Cuffe, Ellen Odette (1857–1933), countess of Desart, philanthropist, and senator, was born 1 September 1857 in London into a Jewish family, eldest daughter of Henri Louis Bischoffsheim (1829–1908), millionaire banker, and Clarisse Bischoffsheim (née Biedermann), and educated privately. On her marriage (1881) in the Church of England as second wife to novelist William Ulick O'Connor Cuffe, 4th earl of Desart, she settled at Desart Court, Kilkenny, where she played a prominent part in the social life of the community. On her husband's death (1898) Desart Court passed to her brother-in-law, Hamilton J. A. Cuffe, 5th earl of Desart (qv), and Ellen returned to her estate at Ascot, England.
Her attachment to Ireland was reflected in her support for the Gaelic League (she became president of the local branch c.1912), and her financing of many of the schemes initiated by her brother-in-law, Otway Frederick Seymour Cuffe (qv); these included the founding of the Kilkenny theatre (1902) and an industrial colony at Talbot's Inch, Kilkenny, where they established the Kilkenny Woollen Mills Ltd (1905; sold in 1929), a basket factory, and a tobacco-growing farm, which Ellen closed in 1913 – she claimed that although profitable it had failed in its original purpose, to inspire neighbouring farmers to follow their example. They founded the Kilkenny Woodworkers Ltd (1905–27), which employed sixty staff and produced utilitarian, machine-made furniture, and fine hand-carved pieces often embellished with Celtic ornament; its wares were sold in Dublin when they opened a shop in Nassau St. in 1906. For their employees they built a ‘garden village’ of thirty picturesque cottages, where Ellen settled in 1912 in a house, ‘Aut Even’ (a phonetic rendering of the Irish for ‘pleasant place’), which she had built for herself and which she furnished entirely with products from the Kilkenny Woodworkers.
After Otway Cuffe's death (1912), she occupied many of the positions formerly held by him and administered the local industries which they had founded. She built a recreation centre at Talbot's Inch, which included a dance hall and sports facilities; when the city handball court fell into disrepair, she provided a site for a new court at Talbot's Inch, attended its opening in 1928, and was a regular visitor thereafter. A generous subscriber to charitable causes in Kilkenny, she built and equipped the city library on St John's Quay (1910), and founded a recreation centre, Desart Hall, New St. (1914), and the Aut Even Hospital at Talbot's Inch (1915), which she dedicated to Otway Cuffe and visited daily. Interested in cattle breeding, she was president for many years of the Irish Dairy Shorthorn Breeders’ Association, to which she presented the Desart cup for annual competitions. She was the first woman in Ireland and probably the first Jewish woman to be given the freedom of any city in the world; this honour was bestowed on her by the corporation of Kilkenny in 1910.
Arguing that women should not compete with men, she campaigned in England and Ireland against women's suffrage; in May 1913 she presided at the AGM of the National League for Opposing Women Suffrage in Dublin, concluding her presidential address with the plea to ‘bring back . . . the old ideal that woman was the spirit of peace, love, [otherwise] . . . social life must go back to the rude roughness of the so-called “dark ages”’ (McAdams, 27). She opposed the national health insurance bill (1911), arguing that in a large house servants would automatically be cared for and in smaller houses they should be treated irrespective of insurance. President of the Insurance Tax Resisters Defence Association, she refused to collect the tax from her employees, resulting in the seizure of one of her horses by the insurance commissioners.
She was a member of the first senate of the Irish Free State (1922–33), having been nominated by W. T. Cosgrave (qv). A member of the largely ex-unionist Independent Group, she subscribed generously to election funds and was listed (c.1932) as a senator ‘who can be counted on to support the Cosgrave government’ (Ernest Blythe papers); her speeches were few but were addressed to points on which she had local knowledge such as housing and rent control. Together with Mrs Leigh White, she rented a flat in a fashionable area of Dublin and entertained people from many walks of life with the express purpose of overcoming the social barriers that divided Irish society. At this time she was described as ‘a dumpy little soul, attractively ugly, always dressed in sombre black and gifted with a sense of humour’ (O'Sullivan, Ir. Times).
Throughout her life she was a ‘staunch and practising Jewess . . . proud of my faith and race’ (quoted in Shillman, 117); a member of the West End synagogue, London, and vice-president of the Union of Jewish Women, she supported Jewish philanthropic institutions in London. She published articles in magazines and was joint author of A complete guide to social forms of address (1924). Her sister Amelia Bischoffsheim, married Maurice Fitzgerald, 20th knight of Kerry. Ellen had no children. She died 29 June 1933 in Dublin and was buried according to Jewish rites in Falmouth, England, beside her husband, whose grave she had visited annually, becoming known as ‘the weeping widow’.