Cuffe, Otway Frederick Seymour (1853–1912), benefactor and Gaelic revivalist, was born 11 January 1853 in London, third and youngest son of John Otway O'Connor Cuffe (1818–1865), 3rd earl of Desart (an Irish title), and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Lucy Campbell (1822–1898), third daughter of John Frederick Campbell, 1st Earl Cawdor, and his wife, Elizabeth Thynne. He served as a captain in the rifle brigade and fought in the 1874 Ashanti campaign, subsequently serving as aide-de-camp to the duke of Connaught.
Cuffe resigned his commission and went into business in the City of London. After a brief and unhappy sojourn in New York (where he became a theosophist) he returned to London. He claimed to have worked on the railways in America and practised bullfighting in Spain. On 22 July 1891 he married the Hon. Elizabeth St Aubyn; they were childless. He was appointed groom of the privy chamber in the queen's household in 1893. During the 1890s he dabbled in the fine arts, studying woodcarving and bookbinding, and was secretary of a London theosophist lodge. His arts and crafts enthusiasms were encouraged by conversion to socialism after he met William Morris in Iceland; his more prosaic second brother, Hamilton (a distinguished civil servant), thought ‘Dot’ an amiable pursuer of mares’ nests.
Cuffe's interest in Ireland dated from 1898. After the death of their eldest brother William Ulick, 4th earl of Desart, Hamilton Cuffe became the 5th earl. Hamilton had two daughters, but his wife was unable to have more children, and Otway realised that he might one day become an Irish landowner. In 1899 he and his wife moved to Sheestown House on the banks of the Nore near Kilkenny.
Cuffe was strongly influenced by Standish O'Grady (qv), whom he may have met in theosophical circles; O'Grady argued that the gentry should regain the loyalty of the Irish people by leading an industrial and cultural revival. In 1899 Cuffe arranged for O'Grady to edit the Kilkenny Moderator, with unhappy results when O'Grady defended the Cuffes in a dispute with other local gentry. The two men engaged in psychic research with O'Grady's wife Margaret. Cuffe roamed south Tipperary collecting folk tales and searching for the fairies. Hamilton complained that his brother was encouraging superstition, which ultimately led to cruelty. (He may have been thinking of the burning in 1895 of Bridget Cleary (qv).) Cuffe's niece Sybil Lubbock, writing in the 1930s, said that it was never quite clear how seriously her uncle took his fairy beliefs. O'Grady also inspired Cuffe to found a local Volunteer force with its own club and gymnasium.
In 1902 an open-air pageant on Red Hugh O'Donnell (qv), written by O'Grady, was staged in Cuffe's garden at Sheestown by F. J. Bigger (qv); local people crowded to see it, trampling gardens and uprooting shrubs. Cuffe joined the Kilkenny Central branch of the Gaelic League, underwriting it financially and serving as its president (1904–12). He had supplied it with books even before he moved to Kilkenny. However, despite his enthusiasm he never succeeded in learning Irish. His position was incongruous: many branch members were separatists, some under police surveillance. Arthur Griffith (qv) complained that the Gaelic League should not rely on a gentleman usher to the king; Griffith was particularly annoyed when Cuffe persuaded the branch to request that a loyal address by Kilkenny corporation to Edward VII should be bilingual. The unionist Evening Mail criticised Cuffe for attending meetings where the British army was insulted. Cuffe adopted a ‘Gaelic’ dress of his own invention – knee-breeches, stockings, buckled shoes, a full-skirted blue coat, and wide soft hat.
Cuffe worked closely with his sister-in-law, Ellen Cuffe (qv) (née Bischoffsheim), dowager countess of Desart, widow of William Ulick, who was independently wealthy; she underwrote his projects for local industrial development and carried them on after his death. In 1905 Cuffe and the countess established Kilkenny woollen mills at Talbot's Inch, a mile north of the city, Cuffe designing and building thirty model cottages for key workers. He also set about growing and curing tobacco, and in 1906 a furniture factory was established at Talbot's Inch. Cuffe and the countess also built a local theatre (1906) and provided the site and furniture for a Carnegie Library (1910). The countess spent £70,000 on these projects. When the Irish Industrial Development Association was founded in 1906 Cuffe became its first president. He was also chairman of the local orchestral and dramatic societies and a trustee of the Kilkenny Agricultural Society.
In January 1906 Cuffe was elected as a councillor for St Canice's ward despite refusing to canvass. He was unanimously elected mayor of Kilkenny in January 1907 and re-elected in 1908; he could have been elected again, but retired from the corporation owing to business pressures. During his second term he declared himself a home ruler, and shortly before his death signed a declaration claiming that protestants did not fear persecution under home rule.
Cuffe's last years were troubled by managerial embezzlement, a fire, and a strike by some woodworkers against the importation of a skilled craftsman when the position could not be filled by a local worker. By 1911 he had developed health problems, attributed by some to disappointment over the ingratitude of the people of Kilkenny. He travelled on the continent to recuperate, then sailed to Australia. He contracted pneumonia on shipboard and died 2 January 1912 at Fremantle in Western Australia. He was buried at Perth, carried to his grave by Kilkenny hurlers. The Kilkenny Moderator called his death ‘a thunderbolt to the people of Kilkenny’; they had loved him and laughed at him, and they offered posthumous tributes. ‘He was the noblest-minded, highest-spirited and knightliest man I ever met in my life, and his death to me has been like the quenching of the sunlight’ wrote O'Grady in a letter to the Irish Times. Cuffe is remembered as a visionary who made a permanent impact on the physical landscape of Kilkenny.
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).