MARY SHACKLETON, afterwards Leadbeater, was born in Ballitore in the County of Kildare, in the year 1758. Her father, Richard Shackleton, kept a boarding-school, which had been established in that village in the year 1726 by his father Abraham Shackleton, a native of Yorkshire, and a member of the Society of Friends. Abraham was a learned and good man, straightforward in all his dealings, and sincere in his converse with God and man. Such is the character handed down of the first of the Shackletons who settled in Ireland. His son Richard equalled him in wisdom, integrity, and learning, whilst his abilities were more highly cultivated, every advantage having been bestowed upon him which was attainable at that period. Although the son of a strict Quaker, he completed his education at Trinity College, Dublin, at that time a very unusual step for one of that persuasion. His temper was lively, he had a ready wit, and he wrote with facility in several languages besides his own.
Mary Shackleton inherited a large portion of her father's genius, and she evinced a turn for poetical composition at such an early age, that she might have been injured by the flattering attention paid to her on that account, had it not been for the extraordinary modesty and sweetness of her disposition, which were yet more remarkable than her intellectual endowments.
The high character which her father held in society for his learning and worth introduced her at a very early age to the notice of his friends, some of whom ranked high in the literary and political world. She easily won their friendship by her talents and amiability, and she never lost a friend except by death. Edmund Burke, whose first letter to Richard Shackleton was dated from his entrance at college, and who afterwards kept up with his old school-fellow and friend a regular and most affectionate correspondence, dictated his last farewell to the daughter when he was sinking under bodily and mental afflictions, and could no longer guide the pen.
In the year 1791 she was married to William Leadbeater, a descendant of the Huguenot families of Le Batre and Gilliard, which were compelled to fly from France by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Being left an orphan when very young, he was placed at Ballitore school. Having completed his education there, although he had been destined by his father's will to be brought up for the bar, his guardian, who proved unfaithful to his trust in this as well as in other respects, bound him to Mr. Roger North, a respectable attorney in Dublin, with a view to his following that profession. In the office of that gentleman he remained for the full term of his apprenticeship; but having at the end of his time become convinced of the principles of Quakerism, and at the same time being perhaps unconsciously attracted by an attachment he had formed while at school to the youthful subject of this memoir, he threw up his profession, sought and obtained admission into the Society of Friends, removed to Ballitore, and after some years obtained the hand of Mary Shackleton. In her society he spent thirty-five years of happiness, uninterrupted, we believe, save by those casualties which are the lot of the most fortunate, and by the calamities of war, followed by disease and famine, which in 1798 and the few following years so fearfully distracted and afflicted his native country. Having a turn for agricultural pursuits, he became an extensive farmer of large tracts of land in his own neighbourhood, and managed them so successfully that he realized a modest competence. He died about a year after his wife, to whom he was so devotedly attached that after her decease he was never seen to smile, and his hair, which was previously black, rapidly became as white as snow.
Her first essay at authorship was in the year 1794, when she published anonymously a small volume of Extracts and Original Anecdotes for the Improvement of Youth. This little work attained considerable popularity: it was probably one of the first attempts to introduce literature of a lightsome and interesting yet instructive character into the juvenile libraries of "Friends," from which works of an entertaining kind had been heretofore somewhat rigidly excluded. Like all her little books for children, it contains many of those beautiful touches which proceed only from a tender and benevolent heart.
Her name first came before the public in 1808, when a selection from her poems was published by subscription. With the exception of a Translation of Maffeus's Continuation of the Aeneid, these were all written on domestic occasions, and were addressed to the members of her own family, or to some of her most intimate friends; and, although perhaps now forgotten by the public, they are still precious to those who knew the writer, and the circumstances that called into action the susceptible feelings of her heart. They all breathe an innocent enjoyment of the pleasures of domestic affection, and of a retired and rural life; they are the unpretending effusions of a mind alive to the beauties of nature, overflowing with love to those around her, with charity to all men, and with gratitude to the Giver of those simple joys which made the happiness of her life.
