Lady Mary

Author of Glimpses of Life and Manners in Persia

by Brendan Mc Namara

The diary that Lady Mary Leonora Woulfe Sheil kept during her sojourn in Persia between the years 1849 and 1852, Glimpses of Life and Manners in Persia, has long been renowned for its contribution towards understanding Persian society during those turbulent years.1 Lady Sheil found herself domiciled in Tehran during extraordinary times. Her chronicle has found its own niche in the pantheon of travel literature of the time and contains some of the earliest published references to events surrounding the birth of the Faith of the Báb, including an account of His Martyrdom.2 But who was Lady Mary Leonora Woulfe Sheil and how did she find herself in the Persia of Nasir al-Din Shah?

Ireland and the early days

The connections between Ireland and the Bahá’í Faith, in its very earliest days, are somewhat tenuous but none the less fascinating. Recent research places twelve Irish people, or people with Irish connections, in Persia around the time of the Martyrdom of the Báb on July 9th, 1850. Some had no relationship to the world-shaping drama being played out around them, while others were amongst the few Europeans to have been at the centre of those tumultuous events. The most famous of these must surely be Dr. W. Cormick who attended the Báb on a number of occasions following the Báb’s suffering the torture of the bastinado in Tabriz in 1848.

Dr. Cormick was born in Tabriz but his father had come to Persia from Co. Kilkenny, from Cussane in the parish of Tullahought.3 Dr. Cormick’s description of the Person of the Báb, contained in a letter he wrote to a friend, has a unique place in the record of the life of the Báb.4 It not only reflects the thoughts and observations of someone from a Western background, but it also describes eloquently something of His beautiful, refined nature and character. The Cormick family connection with Tabriz lived on for at least a few more generations and there are eleven Cormick graves in the Armenian Cemetery in Tabriz.

Also in Persia at the time, based in the capital Tehran, were a most remarkable couple, Sir Justin and Lady Mary Sheil. Justin Sheil was the British Minister at the court of the Shah, a powerful and distinguished diplomat in an era when Britain enjoyed some influence in Persia. What is extraordinary now, looking back into the annals of that period, is that far from being stereotypical pillars of the British establishment, the Sheils embodied some contradictions; they were both from ancient Irish Catholic families, he from Co. Kilkenny and she from Co. Clare.5

The Sheils

Justin Sheil was born in 1803 at Bellvue House, just a few miles outside Waterford city, on the Co. Kilkenny side of the River Suir. Justin’s father Edward had made his fortune in Spain and was a successful businessman. When changes to land legislation in the late 1700s extended the length of time a Catholic could hold a lease, Edward returned to Ireland, settled in the parish of Drumdowney (Co. Tipperary) and eventually built a magnificent house, downriver from the city of Waterford. Bellvue boasted magnificent views and was part of a picturesque landscape eulogised in Spenser’s classic poem The Faerie Queene. Though all that remains of the house today is a low walled ruin, secreted within a farmer’s field some distance from any road, in its prime the property was beautifully appointed: “…300 yards from the river, on a gentle slope rising gradually from the waters edge along which the park extends for a considerable distance”. The Sheils lived a life of privilege but the children had an upbringing that was rigorous and disciplined. They had their own tutor in house (a refugee French priest) and their education was staunchly Catholic.6

The Sheils lived at Bellvue until 1809 when, as a result of bad investments, Edward lost his fortune and the family had to sell the estate, moving to more modest surroundings in Dublin. The name of the old house is still retained in the area, albeit in a slightly different form. The new container port for Waterford city, Belview, is just a stone’s throw away from the ruin of the old house, and if you drive the Waterford to Wexford road you cannot miss its many signposts.

