The Wrens of the Curragh

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The Wrens of the Curragh were an outcast community of 19th-century Irish women who lived rough, brutally hard lives in an area called ‘The Curragh’ on the plains of Kildare. The name comes from the shelters they lived in, hollowed out “nests” in the ground which they covered with layers of furze.

Throughout the 50-odd years they lived on the plains of Kildare, they were reviled, stoned, beaten, spat upon and abused. They were refused goods by local shopkeepers and were burned out of their nests. They died in ditches from exposure and disease. Even the workhouse refused them, putting them into low hovels separated from the main building.

They were ordinary women who through circumstance put themselves beyond the pale of respectable society.

They supported each other within their community such as it was; sharing the little they had. There was little choice for those who lived as Wrens, they were ostracised by society, church, state and community of origin.  Some preferred the relative dignity and control it offered them. Many others saw life on the Curragh as infinitely preferable to the workhouse.  With no means of earning a living the only thing they had were their bodies which they offered for payment to soldiers on the Curragh Camp.

Jane McNamee tells the story of The Curragh Wrens in song

Irish Women Rejected by Society

They’d been stoned and beaten off the streets in surrounding towns. 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.

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”. The only local shop to serve them was owned by a widow, but they were allowed attend the market held in the army camp twice a week. 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.

The Wrens went on living, and dying, on the Curragh for more than 50 years. They became a coherent community after the Curragh camp was made a permanent fixture in l856, but there are records of them from the l840s onwards. It is thought they were still on the Curragh at the end of the century.

Their nests were numbered, grouped into villages and so low “you crouched into them, as beasts crouch into cover” with “no standing upright until you crawl out again”.

Murt Phillips has a great photo essay of the area occupied by The Curragh Wren’s on Flickr

Curragh Wrens Cemetery

Curragh Soldiers Cemetery

Further Reading: THE CURRAGH WRENS by Con Costello

Reprinted from the “Pall Mall Gazette.”
THE WRENS OF THE CURRAGH – PART 1 – 1867 ORIGINAL PAMPHLET
THE WRENS OF THE CURRAGH – PART 2 – 1867 ORIGINAL PAMPHLET
THE WRENS OF THE CURRAGH – PART 3 – 1867 ORIGINAL PAMPHLET
Women’s History Review An Outcast Community: the ‘Wrens’ of the Curragh by Maria Luddy
FRIENDS INDEED by Rose Doyle (4 chapters or use Search for snippets)

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