumpled wreck on the floor. 

Peg managed to escape for a short period to one of her married sisters houses. Here she went all in on her plan to get out from under Christopher’s thumb for good. She needed to find a husband, one who’d treat her well and wouldn’t back down to Christopher’s threats.

This was a tall order and sadly the only eligible guy who’d take her was the elderly grocer. Peg was desperate but not that desperate, so even though the grocer asked for her hand in marriage, she was for once happy knowing Christopher would scare him away.

Nope! This was the one time her dad stepped in and so Peg was now that unhappily counting down the days to her wedding. But then she met another man. An already engaged man (red flag!) who proposed to Peg and promised her a new life far away from all her troubles. Of course Peg jumped at the chance and the pair ran away to elope.

But like so much in Peg’s life, it wasn’t to be. Whilst staying in an inn one night, Peg was awakened by her brother in law bursting into her bedroom waving a pistol. He was quickly followed by two mates, also armed, who pointed their guns straight at the pair. In a matter of seconds Peg’s lover escaped through the window and she was dragged back home to Christopher.

sad
I’m sorry to say it’s about to go more downhill

Life got worse for Peg. She tried to escape to Dublin a few more times but was always dragged back home. Christopher’s beatings got worse, to the point that she’d be left unable to leave her bed for days afterwards.

Pegs’ younger sister was also struggling. Trapped in her gilded cage, she’d watched Peg’s attempts at freedom and felt any escape from Christopher and captivity was impossible. She stopped eating, and retreating inside, a shadow of her former self. Peg tried to care for her sister, but there was only so much she could do. Condemned to watch on as her sister slipped away. Taking to her bed one day and never leaving. She died shortly afterwards.

Not long after her sisters death, Christopher whipped Peg until she was on her knees. Brutally beating her as she vomited blood and eventually lay unmoving on the cold floor.

Peg was bed bound for three months. Lying in bed, in constant pain she realised she had to get out. For good this time.

As soon as she could get up, she convinced her dad to give her enough cash to get to Dublin. Called a carriage and left.

map of Dublin from 1780s
Map of Dublin a few years after Peg first arrived for good

Once more Pegs sisters took her in. Slowly she shook off the shackles that had weighed her down and returned to the bright thing about town she’d been before.

Peg didn’t know what lay ahead if her but the city around her was growing more wonderful every day and she hoped she would to.

Her brother in law introduced her to one Mr Dardis. Being relatively poor he was by no means presented as a suitor for Peg, but ever the romantic, she had other ideas. The pair furtive arranged to meet after dark, away from her families prying eyes. On those breathless nighttime rendezvous Peg fell in love.

Dardis secretly proposed and just like that, Peg was not twenty and yet somehow onto engagement number 3. 

But this wouldn’t be like her other engagements because she chose to have sex with Dardis. This might seem like a perfectly normal thing to do, but in the 18th century this was a huge and potential life changing decision. To have sex with a man outside marriage could mark a woman as ‘ruined’. If the marriage didn’t go ahead, her future would be in tatters. But Peg was young and in love, so she went with her heart.

Then Peg realised she was pregnant.

To make matters she couldn’t let her family know, for fear it would ruin her. Worse still, Dardis decided that actually, he didn’t want to marry her now. Which definitely did threaten to ruin her. Terrified of the repercussions she ran away.

She was alone, penniless and pregnant, But then Dardis came to her rescue. Well sort of. He found her somewhere to live – a brothel, before moving Peg to the country to quietly have the baby. After which Peg and her new born daughter moved back to Dublin to live with Dardis.

This wasn’t a happy ending though.

Peg was spiralling down. She constantly beat herself up for yet again falling in love with the wrong guy. She was struggling for money, selling off her possessions for food. She couldn’t count on her family in Dublin, who had found out that she not only had a child out of wedlock but she’d lived in a brothel and as such they didn’t want this harlot in their lives. And then there was the baby, who she saw as nothing more than another sign of her failings.

Peg didn’t know what to do, but she thought she knew would she deserved.

Peg arrived alone at her family house. Crying she begged Christopher to take her back. But he refused. Even her abuser didn’t want her now.

She went back to Dublin to beg her sisters for help. They too turned her away saying

‘If a morsel of bread would save me from death and destruction, I would refuse it to you’

Peg was now truly alone in the world. Left to count pennies for a tiny room and survive on watered down broth. Gone was the sparkling beauty who’d once taken Dublin by storm. In her place a fallen women hidden behind tattered clothes.

Whilst working out what to do next, Peg met one Thomas Caulfield in a Dublin tea house. A wealthy wine seller, he took a shine to Peg. Walking her home that night he dropped two guineas into her cleavage and promised that if she would go home with him he would take care of her.

