Mary Leadbeater and the Annals of Ballitore

Article first published in The Friendly Word November-December 2009


Christopher Moriarty

This year saw the triumphant conclusion of years of work by Mario Corrigan and his colleagues at the Kildare County Library in the publication of the definitive edition of a very remarkable 19th century book. Of particular interest to Friends because of the Quaker life of its author, The annals of Ballitore is also a vital source work in social history.

Ballitore is a charming village, lying a little way off the main road from Kilcullen to Carlow. At its southern end is an 18th century Meeting House and on a corner of the village square, close to the left bank of the river is a white-painted dwelling now known as the Mary Leadbeater House.

Mary Leadbeater was born in the village in 1758 and spent most of her life there until her death at the age of 78. She was born in the master’s residence in the school that her grandfather had established and where her father succeeded him. After her marriage in 1791 to William Leadbeater she moved from the school to the house on the square, reared her children and served the community as postmistress, healing woman, friendly gossip and revered and respected friend.

Her memory and that of her contemporaries might have faded away, had it not been for her exceptional skills as a writer and her habit of keeping a diary, begun in childhood. Two years before her death she set to work on compiling the material in her diaries into a narrative of her life, the village and its inhabitants. The result was a manuscript of extraordinary interest from many angles.

First it is the life story of a very remarkable and erudite woman. Then it is social history and national history over a period which included 1798. Above all, it is easy and delightful reading, a book that can be dipped into for its little vignettes of the people and is then hard to put down because she makes them all so interesting. There is much tragedy, above all the eye-witness account of the atrocities committed by both sides in ’98. She lost one of her own daughters in an accident in her house and the journal records the deaths of many infants, children and young mothers.

While these grim realities occurred and left their mark, life in the prosperous village was generally pleasant and Mary Leadbeater describes the events, great and small, with warmth and wit. She was brought up under a strict regime by her rather pious mother – but found relief in the company of an aunt who took a very much more relaxed view on life.

Her grandfather was Abraham Shackleton, who had come to Ballitore from England and set up a boarding school for boys. He had advanced views on education, the school attained an international reputation and catered for pupils of all religions besides the young Quakers for whom it was first established. Its three most distinguished graduates illustrate this breadth of backgrounds. They were the parliamentarian Edmund Burke, the United Irishman Napper Tandy and the archbishop Cardinal Paul Cullen.

Burke in particular looked back on his school days there with something approaching reverence. He kept up a correspondence with old Abraham Shackleton and with his grand-daughter. She gives a charming account of the last of his many visits to Ballitore and also includes some of his letters, amongst them, a most moving one to her written shortly before his own death.

An anonymous editor in 1862 published the Annals, together with much of Mary Leadbeater’s correspondence, in two volumes. Remarkably, two editions appeared in the same year, the second containing substantial additional material. There is some evidence that Mary’s last surviving daughter Lydia Jane Fisher was the editor and that Richard Davis Webb, a former pupil at Ballitore School, published them. . More than a century after they appeared, Kildare County Library in 1986 published an edition abridged by John McKenna. It sold out quickly and in 2004 the Kildare Collections and Arts Services set to work on an edition for publication on the internet. Happily, a decision was taken subsequently to have the Annals and a memoir by Mary Leadbeater’s niece Betsy Shackleton published in book form.

In 2008 Mario Corrigan, who took charge of this work, contacted the Historical Library in the hopes of obtaining the original manuscript. The need for this arose because the 1862 editor made an unfortunate decision to omit the first four pages on these grounds: The general description of the village of Ballitore as it appeared in the year 1766…is now so inapplicable that it is thought best to omit the few pages it occupies in the ‘Annals’ and to substitute… poem written by her in the year 1778…But the manuscript could not be found. Richard Harrison told us that it was in the National Library and the missing pages were copied from their microfilm of the manuscript. The whereabouts of the manuscript remain untraced, a note in the National Library archives say that it was ‘credited to a Quaker Library’. That should be the Historical Library, but it is not in the catalogue and we have searched in vain through boxes and boxes of Leadbeater papers.

With his co-workers, Mario Corrigan compared the two 1862 editions, opting for the second as providing more material. Extensive commentary is included, giving discrepancies between the two editions and including the original editor’s notes. The new edition also contains the text of John McKenna’s 2008 Historical Lecture given in Quaker House entitled Mary Leadbeater and the Quaker influence in Ballitore.

This is the perfect Christmas present for all Friends ! Copies are available from the Historical Library, Quaker House, Stocking Lane, Dublin 16 for €25 including postage. Or save €5 and have an interesting time visiting the Library some Thursday morning between 11.0 and 1.0