The Wrens of the Curragh are only the best-known example of outcast women on the outskirts of Irish garrison towns, writes Donal O’Keeffe.

For over half a century, the Wrens of the Curragh were a community of outcast women living on the open plains of the Curragh of Kildare, enduring lives of brutal hardship, their only shelter the ‘nests’ they hollowed out beneath the furze.

The Wrens of the Curragh are first recorded in the 1840s, during the Great Famine, coalescing as a community when the Curragh army camp was made permanent in 1856. It is believed they were still on the Curragh at the turn of the twentieth century.

The Wrens were women who had, for one reason or another, been deemed to be beyond the pale of ‘respectable’ society. They shared what they had, including children, and counted among their number unmarried mothers, prostitutes, alcoholics, vagrants, former convicts, free thinkers and seasonal workers.

Orla McAlinden, author of The Flight of the Wren (2014), suggests that at least some of the women described as prostitutes may have been soldiers’ wives.

“Destitute, starving, incapable of producing the milk to keep the baby alive, or desperately seeking the soldier who had once whispered kind words into her ear, women travelled to the Curragh of Kildare. Scratching out tiny shelters in the soil, roofed by the thick furze bushes which grow abundantly on the Curragh plain, the women resembled nothing so much as the wren birds which shared their feeble shelters.

“Used and abused by the common soldiery and the commissioned officers, the landed gentry and even royalty, the wren women were considered the lowest of the low. Even the slightly less desperate prostituted women who plied their trade indoors, in … the town, looked down upon the outdoor prostitutes.”

Dr Aoife Bhreatnach, a historian who specialises in the history of Irish garrison towns, notes that “many married women lived outside the barrack – there wasn’t accommodation inside for them. If they couldn’t follow their men to the next posting, they may have ended up in these settlements. So maybe they became sex workers because of the army’s anti marriage policies.

“Also, temporary encampments of women outside barracks aren’t limited to Curragh – it’s just the most famous one.”

Rose Doyle, author of Friends Indeed (2001), recalled reading that: “they’d been stoned and beaten off the streets in surrounding towns. That in Newbridge a priest had ‘torn the thin shawl and gown’ from a Wren before flogging her bare shoulders with his riding whip ‘until the blood spurted onto his boots’. All without a voice in the watching crowd raised in protest.

“I’d read how another priest made a practice of pouncing with a scissors on Wrens who ventured into the towns and ‘cutting their hair close to the head’. That the only local shop to serve them was owned by a widow, but that they were allowed attend the market held in the army camp twice a week. That the British army sent water wagons out to them twice a week.

“Other accounts told how gangs of local men crossed the plains for the ‘sport’ of burning down the village (the Wrens would get together and rebuild the burned nests). There were also accounts of gang rapes by soldiers, and tales of terrible drunkenness among the women themselves.”

Through the middle years of the nineteenth century the Curragh Wrens gained a certain notoriety, with Charles Dickens commissioning two pieces on them for his magazine All the Year Round. The Irish Times carried outraged letters to the editor, and published reports of inquiries into the scandal.

The Pall Mall Gazette in 1867 published a series by James Greenwood, a pioneering journalist who spent time with the women of the Curragh.

“Not out of idleness, or for the gratification of mere curiosity, or for the pleasure of making a drawing-room sensation by an adventure with something strange and wild about it, was the task undertaken which resulted in the story of the Curragh bush-women,” wrote Greenwood, although his assurances against sensationalism seem at the least to be arguable.

“In these circumstances, it was thought worthwhile to open the eyes of our authorities upon another scandal, to which they had been deliberately shut. Deliberately, we say, because not only all that has been told in these pages, but infinitely more, was known to the Government years ago. 

“They knew long ago that the poor wretches congregated on the Curragh, in ditches and bush dwellings … lay out there winter and summer, utterly neglected; and they continued that neglect although they knew, by statistics carefully prepared, and as carefully hidden away in official pigeon-holes, that the consequences of their indifference told not only upon the poor wretches themselves (and of course nobody is bound to pity them), but also in swelling the immorality of the camp and filling the hospitals with diseased and disabled soldiers.”

Greenwood’s comments about the need for the press to embarrass Government into addressing matters of which Government would otherwise remain wilfully ignorant will resonate with twenty-first century readers. Greenwood goes on to elaborate on his coy reference to venereal disease, a phenomenon historically associated with army encampments and the women who followed them.

“Our readers must have understood … that our solicitude does not by any means extend to those miserable bush-women alone. We have to deal with something more than the scandal and disgrace of permitting the existence of such a colony as we have described. To tolerate it is to foster the spread of disease more degrading and more direful than any other that can be named; it is to favour a state of things inhuman in itself, destructive of public decency, destructive of public health, and as a mere matter of money expenditure costly and extravagant to a monstrous degree.” 