Peg took this illicit invitation incredibly well. She didn’t bulk or run, instead she saw it as a sort of come to Jesus moment. Peg later said it helped her she see a new future for herself

‘Then all was distress, doubt and uncertainty. Now my mind was tranquil and I looked forward in hope’

And just like that, she decided to become a courtesan. As you do. 

whats his type
Because Peg can make it work

Caulfield put Peg up in her own place and showered her with gifts. She received a steady income and was back on her feet. Then Peg fell pregnant again. But this time she knew the position she was in. She arranged for Caulfield to continue giving her and their new son enough money to live off, even after he left her to marry another woman.

With her new cash and freedom Peg spent her days and nights out in Dublin’s music halls and taverns. She made friends with other women, whose tarnished reputations had taken them down more alternative career routes. She was in her early twenties and loved it, drinking, dancing and enjoying the moment.

But then once more, tragedy. Peg’s son died. Devastated, the situation was made worse when Caulfield used their child’s death as an excuse to cut her off.

But Peg bounced back. After all, being a courtesan was her job now, so she went off to find a new man. This cycle continued until she met one Mr Leeson (Peg never gives us his true name, but it’s likely he was Jospeh Leeson, the son of an English Earl who became a member of Irish Parliament)

Joseph Leeson 2nd Earl of Milltown by Pompeo Batoni in 1751
Joseph Leeson 2nd Earl of Milltown (fancy!) pictured in 1751

Lesson moved Peg in with him and she happily basked in the riches that came with her new role. She still loved to party and also have the odd affair but tried to play this down a least a little for her new gig.

Eventually Leeson and Peg moved to his country pile in Kildare. There she lived the life she was once promised, the lady of a country estate. It was fine enough, but soon the call of city was to much. Though for safety, Leeson moved Peg to the outskirts of Dublin, in the hopes it would stop her from having affairs and living it up with her old friends.

It didn’t work.

The thing was, to Peg, this was a business relationship. She didn’t love Leeson, he paid her to be his mistress. So she believed she should be allowed to have sex with other people. To go out with her friends and to live the life she wanted. She’d been constrained and punished in the name of gendered morality for so long and she was over it. After all, if a man was in her position, wouldn’t he do the same?

Leeson demanded that Peg be monogamous to him. She claimed he actually proposed to her, but she wouldn’t accept, later saying:

‘I looked upon marriage merely as a human institution, calculated chiefly to fix the legitimisation of children and oblige parents to bring them up and provide for them. To ascertain the decent of property and also to bind two persons together, even if they might be disgusted and heartily tired of one another.’

That my friends is what we call a HOT 18th century take.

Peg was by no means a woman of her time. She was a fallen woman who had gone against the morality that once beat her down and was now becoming her own person. She would not abide by what was expected if her anymore.

peggy
Modern adaptation of Peg leaving Leeson (I mean…she’s called Peggy so lets say this loosely works OK)

And so a newly empowered Peg took up with another rich gentleman, Buck Lawless (great name, sadly *spoiler alert* not a great guy). Together they had several children, though none would survive childhood.

And yet, despite this tragedy and the fact this was initially a business transaction, the pair fell in love.

To say it was a surprise for Peg would be an understatement. She hadn’t intended to fall in love again, but it had happened. And this time she wanted it to work, hell, she even managed to stay monogamous!

At first the relationship was bliss. All loving looks and halcyon days. But then jealousy set in. Lawless struggled with the fact that Peg was a known courtesan. If she smiled at another man, it would provoke a massive argument. Then he’d flirt with other women to make Peg jealous and then once more, the pair would be in a shouting match.

Then their arguments started to turn physical. During one fight, Lawless pinned a pregnant Peg down in the bed, beating her so badly a doctor had to be called. Peg would lose the baby.

Once more Peg was living with an abuser. But like many victims of abuse, she blamed herself and chose to stay with Lawless.

However, in what would prove ultimately lucky for Peg, Lawless was running out of cash. He’d heard about people striking it rich in America and decided to try his luck there. This would of course mean leaving Peg, who by the way, was once again pregnant!

Peg was devastated at the idea of her lover leaving her, but Lawless promised it wouldn’t be for long and in the meantime he’d send money back for her and the baby….

lying
Why are you like this Buck? WHY?!?

Peg gave birth to their daughter and waited to hear from Lawless. They weren’t married, but they were in love. They had a baby together, that had to mean something, right?

For months, Peg faithfully waited. She turned down offers for courtesan work and read up on American affairs, hoping to get glimpse of what Lawless might be up to. But he never appeared. He never wrote to her and he never sent back money.

Peg realised that she’d not only been dumped. but ghosted, 18th century style. 