Justin was sent for his schooling to the renowned Jesuit College at Stonyhurst and entered the East India Army in 1820 at the age of seventeen. Thus began his military and (eventually) diplomatic career which would see him reach the rank of captain by the age of twenty-seven and, three years later, become part of a body of officers commissioned to train the Persian Army. In 1836 he became Secretary to the British Legation in Tehran and Minister in the year 1842. All through this time he was rising through the ranks and ended his distinguished career a Major General, as well as a Knight of the Realm.7

From his dispatches and some contemporary accounts, it appears that Justin was a fairly straight-laced soldier/diplomat. His official reports to his diplomatic masters in London contain many references to events surrounding the birth of the Faith of the Báb, not always unbiased or complimentary. There is some evidence that he did intercede, on at least one occasion, in an endeavour to ameliorate the worst excesses being visited upon the followers of the Báb caught up in the pogroms of the early 1850s. His interest was, perhaps, more an outcome of his desire to see Persia become more “civilised” than sympathy with the fate of Bábís themselves.8

Justin had little connection to Ireland and events shaping the country during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. There is also very little known of his links to Ireland after his return from Persia in 1853, at the age of fifty, when he and his family took up residence in London. There is some mystery underlying the family’s fortunes, as we shall see when we later consider Mary Sheil’s passing in Rathcoole, Co. Dublin, some years after the family returned from Persia, and the unresolved questions surrounding her resting place.

Justin’s famous brother

In terms of Irish history, Justin’s elder brother, Richard Lalor Sheil, has left a more lasting impression. A playwright of note and close collaborator of the ‘Liberator’ Daniel O’Connell, Richard was an ardent proponent of civil liberties. He was second only to O’Connell in the campaign for Catholic Emancipation in Ireland and when this was achieved in 1829, he soon after won a seat in Parliament where he distinguished himself as an orator of note. Richard later dropped out of the campaign to bring about further changes in the status quo in Ireland and became Master of the Mint in the Whig government in the late 1840’s, being derided by some as an “office seeker”. He was embroiled in no small scandal when, during his tenure at the treasury, he was responsible for the production of a new florin coin, the equivalent of two old shillings. For reasons of space and simplicity the old refrains “Defender of the Faith” and “By God’s Grace” were omitted from under the Sovereign’s likeness, creating quite a furore given Mr. Sheil’s Catholic background and the Queen’s position as Head of the Church of England.9 Though it was all rather an innocent set of circumstances, the new coin was soon dubbed the “godless” or “graceless” florin! In 1850, Richard Sheil accepted the post of plenipotentiary at the Court of Tuscany and died there after a short illness six months later at the age of fifty-nine. Richard had a house in Holles Street in Dublin and his remains were brought back to Ireland for burial near his country residence at Long Orchard, near Templemore, Co. Tipperary.10

The Woulfes

Mary Leonora Woulfe was born into a prosperous Catholic family at Tiermaclane, six miles south of Ennis in Co. Clare, in the year 1825. The Woulfe family were of Norman origin and first came to Ireland at the end of the twelfth century. The Woulfes had extensive lands in the Corbally area of Limerick, a well-known part of what is now Limerick city. Mary’s family settled in Co. Clare and were well integrated into local society – to the extent that her grandmother was a MacNamara, indicating, of course, that they had really arrived! Her father, Stephen, himself a graduate of Stoneyhurst and Trinity, was a leading figure in law and government in Ireland and held the highest official positions of any Catholic of his time. He successively held various senior posts, including that of solicitor-general, Attorney General and Chief Baron of the Exchequer. He was also an ally of Daniel O’Connell and active, at least early on, in the push for Catholic Emancipation. He later fell out with O’Connell and they became bitter enemies. Stephen passed away, suddenly, in the year 1840 when he was at the pinnacle of his great career.

The Woulfe and the Sheil families were surely well known to each other, given their standing in Irish society of the day and both Richard Lalor Sheil and Stephen Woulfe had been down the same educational path. Yet it is still surprising that in 1847, Justin (on leave from his posting in Tehran and now forty-four years old) married Mary Leonora. Mary was just twenty-two but with her father, Baron Stephen, now deceased, there may have been some urgency in finding her a suitable husband.

The ruin of the Woulfe family home can still be found at Tiermaclane and has stood derelict since the mid-1800s.11

To Persia

On August 7th, 1849 the Sheil party, comprising Mary and Justin, three Irish servants, one French servant, and the family pet (a Scotch terrier named Crab) left for Persia.12 The journey was long and difficult, through Germany, Poland and Russia, though not as harrowing as the return trip in March 1853, when the party had grown to include three young children and Justin Sheil was returning from his posting a very ill man.