Greenwood says that at that point some 38% of patients at the hospital on the Curragh camp were there because of venereal disease, and that figure had sometimes been 50% “without counting patients whose sickness was not immediately though certainly due to the same cause; and [authorities] were aware at the same time that the cause was to be found amongst outcast wretches lying in unutterable misery in Kildare infirmary, in Naas workhouse, and under the whin and furze of the Curragh”. 

Greenwood is damning of the authorities, pointing out that not alone did they not establish special hospitals or wards, “what is more, they knew why fifty or sixty women preferred to live even through the hardest winter in ditches and bushes on the common, rather than seek shelter in the workhouse.

“In the depths of a recent winter … when the ground was covered with snow, fifty women lay out upon the common, and fifty … were in Naas workhouse. What the condition of the wilder ones must have been is not a matter that need be enlarged upon; the circumstances are, a vast bleak common, winter days and nights, snow and bitter winds, constant hunger, and the shelter of a bush. 

Greenwood says that the workhouse was half empty but the women were not allowed to enter it, and were instead sent, with four children, to “a range of low hovels separated from the main building by a high wall, and so ruinous as to be totally unfit for human habitation: and this was in winter”. 

He describes the beds as bags of foul straw, with two or three women sleeping on each of them, huddled, “sick and sound together, without any attempt at separation: and more than one-fourth of them were not sound. 

“Imagine a room, a broken hovel … imagine twelve such beds … occupied by twenty-three women and two children; and ask whether you also would not rather have lain out on the common.”

Greenwood, being a Victorian, cannot but concede that the despised Curragh Wrens were “certainly very wicked women” but he rails at the thought that they were not even allowed to worship with the other paupers, “they had to thank God by themselves”.

Greenwood recounts his visit to Kildare in a memorable passage in the Pall Mall Gazette: “On the Curragh the air is strong; an easterly wind was blowing over its miles of waste land-dead level for the most part, but with undulations here and there, and broken by mounds and raths, stretching along for a considerable distance and at a height at least distinguishable. The turf is soft and elastic everywhere. Sheep browse upon it …”

Greenwood recalls eventually coming to a series of block huts, extending for two miles, perhaps, on either side of the road. Here and there a few groups of soldiers were seen lounging listlessly, or engaged in some athletic sport. 

“However, back we went through the line of huts; the road dwindled, and we were presently driving over the common itself. By this time the air was fast growing colder and mistier. The block huts of the camp, seen only in dim outline, soon were the only hints of human life in the dreary prospect.”

Greenwood recalls being startled by the sight of a bare-headed, bare-footed woman standing only a few feet distant. His driver excitedly identifies her as a wren, pointing to various ‘nests’.

“(J)umping from the car … I understood better what nesting on the Curragh is. These heaps of furze are built and furnished for human occupation; and here and there outside them were squatted groups of those who dwelt therein … Not one or two, but several groups – half naked, flagrant – indicating a considerable colony.” 

Lieutenant Colonel Con Costello, a celebrated historian, noted that Greenwood found ten ‘nests’, accommodating about 60 women aged between 17 and 25, some of whom had been there for up to nine years.

“Located in a clump of furze, and known by a number given to it by the inmates, each nest consisted of a shelter measuring perhaps four feet in height, made of sods and gorse. With a low door, and no window or chimney, and with an earthen floor, the ‘nest’ had for furniture a shelf to hold a teapot, crockery, a candle, and a box in which the women kept their few possessions.

“Upturned saucepans were used as stools, and the straw for bedding was pushed to one side during the day. At night the fire within the shelter was covered with a perforated pot, and the women undressed to sleep in the straw. In summer­time the ‘nests’ gave some shelter, but in winter the wind whistled through them.”

The women were all Irish, coming from different parts of the country, Costello notes. “Some of them had followed a soldier from another station, others came to seek a former lover, while the majority sought to make a livelihood. They lived, received their families, gave birth and died in the ‘nests’.

“Their clothing consisted of a frieze skirt with nothing on top except another frieze around the shoulders. In the evenings when the younger women went to meet the soldiers, in the uninhabited gorse patches, they dressed up in crinolines, petticoats and shoes and stockings.

“The older women remained behind to mind the children, of whom the visitor counted four, and to prepare food. All the takings of a ‘nest’ were pooled, and the diet of potatoes, bread and milk was purchased on the few days when the women were allowed to attend the market in the camp.”

Perhaps the last word on the Wrens might go to Orla McAlinden:

“And there were wren women all over Ireland, I discovered. Every garrison town had its collection of desperate women, camp-followers and their children. The reason we know slightly more about the Curragh Wrens is because they were the focus of attention within the British press in the 1860s and their stories were written down, however inaccurately, however filtered through a lens of Victorian misogyny and morality.

“In the decades directly after the famine, their infamy spread. Ostracised, feared, despised. Banned from the local towns and subject to violence, persecution and torment, the women developed their own society of outcasts, a co-operative, communal way of life, where every penny, every task, every joy and sorrow, was equally shared.”

I am indebted to the work of Dr Aoife Bhreatnach, Lt Col Con Costello, Rose Doyle, James Greenwood and Orla McAlinden.