The first series of her Cottage Dialogues of the Irish Peasantry, appeared in the year 1811, and was followed by a second series in 1813. In these Dialogues, with a felicity of language rarely equalled by any writer previous to her time, she has painted the virtues and the failings, the joys and the sorrows, the feelings and the prejudices, of our impulsive and quick-witted countrymen. This is the work by which Mary Leadbeater is chiefly known, and its utility has been fully proved by the approbation of all who were at that time interested in the welfare of the Irish poor, and by their efforts to circulate them as widely as possible among the class for which they were intended. They were subsequently published in a larger form for the English public, and were enriched with notes illustrative of the character, manners, &c. of the Irish peasantry by the author's friend Mr. W. P. Lefanu, the founder and proprietor of the Farmer's Journal, and by Miss Edgeworth, who interested herself warmly in in the success of the work, and addressed several letters to Mary Leadbeater expressive of her esteem, and of her desire to do everything in her power to promote her benevolent views. A third series of the Cottage Dialogues, which remained in manuscript at the time of the author's death, was subsequently published in one volume along with the earlier series, and has been pronounced by competent judges to be even superior to them in interest and simple pathos. In the Dialogues we may observe that Rose, who is her model of excellence, always imparts advice or information to her idle neighbour with a mildness and diffidence far removed from the loquacious, self-important manner in which some of the perfect characters held up to our view are made to dictate to their misguided companions, and which almost disgusts the reader with perfection. They also afford an example of that lambent wit and humour which made the author's conversation and correspondence so attractive.
The publication of the Cottage Dialogues was followed by the Landlord's Friend, Cottage Biography, Biographical Notices of Irish Friends, and Memoirs of Richard and Elizabeth Shackleton; besides which she wrote poems, essays, characters, and tales, some of which have found their way to various periodical publications.
The last work she lived to publish was a little book called The Pedlars, written for the Kildare-street Education Society, consisting of dialogues descriptive of the natural and artificial curiosities of various parts of Ireland, and of what was always her favourite theme — the character of the Irish poor, their virtues, their sufferings, and the best mode of improving their condition.
All these works, different as they are in subject and style, bear the stamp of a mind ever disposed to look at the favourable side of things and characters, to receive the good thankfully, and bear the evil with cheerful resignation.
Amongst her literary performances may be reckoned a very extensive correspondence with people of different ranks and situations in life. She excelled in this department. She expressed herself with ease and conciseness, and related little domestic occurrences with spirit, accompanied by touches of the most gentle wit, which gave a charm to the merest trifle. If she were the messenger of sorrowful intelligence, it was delivered with tenderness and caution, accompanied by the balm of comfort which almost deprived the unwelcome tidings of their sting. Being known to hold the pen of a ready write; she was frequently solicited to write letters on intricate subjects, where judgment and delicacy were required.
Her power of turning in a moment from one occupation to another was amazing. In the midst of her long accounts, if she were asked to write a letter of kindness, a petition, or a recommendation, she immediately gave her thoughts to it, and put it into execution.
Exposed to continual interruptions from friends, who found her always ready to sympathize in their tastes and pursuits, be they ever so different from her own; from visitors, whom her fame often brought from a distance to enjoy her conversation; from the poor, who daily came to her for advice or help; she never seemed in a hurry, and with perfect regularity carried on her various occupations. She began to keep a diary in her eleventh year, and continued it till within a week of her death. She also kept a private journal of her own life, and compiled The Annals of Ballitore, extending from the year 1766 down to 1824 — two years before her death. These two last works are interesting not only from the number and variety of characters, ludicrous or pathetic incidents, and anecdotes of celebrated individuals whom she met with in her travels or who visited Ballitore, but also on account of the faithful and lively picture which they present of her own home, and of the small but cultivated circle of which she was the ornament. In these volumes she lays open her whole heart, whose every thought seems to have been pure and dictated by love, and upon whose warmth years had no other effect than that of adding to it wisdom and experience. She was to the last youthful in her affections, of an open and unsuspicious disposition, and ready to hail with enthusiasm every improvement of later times.