She allowed herself to be devastated for a bit, but then then picked herself back up. Peg was resolute that she would not depend on a man to build her life, but instead use them as a means to create her own.

And so Peg set herself back up as a courtesan. Her first serious client was a clergyman (of course it was…), the pair had a child before she was back to the cycle of one man in, one man out. But courtesan work only paid so much and then there was the penniless periods between gigs.

Peg decided she wanted something more stable so in the mid 1770’s she joined forces with her friend Sally Hayes and set up a brothel.

Situated in an upscale area of Dublin, Peg wanted her brothel to be as swanky as possible. Each sex worker was hand picked by her, dressed in sophisticated fashions and were able to hold their own in political conversations. Champagne flowed, entertainment was dazzling and soon Peg and Sally were the talk of Dublin.

Of course her new found fame was of the infamous kind, but Peg didn’t really care. When someone shouted at her:

‘Oy Peg! Who slept with you last night, Peg?’

She just rolled her eyes and called back

‘Manners you dogs!’

Things were going great and the money Peg was earning wasn’t bad either. So what else do you do when you’re newly flush with cash? Hire a musician to follow you around constantly of course!

Ok, well maybe that’s not what most people would do, but it’s what Peg did. She wasn’t exactly the best at making good finical decisions (something which as we know by now, constantly bit her on the arse). She was of the mindset that while she had cash she’d spend the hell out of it! And oh boy did she. Out out every night in more glamorous frocks than the last, popping bottles and generally painting the town red with her business partner and best friend, Sally.

But you know how it goes when you’re living your best life. Someone has to try and ruin it. And 9 times out of 10 that someone is your ex.

That’s right! Buck Lawless is back!

eye roll
This fucker. The literal turd that will not flush

After going MIA for several years he popped up out of the blue to tell Peg he was back in Ireland and asked her to come visit him in Cork. Peg wasn’t keen, but Sally knew that her friend was still hung up on Lawless and so convinced Peg to go see him.

The two women rocked up to Cork determined to:

  • A) party
  • B) do it all on Lawless dime

And they did. For a month! Unfortunately it wasn’t just drinking and dancing. Peg and Lawless started a relationship again. By the time Peg and Sally went back to their Dublin brothel, Peg was pregnant (it’s her ninth for those counting). Unfortunately Buck Lawless and his love child weren’t the only things Peg had to worry about.

In November 1779 tragedy turned Peg’s world on its head once more. A gang with the frankly terrible name, the Pinking Dindies, broke into her house. They smashed up the place and then beat Peg until she was unconscious. Peg’s two year old daughter watched on as the young men beat her unresponsive pregnant mother. Peg would lose her baby and her daughter also died (Peg claimed of shock)

Furious and unbowed, Peg wanted retribution.

But unlike her attackers, she took the high road. She filed a suit against seven of the youths, who were all Trinity College students. The case was not in Pegs favour. After all, she was a ‘whore’ and unlikely to be taken seriously in court. Not to mention that her attackers threatened to kill her if she didn’t drop the case. But she stood tall, casually mentioning that she carried a pistol she was all to happy to use should the men come near her again.

Peg won the day in court. She received finical compensation and ensured her attackers left Dublin for good.

However the loss of her children left Peg bereft. Of her nine children, eight of whom she’d actually raised, those were the only ones who’d survived and now they too were gone.

Depressed and still in constant pain from her injuries, Peg longed for a change.

You know whose coming back to fuck this horrible situation up further don’t you? That’s right! Buck Lawless! Although he’d now moved to London, he pleaded that with Peg to come live with him. He wrote her sweet love letters and promised her a fresh start in London. Peg figured at this point she had nothing to lose. So she sold up and moved to London.

hello darkness
No good can come of this…

Aaaaand of course it turned out that Buck Lawless, being Buck Lawless, was shacked up with another woman. This time Peg was done. Refusing to see him and rejecting his oh so remorseful advances.

Peg tried to make a new life for herself in London, but she just couldn’t get along with the city. Though she managed to stay long enough to insult the Prince Regent not once but twice (that’s our girl) first by ordering the same waistcoats as him for her shoemaker and then by riding down the road next to him.

With ridiculous royal protocol well and truly smashed, Peg made her way back to Dublin.

On arriving she was greeted by her best girl Sally Hayes and another friend Moll Hall. Together the trio made it a point to go out on the town whenever they could.

And then they were banned from doing so.

The celebrated musician Signor Carnavalli was the hottest ticket in town, however he expressly forbidden, as Peg put it, ‘every lady of my description’ from attending. Of course Peg totally ignored this and rocked up anyway. However as the most famous courtesan in Dublin, she was quickly spotted and chucked out. Told in no uncertain terms that her kind of woman was not wanted here.

