By the time Bridget – known as Delia – Jones was 30 she had been in court at least 14 times for offences including drunkenness and prostitution.
Born in Co Mayo in 1888, she emigrated to Boston aged around 15, after her older sister Mary paid for her passage, and initially found work as a domestic servant and waitress.
She was “nothing but a constant source of trouble”, Mary would later remark. “My poor mother’s heart would be broke if she knew.”
But there was “nothing unusual” about Delia Jones’ story, write Dr Elaine Farrell and Dr Leanne McCormick in Bad Bridget: Crime, Mayhem and the Lives of Irish Immigrant Women, which is published this week. It tells the previously untold story of many thousands of Irish women who, like Delia, emigrated to America or Canada and found themselves on the wrong side of the law; women, they write, that history “chose to forget”.
“Particularly within Irish America there has been the creation of this idea that we all came over poor and worked really hard and look what we have achieved, and of course for many people that is true,” says McCormick. The “myth”, she says, was Irish women in America “might have been drinking a bit but they were living these really virtuous lives and were hardly ever involved in things like sex on the street, and it came to a point where we thought, ‘this is not right’.”
“What we know about the Irish who emigrated are the success stories, or the men who were involved maybe in riots or sectarianism abroad,” adds Farrell. “We’d been reading too much about Irish men and we thought, ‘where are the Irish women?’ We were just hearing these success stories, the nuns, teachers, the idea of the Irish American mother raising these children who go on to be businessmen or whatever. We thought, surely there’s another aspect to the immigration story?”
Farrell, a reader in history at Queen’s University Belfast, and McCormick, senior lecturer in modern Irish social history at Ulster University (UU), began researching 10 years ago. “There was nothing, really, that had been done about these women, but as soon as we started looking there were just so, so many, for all sorts of different crimes. We weren’t expecting to find so many.”
At least 7.5 million people emigrated from Ireland between 1815 and 1914. They were disproportionately female, young, and often travelled alone; girls as young as seven crossing the Atlantic unaccompanied. Among these millions were women who became murderers, poisoners and professional thieves; there were also prostitutes, alcoholics, and unmarried mothers who killed their babies.
There was Laura Wilson, the “chameleonic burglar” – identified by the smell of her cigarette smoke and her trademark rum – who broke into people’s houses and left dressed in their clothes.
There was 20-year-old Kate Sullivan, charged with the murder of her infant twins, who told a New York courtroom she had been “duped by the son of a farmer for whom she worked in Ireland” who “shipped her over here, promising to follow on the next steamer” but did not.
And there was Ellen Nagle, described in the Boston Post as a “handsome, petite and dashing little blonde”, sentenced to 12 months in prison for being a “stubborn child”.
“We’re looking at a wide variety of crime,” says Farrell. It ranges from women who would now be seen as victims – “cases of abortion, infanticide cases, women who are migrating pregnant because they can’t let their families know they’re pregnant…right up to serial killing”.
“You do feel with some of them there are mental health issues and not getting the help required, and there would be postpartum depression as well going on with some of the women, but in other cases these are women who are making conscious decisions to commit crimes.
“We have career criminals who are involved in department store theft, or Elizabeth Dillon, who’s robbing people left, right and centre at funerals. These are women who are making a very deliberate decision.”
The title began “jokingly...we did have a panic if we Googled ‘Bad Bridget’, what we might find,” says McCormick; it became the title of what was initially a podcast, and then the book. In so doing, she says, they are “reclaiming” a name which by mid-19th century North America was a byword for an Irishwoman, particularly one working as a domestic servant, or “Biddy”.
The female equivalent of “Paddy”, the stereotypical Bridget was “often portrayed as this big, heavy-set woman, rolling pin in her hand, her face has those sort of simian features, often quite brutal, often very animal-like, as if she’s nearly subhuman, she hasn’t quite evolved properly, she’s coarse, she’s ignorant,” says Farrell.
She was also disproportionately likely to end up in prison. In Boston almost 40 per cent of women and girls admitted to its House of Correction between 1882 and 1905 were Irish even though the Irish only made up about 17 per cent of the city’s population.
In Toronto, Canada, between 1853 and 1863, more than 6,000 Irish women were admitted to the city’s gaol – about 80 per cent of its female population; in early 1860s New York the figure was 86 per cent.
“It’s incredible,” says Farrell. “In every kind of institution we’re looking at there are huge numbers of Irish, but it’s a very specific time period. It’s in the 1850s, 1860s you see Irish women really outnumbering other nationalities…they are there in huge numbers but go 50 years later and they’re not.
“So it seems to be very tied up in the Famine migration where there are so many people emigrating but they don’t necessarily have family members who are already established who can set them up, so there’s a link with poverty as well…and for some of these individuals prison is a better option that the street.”
“There’s also a sense of isolation – you have groups of Irish girls and women being arrested together for drunkenness because that’s their social group, there’s safety in numbers.
“There is also discrimination going on…if an Irish woman appears in court the assumption is she’s guilty because the prison is full of Irish women charged with the same crime, so it is a bit of a vicious cycle. The numbers are so high because Irish women are more likely to be arrested in the first place, they’re likely to be found guilty when they’re brought to court, and then they’re more likely to be sent to prison or to institutions.”
The academics chose to look at migration to Toronto as well as to New York and Boston to allow them to consider the impact of religious background on the experience of these Bridgets; strong links to Ulster meant that two-thirds of Irish emigrants who settled there between 1825 and 1900 were Protestant.
“We had grand ideas we would find something completely different in Toronto,” says Farrell; instead, they found it was “exactly the same…it didn’t matter what their religion was, there was no correlation”.
“It’s the same thing on the island of Ireland,” says McCormick. “Particularly when it came to issues around female sexuality and behaviour across the denominations, they’re very good at sharing the same views and condemnatory attitudes, particularly towards women, and about the control of female sexuality and reproductive rights.”
She was one of the lead researchers on the groundbreaking report by UU and Queen’s into mother and baby homes and Magdalene laundries in Northern Ireland, published in 2021, which led subsequently to a pledge that a public inquiry would be held into the institutions.
“At the beginning there was really limited interest,” says McCormick. “It wasn’t seen as something people wanted to talk about or were going to engage with. There has been a big shift, often related to things that have been happening in the South, with say the McAleese report on Magdalene laundries and then the setting up of a commission. I think it’s still slow in terms of, for example, women in Northern Ireland coming forward to speak about their experiences or feeling that they can, that’s been slower than in the South…but you are seeing those things change.”
As the academics write in their introduction: “At a time when Ireland, North and South, is beginning to re-examine its treatment of women who were considered to have defied societal norms, telling the story of these women is crucial to our understanding of the Irish past.”
Farrell says: “We can see it can be really dangerous not to know these stories.” The story of these Bridgets, she says, “is part of that wider story of women who were on the margins, or women who were deviant, or criminal.
“Ireland, or Irish people, are maybe more confident in their history now and there is a little bit of a fascination with having a black sheep in the family…there’s maybe a little bit more interest and more acceptance of that now.”
Bad Bridget: Crime, Mayhem and the Lives of Irish Immigrant Women by Elaine Farrell and Leanne McCormick is published by Sandycove (€15.99) and is out now. The authors will be in conversation with Róisín Ingle on Wednesday, February 1st, at The Gibson Hotel as part of Brigit 2023: Dublin City Celebrating Women. Tickets available on ILFDublin.com