Leeson, Margaret (‘Peg’) (1727–97), prostitute, brothel-keeper, and memoirist, was born Margaret Plunket at Killough, Co. Westmeath, one of eight surviving children of Matthew Plunket, a wealthy farmer, and his wife, whose maiden name was O'Reilly. Most of what is known about Margaret Leeson comes from her autobiography, which was published in three volumes towards the end of her life. As this was written for money and a desire for revenge, it is difficult to gauge its accuracy and authenticity. By her own account, she was raised in Co. Cavan by her uncle, after the death of her mother. Her relationship with men was difficult from an early age: she was abused by a brother, and had several failed relationships, including one with a Thomas Caulfield that produced a son. After moving to Dublin she had a succession of short affairs, and turned to prostitution to make money. After a liaison with a Dublin merchant she adopted his name and became known as Peg Leeson. She set herself up with a clientele of rich and usually powerful men, and became a successful brothel-keeper, running an establishment in various locations throughout the city. She had three children with her lover John Lawless, though none survived to adulthood and the relationship soon foundered.
At the beginning of the 1780s she had premises on Pitt Street, on a site that is now the Westbury Hotel. Among her reputed clients was the lord lieutenant, Charles Manners, duke of Rutland (qv), which helped to establish her reputation as the leading brothel-keeper in Dublin. One anecdote from this time provides a clear example of Leeson's sharp wit and humour. When questioned at the theatre about whom she had slept with last, she retorted: ‘Manners, you blackguards’ (Lyons, 44). Part of her success was in bringing women over from the London theatres, especially Covent Garden and Drury Lane, to work for her. In her dealings with the wealthy and titled she showed little respect or deference. When Lord Westmorland (qv) became viceroy in 1790 he apparently attempted to become her client but she refused, claiming that he had treated his first wife badly by flaunting an affair. She also insulted the prince of Wales during two visits to London.
She retired in the early 1790s, but found that she was virtually penniless, the IOUs she had accumulated proving worthless. Having attempted suicide after her house was ransacked, she was arrested and sent to debtors' prison. Fortunately, the prison was run by Captain Benjamin Matthews, a former lover, and she was well treated. Upon her release she lived at Blackrock, Co. Dublin, and began composing her memoirs. She claimed she made 600 guineas from the first two volumes, some of which, it seems, was raised by pressuring former clients to pay to avoid exposure. Before writing the final volume she seems to have repented and returned to catholicism. In 1797 she was assaulted on her way home from Drumcondra and gang-raped; contracting a venereal disease from the encounter, she died 22 March 1797.
Leeson has been hailed as a proto-feminist, and her memoirs praised for providing a detailed picture of her times and for charting the immorality and decadence of the wealthy and powerful. The accuracy and integrity of her account must, however, be questioned, and there are substantial doubts over some of her claims. For example, she wrote that she married the intellectually disabled son of Lord Avonmore, but was paid to leave him. Nevertheless her account remains a vivid and fascinating account of life in late eighteenth-century Dublin.