The diary that Mary kept of the burgeoning family’s sojourn in Persia, and which was later published as Glimpses of Life and Manners in Persia, is fascinating for what it contains and equally for what is omitted. Mary comes across as energetic, eager to investigate her new surroundings, to discover all she can. In what she writes she cannot help but be opinionated, speaking from a position of privilege and on occasion with some bias and prejudice. But she is also resilient, sometimes keenly sympathetic and understanding, and eager to delve into the intricacies of Persian life and character, making efforts to learn Persian so as to better communicate with her hosts.

Mary’s life in Persia was very circumscribed, consigned as she was, for the most part, to the private quarters of the British Minister’s household.[note13] Prevented by custom from mixing openly in Persian society, her narrative is greatly supported by information gleaned second hand, most likely through her husband, from visitors to the British Mission in Tehran and from her interviews with the women she encountered at the court of the Shah. Some of what she records is inaccurate and reflects the perceived view at the Persian court, yet her diary contains some fascinating insights and opens a window on conditions for women in the harems of the elite. She was able to meet and speak with some of the most important women of the time, including the mother of Nasir al-Din Shah (an inveterate enemy of Bahá’u’lláh) and gain access where no man could dare to go.13 Being as close as she was to important events in Bahá’í history lends tremendous significance to the record of her time in Persia. Amongst other notable events that occurred during her sojourn in Persia, Mary found herself just two miles distant when the attempt was made on the life of the Shah and writes about the horrors suffered by the Bábí community in its aftermath. She also, poignantly and sympathetically, describes the tragedy surrounding the martyrdom of Tahirih. In the end one is left with the impression that Mary was a remarkable woman, herself somewhat hidden behind a “veil”, enigmatic, young and newly wed, in a strange, exotic land, that was at times cruel beyond words.

The Martyrdom of the Báb

Amongst the events recorded in her book, Mary gives some time to describing the upheavals associated with the birth of the Faith of the Báb. Some inaccuracies of a factual nature appear and yet her description of the Martyrdom of the Báb is detailed and intriguing. She writes of that fateful event in the barrack square of Tabriz;

A company of soldiers was ordered to despatch Báb by a volley. When the smoke cleared away, Báb had disappeared from sight. It had so happened that none of the balls had touched him; and, prompted by an impulse to preserve his life, he rushed from the spot. Had Báb possessed sufficient presence of mind to have fled to the bazaar, which was within a few yards of the place he was stationed, he would in all probability have succeeded in effecting his escape. A miracle palpable to all Tabreez would have been performed, and a new creed would have been established. But he turned in the opposite direction, and hid himself in the guard-room, where he was immediately discovered, brought out, and shot.14

Her depiction of the Báb turning in the wrong direction, having escaped the volley of a “company of soldiers”, is somewhat amusing; how that volley failed to inflict any harm on His Person in the first place does not seem to arouse any degree of wonder. And yet her description of the Báb, from whomsoever she garnered the details for her short pen-picture, is a precious inclusion in her narrative;

Báb possessed a mild and benignant countenance, his manners were composed and dignified, his eloquence was impressive, and he wrote rapidly and well.15

Tahirih

Other events associated with the history surrounding the birth of the Faith of the Báb are also related in Lady Mary’s diary, including the story of the first seven Martyrs of Tehran, and the upheaval in Zanjan.16 Later on Mary writes about the circumstances surrounding the attempt on the life of the Shah.

She describes how her family was plunged into consternation on hearing news of this event, fearing for their own safety as one report indicated the monarch was dead and the maintenance of law and order could not be guaranteed during any interregnum. The shocking bloodletting that followed, involving the brutal slaying of Bábís by a variety of different sections of Tehran society, horrified Mary and she recalls how submissions were made to the Prime Minister, Mirza Aqa Khan,17 to the effect “that these barbarous and unheard-of proceedings were not only revolting in themselves, but would produce the utmost horror and disgust in Europe.” Mary records the Prime Minister’s angry response as being “Do you wish the vengeance of all the Bábees to be concentrated on me alone?”18

