From the Four Courts to Buenos Aires, 1790-1830

Image via Mediastorehouse.

From Saunder’s News-Letter, 22 December 1810:

“A few days back, a young woman, rather well dressed, with a green coat hanging loosely on the shoulders, walked into a respectable shop in the neighbourhood of Werburgh street, and contrived to carry off a parcel which lay on the counter papered and ready for delivery; and the better to evade pursuit, walked into the shop of Mr Michael O’Connor in the same street, under pretence of purchasing a pair of shoes. While Mr O’Connor was endeavouring to please his new customer, he was astonished to hear his neighbour’s young man demand the bundle she had stolen, which she sternly denied, but on opening her great coat, the bundle became too visible. Mr O’Connor, contrary to his usual custom, made an unsuccessful attempt to detain his new customer, who thought it best to be at liberty without a coat, than by retaining it to enter a prison. The manner in which Mr O’Connor disposed of the coat, evinces not only his feeling for the misfortunes of his fellow creatures, but his wish to render service to society in general, as he sent the coat to the Bow Street Asylum, for the most deserving of the penitents.”

An advertisement of a fundraising concert for the Bow Street Penitent Asylum, from the Hibernian Journal, 27 April 1805, via the British Newspaper Archive.

In the early years of the 19th century, Bow Street, Dublin, close to the Four Courts, was the home of an asylum for penitent females voluntarily seeking to retire from a life of prostitution, founded in uniquely romantic circumstances. According to Warburton’s History of the City of Dublin, Vol. 2:

Some years ago a young child was sent to the house of a tradesman residing in Church-Street, with a request that he would bring it up and the promise of a certain annual sum for its support.  This sum was regularly paid, and the child grew up under the care of his adopted parents, without the smallest knowledge of his own.  When of a competent age, he learned the trade of a bricklayer from his adopted father, and worked at it for his support.  In this state of indigent obscurity, he was returning home one night from his daily occupation, when he was accosted in Dame Street, by an unfortunate female as desolate as himself.  Being a young man of moral principles, he was shocked at the address, and being of a serious turn of mind he exhorted her on her mode of life.  The unfortunate female told a story of desertion and distress somewhat similar to his own, and excited his sympathy to such a degree that he invited her to his poor dwelling, till he could provide her temporary accommodation elsewhere.  Having related the circumstances to some companions as well disposed as himself, a small sum was raised from their daily labour, and a humble asylum was established, of which this poor sincere penitent became the first inmate.  In some time after, a letter was received from abroad by a merchantile house of great eminence, inquiring anxiously for the boy.  His name was now ascertained to be Dillon, and his family of much opulence and respectability.  He subsequently became a merchant of high repute, and in prosperity supported that estimable moral character which he so strikingly evinced in adversity.  He at present resides in Monte Video, in South America; meanwhile his asylum continues to prosper.  It is now established in Bow Street, and receives into its bosom 30 repentant sinners.

‘A view of Montevideo,’ by William Marlow, via

The hero of the above story, John Dillon, subsequently moved from Montevideo to Buenos Aires, where he became a famous man of business, founding Argentina’s first brewery. His descendants were notable in the history of 19th century Argentina with one son, Juan Dillon, becoming a justice of the peace.

Juan Dillon, son of John Dillon, founder of the Bow Street Penitent Asylum, via Wikipedia

As can be seen from the story at the start of this post, Dublin residents were very proud of the asylum founded by Dillon, and, for the first few decades of the 19th century, until it was taken over by the Catholic Church, they contributed generously to it. The asylum operated at 13 Bow Street, on the site of what is now Bow Street Courthouse. The events of the story appear to date from the last decade or so of the 18th century, when the Four Courts itself was still under construction – indeed, it is not improbable that Dillon, as a bricklayer, may have assisted with its construction.

Relevant locations as marked on Rocque’s Survey of the City of Dublin, with additions and improvements by Bernard Scale, via Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

One mystery remains – how was it that the infant Dillon came to be sent to Church Street in the first place? Was he, as he initially thought, the child of a non-marital relationship? Or was his family in Spain anxious for some other reason that he be brought up in Dublin? Perhaps some of his descendants in South America might know?

A true Cinderella story!

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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