You’ll never guess who the first lesbian celebrities were

Portrait of Lady Eleanor Butler & Miss Ponsonby, 'The Ladies of Llangollen'
Portrait of Lady Eleanor Butler & Miss Ponsonby, 'The Ladies of Llangollen'

In a time when same-sex relationships were shrouded in secrecy and met with disapproval, two upper-class Irish women defied societal expectations to live openly as a couple. Eleanor Butler (1739–1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755–1831), famously known as the “Ladies of Llangollen,” captivated their contemporaries and left an indelible mark on history as pioneers of love and defiance.

The pair met through family connections in 1768 and quickly formed a deep, unbreakable bond. To escape the societal pressures and conventional marriages expected of them, Eleanor and Sarah left Ireland in 1780 and settled in Plas Newydd, a charming Gothic house in Llangollen, North Wales. There, they lived together for the rest of their lives. They even had a dog named Saphho, named after the Greek poet from Lesbos.

Their home became a sanctuary not only for themselves but also for many distinguished visitors intrigued by their story. Literary figures such as Lord Byron and William Wordsworth, military leaders like Arthur Wellesley, and many others visited the women who chose to live life on their own terms. Wordsworth even dedicated a sonnet to them, celebrating their love and resilience.

Eleanor’s diaries offer a glimpse into their daily lives, filled with simple joys and deep affection. Her entries reveal days of peace, delight, and shared contentment, often punctuated with affectionate terms like “beloved,” “my sweet love,” and “the darling of my heart.” Despite — or perhaps because of — their aristocratic backgrounds, the Ladies of Llangollen became symbols of same-sex desire and romantic defiance.

Their unconventional life did not go unnoticed or uncriticized. Diarist Hester Thrale derisively called them “damned sapphists,” and Lord Byron mentioned them in a letter discussing his own romantic interests. Yet, they also inspired admiration and hope in others. Anne Lister, the famed diarist and subject of the BBC series “Gentleman Jack,” eagerly sought to meet the Ladies in 1822, viewing them as pioneers of a lifestyle she aspired to emulate.

The legacy of Eleanor and Sarah continues to inspire to this day. Plas Newydd remains a pilgrimage site for many in the LGBTQ+ community. Contemporary artist Sarah-Joy Ford, who recently created works inspired by their relationship, spoke to The Guardian of the powerful presence the Ladies left behind.

“I’ve always been so invested in lesbian and LGBT+ history, and they’re these iconic figures,” she said. For Ford and her partner, who plan to marry at Plas Newydd, the Ladies of Llangollen symbolize hope and a celebration of queer history.

Their extraordinary story will be featured in the new season of TG4’s “Scéalta Grá na hÉireann,” a series dedicated to Ireland’s greatest love stories. Premiering this September, the show will delve into six captivating and poignant relationships set against significant historical backdrops, including the 1798 Rebellion and the Easter Rising. Among these tales, the love story of Eleanor and Sarah shines for its unique blend of romance and rebellion.

As “Scéalta Grá na hÉireann” introduces their story to new audiences, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby remind us of the enduring power of love and the courage to live authentically. Their love story now stands as a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the timeless quest for true companionship.

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