Peg was not having this. She returned to the theatre the next day with a warrant against Signor Carnavalli, for throwing her out despite her having paid for a ticket.

Peg was accompanied by four hulking bailiffs who proceeded to haul the musician off to prison. Dusting herself off, Peg then matched into the theatre and apologised to the waiting audience, explaining that Mr Carnavalli was no in prison thanks to his conduct towards her.

Peg’s defiance made headlines. All of Dublin knew Peg Plunkett was back in business and this time she wasn’t letting anyone’s bullshit slide.

Business boomed with Pegs clients including some of Ireland’s most prolific men of the day. Her wealth and notoriety  soared for the next few years. Peg using this as a platform to cement her place in society by throwing huge parties and masquerades (despite them being banned).

toast
Is she blowing all her money once again? Yes. But at least she is doing it in style

Throughout the 1780’s Peg discovered she had somewhat of a soft spot for a man in military uniform. With thousands of soldiers stationed in Ireland, both serving and waiting to hear if they were to shipped out to fight in the British Empires colonies, soldiers were staple in Peg’s brothel clientele.

Of course it wasn’t long before Peg was starting affairs of the books. Sally Hayes and Peg started a string of relationships. They burnt hot and fierce, but as soon as the soldier in question was posted abroad, things quickly cooled off.

Though Peg describes falling in love a few times with some of these men, things never got serious. She wouldn’t let them. When one Captain Cunynghame begged Peg to go with him, she declined as:

‘…though he was a fine showy fellow, I had much rather remain in Dublin, where I knew every wish could be gratified’

After all, why would she leave the empire she built? By now Peg was known as ‘the reigning vice queen’. She set up another high end brothel and was enjoying life as an unlikely member of Dublin’s high society. No longer were people ashamed to be seen with Peg, she was an established part of the elite.

She started an affair with Ireland’s Lieutenant, The Duke of Rutland that made the cities front pages. This created a media whirlwind around her. Even simple trip to the theatre became a point of gossip and scandal. Soon every move Peg made was discussed and poured over.

And then Peg did something truly shocking – she got married

…well only after she made it clear to her new spouse that she didn’t love him, actually she hated him and was in it purely because he was getting a title.

Her intended was Barry Yelverton, son to a baron and by all acccounts, the worst. But, Peg loved the idea of being an infamous courtesan with the title ‘the right honourable.’ Oh also, his family were really rich, which Peg was also a fan of.

The pair were married by a former minister and almost immediately broke up. When Yelverton’s Dad offered Peg a ton of money to dissolve the marriage she happily accepted and ditched her husband.

Peg wasn’t proud of what she’d done. After all it wasn’t like she needed the money or the title. She’d just done it because she could. It was cruel and unnecessary but it was also an F you to how the morality of marriage had screwed her over in the past. No longer was she the girl who was thrown out like rubbish when men’s feelings changed. She was Peg Plunkett, Queen of Vice, she could turn the tables and make men disposable. She was untouchable.

Peg and sally
Peg and Sally out to take men for everything they can get

Then after thirty plus years in the courtesan business, Peg decided she was done. She’d worked hard and now she could just bask in the spoils of her success.

After doing some maths, Peg calculated that once all her clients paid in their I.O.U’s she’d have enough to retire on. Feeling safe in the knowledge that all good gentlemen paid their debts, Peg didn’t wait for the men to actually pay, instead buying a house in Blackrock, a town just outside of Dublin..

The bliss of retirement didn’t last long. Peg being Peg and crap with money she hadn’t done her sums rights. Her bank accounts were haemorrhaging money and if she didn’t do something fast, it wouldn’t be her new home in Blackrock she’d be living in, but debtors prison.

Peg called on those I.O.U’s she was counting. But surprise surprise, the men weren’t planning on ever paying up. 

Once more, it looked like Peg was screwed. But she was determined that although she might be down, she wasn’t out.

Fine, her clients weren’t going to pay up. That was ok. Because she knew another way to get them to pay and earn a tidy sum at the same time. She’d write her memoirs. After all, who wouldn’t want to buy the juicy story of Ireland’s leading courtesan. Obviously she’d have to name names, including those of her most high profile clients…unless they paid up.

In 1795 Peg released her first memoir. It was a hit and closely followed by a second. 

She penned a third, however by the time it was released in 1797, Peg had died. 

She was remembered for her role as the nations leading courtesan, but also for her unwillingness to bend to what was expected of her. Still at the very end of life, refusing to let the cards life dealt her keep her down.

This was interesting! Where can I find out more?

Well you can read Pegs memoirs (for free!!) here I’d also suggest checking out Julie Peakman’s book, Peg Plunkett, Memoirs of a Whore, which is currently a steal on kindle for a little over £3.

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