She was for many years instrumental in assisting the enlightened efforts of the late Mrs. Richard Trench, mother of the present Dean of Westminster, to reclaim a numerous body of tenantry on one of her estates from misery and degradation to comfort and industry; and the inhabitants of the neat cottages of Ballybarney, a few miles from Ballitore, regarded Mary Leadbeater as a friend, a governor, and a judge, kind-hearted and beneficent in all these various capacities. Happy were the days when, accompanied by some of her friends, she visited the estate to decide on the merits of the tenants, and to distribute the premiums granted by the generous proprietress. She was always warmly received, and her companions partook of the unstudied welcome and the homely cheer which were so cordially offered. The cottagers familiarly recounted their successes, their misfortunes, and their future plans; and, when disputes arose among them, she calmly heard both sides, and neither party was afraid to lay the whole matter before her. She knew each one by name and character, and remembered from one year to another how they prospered. She admonished some, encouraged others; and her sympathy was often awakened by the lamentations of these warm-hearted people for their relatives who had died or emigrated. An expedition to Ballybarney in her company had the charm of a party of pleasure.
In the course of her life she had many afflictions to endure. She was deprived by death of many relations and friends. She saw her native village almost destroyed by the calamities of civil war, and she was witness to the succeeding horrors of nightly robberies. No one felt these distresses more keenly than she did; but when she was deprived of one enjoyment, she clung the more closely to those which remained.
She was of a most unsuspicious nature, and was thus delivered from a host of distressing thoughts and conjectures; and jealousy, that fatal enemy to peace and friendship, found no place in her mind. She knew and felt that she was beloved.
Her friends were numerous, and many of them, with whom she corresponded, were scattered over the face of the earth; but her extended friendships or extended usefulness did not deprive her family of her society or prevent the fulfilment of her domestic duties. She wrote a great deal while her friends were conversing around her, and sometimes joined in the conversation. One of her daughters generally read to her while she was transcribing. Her industry, perseverance, and energy were so remarkable, that her domestic performances exceeded those of many more active women. She had a familiar, persuasive manner about her household affairs, which induced her servants to enter into her views, and delight in doing what would please her.
Many strangers who came to Ballitore wished to see her, either from admiration of her character and writings, or from mere curiosity. While she sat to be looked at by such people, the smile of politeness lighted up her countenance; yet her eyes were cast down, and she was generally more silent than usual on such occasions, and seemed merely an attentive listener to what the strangers had to say. If they praised her writings, she looked pleased, and perhaps thanked them for their approbation, with a modesty and simplicity seldom equalled. She spoke to her familiar friends of her own writings with as much ease and freedom as if they belonged to another person, and received their approbation or censure with equanimity.
Although she looked back upon the days, and the friends, and the customs of her youth with tender regret, with love and veneration, she delighted to contemplate the improvements of modern society, the prison discipline, the schools, the savings banks, and the other means of bettering the condition of the poor. She used to speak of Dublin with enthusiasm. She admired its public buildings, its squares, its quays, and the surrounding scenery; but, above all, its charitable institutions. She never gave up the hope that the punishment of death would be abolished. Her horror at the idea of a human creature being led out to execution for any crime whatever, was often expressed in conversation and in her writings.
In her character she exemplified St. Paul's inimitable definition of charity: "Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth."
Her humility rendered her averse to speaking of her religious experience, but her care to impress the hearts of her children with a feeling of reverend dependence on their heavenly Father, and the many expressions of her own trust in divine aid which her diary contains, show that she was favoured with a deep feeling of religious fear and love.
About a year before her death she began to be afflicted with dropsy, which, in defiance of medical skill and the tender cares of her anxious family, gradually increased till she was confined to her chamber. Yet even there her mind seemed unchanged. She manifested the same anxiety for the welfare of all around her; and she was equally accessible to the many who came to consult her, or to enjoy her company once more. She continued her literary occupations to the very last week, preparing a volume of Essays, Tales, and Anecdotes for the Education Society.
During the few last days she became rapidly worse. Her sufferings were great, and she feared that her patience would not hold out to the end, and that she could not part with perfect resignation from those blessings to which her heart clung with increased affection. But she was supported by Divine help through the trying close, and her death was indeed that of the just. She died on the 27th of June, 1826.