Even the doctor to the court of the Shah, a Frenchman Dr. Cloquet, was invited to take part in the slaughter, to “show his loyalty by following the example of the rest of the Court. He excused himself and pleasantly said he killed too many men professionally to permit him to increase their number by any voluntary homicide on his part.” The good doctor met an unhappy end some time later. On his return from attending to the Shah one evening his servant presented him with a drink which was laced with poison, the effects of which brought about his death a few days later.19

“There was still another victim,” Mary writes, concluding her survey of those tragic days. “This was a young woman, the daughter of a moolla in Mazenderan, who, as well as her father, had adopted the tenets of the Báb.20 The Bábees venerated her as a prophetess; and she was styled the Khooret-ool-eyn, which Arabic words are said to mean, pupil of the eye. After the Bábee insurrections had been subdued in the above province, she was brought to Tehran and imprisoned, but was well treated. When these executions took place she was strangled. This was a cruel and useless deed.”21

Home

On March 21st, 1853 the Sheil family left Persia, Justin having been unwell for some time and wishing to avoid the “enervating effects of another summer” on his delicate state of wellbeing.22 The journey was tortuous, out through Tabriz across Russia to Constantinople and then by ship to Malta and Marseille. Adding to the stress of travelling with an ill husband was the fact that Mary and Justin’s family had grown significantly with the arrival of three children during their years in Persia. Mary mentions her children only in passing throughout the pages of her diary and only identifies her first born, Frances, by name.23 Frances was born in April 1850. We now know that the other children born in Persia were Edward, in August 1851, and Mary (Milly) in November 1852.24

For Mary, now just twenty-eight years of age, with three children under the age of four and an invalid husband, the journey home must have been quite traumatic. She did have her entourage and some extra help on the way but her stress was compounded by the loss of their terrier, Crab. Mary leaves us wondering as to how the little terrier met his end and the nature of the difficulties that prevailed as a result of the trauma.

The journey home, by Malta and Marseilles, is an everyday occurrence, and my joy at returning would have been complete but for the death of our faithful terrier, Crab. I shall not attempt to say how this event embittered everything, for it is uninteresting to all, and by some would not be understood.25

Premature demise

Justin and Mary settled at Chester Square in London, though little is known of the Sheil family after their return from Persia. The family did move later to 31, Eaton Place and it was here that Justin passed away in 1871 at the age of sixtyeight.26 What happened to Mary had remained something of a mystery. For some unknown reason there was no sign of her earthly remains in the family crypt! Following a period of intense search involving a number of people,27 Mary’s resting place was finally traced to Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.

According to Lady Mary’s death certificate, she died of “Acute Rheumatism 8 days certified”.28 The certificate gives the location as Kilmactalway, a parish in south County Dublin and adjacent to Rathcoole where the Sheil family had a house.29 Mary was just forty-four years of age. What had happened since her return from Persia, and the publication of her travel diary?

Subsequent research has revealed that, in the years following their return from Persia, the Sheils had a further seven children. As well as the three born in Persia (Frances, Edward and Mary), Justin was born in 1857, Stephen in 1858, Richard in 1860, Honor in 1863, Denis in 1866 and Grace in 1869, the year of Mary’s death.30

A daughter, Laura, made up the ten strong group of siblings, though there is no record of her date of birth.31 Indicative, perhaps, of their resolute Catholic upbringing, four of the children entered religious life. Honor and Grace became nuns, Justin a religious brother and Denis, who was born in Ireland, became a priest.32 He was the last novice received by the great Cardinal Newman and later became Superior of the famous Oratory founded by the Cardinal in Birmingham.33 Edward was at one time a Member of Parliament at Westminster, and Laura married a Spanish diplomat. Mary’s (Milly’s) husband, John Woulfe Flanagan, was the leader writer for the London Times for many years at the turn of the twentieth century. Frances, the eldest, was married to a member of the well known Poe family of Abbeyleix, though they lived abroad as her husband was in the services and stationed overseas.34

We do not know why Mary was in Dublin at the time of her death or whether the birth of her last daughter, Grace, occurred at this time. Her death certificate records the presence of her son Edward at her bedside and no reason has emerged as to why she was interred in Glasnevin, in her own plot, away from her family home. One is left with only the broadest outline of her later life, of a person as a silhouette without the contrast of detail.35 Yet she has left to posterity something of great importance. She did not claim that her diary was anything more than a travelogue of brief descriptions and observations and yet her “glimpses of life” in the Persia of 1850 includes some of the earliest published references to very important happenings indeed.

Glasnevin

One overcast October morning I visited Glasnevin and found the general location of Mary’s grave in what is a vast burial ground of many acres. After walking round in circles for a long time, I stood before what I thought was the grave of Lady Mary Leonora Woulfe Sheil. The heavy cross headstone had fallen in on top of the grave, the plinth turned upside down. Having wondered long enough if I was in the right place, I finally decided to turn over the heavy stone which revealed a simple inscription to her memory.

To the Memory of Mary Leonora Sheil wife of Maj. Gen. Sir Justin Sheil K.C.B. Died August 23rd 1869. May the Almighty God have mercy on her

She lies alone in what is one of the oldest sections of the cemetery.36 How long, I wondered, since someone had stood in this spot and remembered her, and had thought about the life and times of this most interesting woman from Co. Clare. Looking around at the many headstones it was easy to decipher the generational thread of entire families, back into times long gone. Those who passed on early in life, those who were blessed with longevity, the various favourite family names repeating themselves, all detailed on a variety of sculptures, stones and crosses.

But very little can be deciphered from Mary’s fallen and broken headstone, its brevity a lonely evidence of life and death.

Lady Mary's resting place in Glasnevin, Dublin
Lady Mary’s resting place

  1. First published in London in 1856 by John Murray. Facsimile copies are available from Elibron Classics.
  2. A simple internet search shows the book to be still of interest to a wide range of researchers. See Moojan Momen, Bábí and Bahá’í Religions, which details early published accounts of the birth of the Bábí Faith.
  3. Moojan Momen, Bábí and Bahá’í Religions, p.497.
  4. Shoghi Effendi, Dawn-Breakers, p.320 and footnote.
  5. The Sheils were descended from the ancient Ulster family, O’Siadhail. The Woulfes, a Norman family, first came to Ireland in the twelfth century. See www.goireland.com for genealogy page.
  6. Quote and information from the Memoirs of Richard Lawlor Sheil (Justin’s brother) compiled and published by Wm. Torrens McCullagh, p.7. The French priest was a certain Abe de Grineau from Languedoc.
  7. Moojan Momen, Bábí and Bahá’í Religions, p.522.
  8. Ibid. p.136. See also Glimpses of Life and Manners in Persia, p.276.
  9. It must have seemed particularly subversive on Richard’s part as the ‘Defender of the Faith’ title had been conferred on King Henry the eighth by the Pope and, after the split from Rome, used by his successors in their role as head of the Anglican Church.
  10. There is a great deal of information available on Richard Lalor Sheil on the web as well as from his biography cited earlier. Richard was in Westminster in the early 1830s with the first Lord Oranmore and Browne, the forbear of Dominick, the present Lord Browne (Mereworth) and a Bahá’í from Dublin. Richard was also instrumental in having a pro-emancipation upstart elected to Parliament, one Villiers-Stuart, a forbear of that well-known Bahá’í family from Co. Waterford. A painting of the opening of Parliament in 1834 by Hayter hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London and includes Richard Lalor Sheil and the first Lord Browne.
  11. Paul Mc Cotter, The Clare Woulfes, accessed on 12/12/06. The original website referenced here is now defunct. The link provided leads to an archived version of the site taken on 27/05/2008 by the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.
  12. Glimpses, p.2. As to the servants, even though Mary later mentions that they were “English”, this is undoubtedly a reference identifying them with the Mission party. There are several other references to their being Irish elsewhere in the book, for example pp.2 and 233. The names of the servants are not recorded.
  13. After the attempt on the life of the young Shah, his mother actively sought the demise of Bahá’u’lláh. See Shoghi Effendi, Dawn-Breakers, p.602.
  14. Glimpses, p.178.
  15. Ibid. Mary’s description of the Báb was surely a composite of what she heard from others. It is tempting to think that this information came from Dr. Cormick, whom she would surely have known. In Bábi and Bahá’í Religions, p.75, Moojan Momen suggests this to be the case. Dr. Cormick’s description contains, “He was a very mild and delicate-looking man, rather small in stature and very fair for a Persian, with a melodious soft voice, which struck me much.” (c, p.320).
  16. Glimpses, pp.180 and 181.
  17. Mirza Aqa Khan from Nur was related by marriage to Bahá’u’lláh and had received Bahá’u’lláh’s assistance when he was down on his luck and out of favour, prior to becoming Prime Minister (see H.M. Balyuzi, Bahá’u’lláh: The King of Glory, p.99). His role in the persecution of the followers of the Báb is complicated by earlier expressions of support and interest. Before leaving Persia, Mary had an audience with his wife who was also from the province of Nur (Glimpses, pp.284-85).
  18. Mary does not record who made these submissions but her account mirrors her husband’s dispatches to London, indicating that it was Justin. See Bábi and Bahá’í Religions, p.136.
  19. Quotes and information from Glimpses, pp.277-78. Moojan Momen records that “he died of accidental poisoning in Tihran in 1855” (Bábí and Bahá’í Religions, p.497).
  20. Mary is incorrect here. Tahirih’s father was an eminent Islamist jurist and clashed with his daughter because of her new found Faith. There are references to him and his relationship with his distinguished daughter in a number of accounts and histories. See for example Dawn-Breakers p.275 and Release the Sun by William Sears pp.111 and 112.
  21. Glimpses, p.281.
  22. Ibid. p.283. No mention is made as to the exact malady that affl icted Justin but, as has been pointed out to me, he must have made a very good recovery given that there were quite a few later additions to the family.
  23. Ibid. pp.223 and 239.
  24. Information from Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, whose interest and expert research has inspired the writer’s own intrigue with the Sheil family. Bahiyyih has copies of the Baptismal certifi cates for the three children born in Persia. The census of 1881 in England also gives Edward and Mary’s birth details as mentioned, but is a year out for date of birth in both cases.
  25. Glimpses, p.300.
  26. Information from Bahiyyih Nakhjavani. Mary’s mother is also known to have passed away at Eaton Place not long before her son-in-law. See also Dictionary of National Biography entry for Justin Sheil.
  27. Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, Eugene Tobin and Vincent Flannery. The search provided for some wonderful times and interesting and amusing communications across three countries.
  28. Copy in possession of Bahiyyih Nakhjavani.
  29. Rathcoole House was in the possession of the Sheil family from 1830 to 1960. The web site for Rathcoole Village (accessed on 01/12/05, unfortunately now unavailable except through the Wayback Machine) has a photograph of the ruin. It is not known which members of the family actually owned the house.
  30. Information from the Census in England, 1881, 1891 and 1901 at the National Archives, London.
  31. All ten children are listed in documents held at the National Archives, Dublin, the Papers of John Woulfe Flanagan (daughter Mary’s husband), accession number 1189. When Stephen died in Christchurch, New Zealand, his estate was divided amongst his brothers and sisters and the details are contained in these papers.
  32. The other Sheil children were born in England, though Laura’s place of birth is unknown.
  33. A brief obituary note for Fr. Denis Sheil appears on www.birmingham-oratory.org.uk (accessed on 1/10/2005). He was Superior from 1923 to 1932 and passed away in 1962.
  34. It is very difficult to find any direct descendants who still retain the Sheil name from Mary and Justin’s branch of the family. Apart from the four who entered religious life, Edward did not marry, Stephen died without direct descendants and there is no record of Richard having had children. Laura (married to a Spaniard named de Zulueta), Mary (married to John Woulfe Flanagan) and Frances (married to Col. Edward Poe) all had children.
  35. Apart from a mention in the Flanagan papers of a miniature of Mary, painted when she was fifteen (and one suspects long since lost), there is no other record of a picture or painting of Mary and Justin Sheil.
  36. The O’Connell Gardens section, grave D 82.
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4 Comments Add yours

  1. farah says:

    Many thanks for the helpful information. I am working on Lady Sheil’s travel text and am interested to know more about her life and work.

  2. Fascinating to read and interesting to see her wording about the Bab so alike Dr Cormick

  3. Also lovely to read that Eugen Tobin and Vince Flannery have joined in your investigations. Great to read of Old gang.

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