Songbirds on society's margins

The Wrens of the Curragh were an outcast community of 19th-century Irish women who lived rough, brutally hard lives on the plains…

The Wrens of the Curragh were an outcast community of 19th-century Irish women who lived rough, brutally hard lives 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, they were reviled, stoned, beaten, spat upon and denied basic care. They were refused goods by local shopkeepers and burnt out of their nests. They died in ditches from exposure, as well as from disease. Even the workhouse refused them, putting them into low hovels separated from the main building.

Their number included unmarried mothers, free-thinkers, alcoholics, prostitutes, vagrants, ex-convicts and harvest workers. All of them women who had, in one way or another, put themselves beyond the pale of respectable society.

They shared everything, even children, living by what they called "communistic principles". Many chose to be Wrens because of the relative dignity and control it offered over their lives. Many others saw life on the Curragh as infinitely preferable to the workhouse. And with good reason.


I'd never heard of the Wrens until Kevin Myers, five years ago, in an outraged "Irishman's Diary", gave the bare and shocking bones of their story.

But the shock wore away, as shock does, and left in its place a niggling obsession. As obsessions do, this one grew until the only way out of it was to write about the women who had been the Wrens.

I'm no historian, so it would have to be in a novel. But one which told more than the bones of their story. To be lamented and sung about, the Wrens would have to be fleshed out, given life. There was no avoiding research.

To begin at the end, and the day I stood in a nest. I'd gone to the Curragh to meet Comdt Rory Hynes, the camp librarian. A man of decision, there was no arguing with him when he took me across the plains, past the infamous Gibbet Rath, to the home of Reggie Darling.

Darling is the cornerstone of the Kildare Historical Society. He also represents the seventh generation of Darlings to be barbers to the camp. There was no questioning him when he marched the three of us into a deep depression several hundred yards from his home. We were, he assured, in what had once been a Wren's nest.

The specifications were right: size, shelter, outlook. So was the mood of lonely neglect. I didn't for a minute doubt it had been a nest.

By then I'd learned quite a bit about the women who'd lived in such shelters. I knew that, in the summer months, between 60 and 100 Wrens lived on the plains. In the winter, when the north winds and snow came, those who could went back to the relative shelter of the cities and towns.

I knew 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.

The Wrens' trail had been a relatively simple one to follow. There was the paper one left by the righteous and the campaigning. The Irish Times had carried reports of inquiries as well as outraged letters. Charles Dickens twice commissioned pieces about them for his magazine, All the Year Round. Most famously, there was the work of James Greenwood, a journalist who spent time with the women before writing a series and pamphlet about them for London's Pall Mall Gazette.

None of it changed anything. 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.

The army had been an obvious place to begin the footwork. Comdt Victor Laing, who looks after the military archives in Cathal Brugha Barracks, added a few more Irish Times cuttings to my paper collection and sent me off to find Dr Maria Luddy of the Women's History Project.

Luddy, who'd been working with the project since it was set up in l997, was generous with her knowledge and findings on the history of women in Ireland. She'd written about the Wrens in l992 (in the Women's History Review) and was of the view that the information available on the Wrens is quite unique in the history of Irish prostitution.

This, in large part, has to do with Greenwood's work for the Pall Mall Gazette. His descriptions bring the Wrens to life as nothing else. The Victorian prose helps, but so do his shock-horror responses.

He describes how the 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". He was there at night when the younger, fitter women prostitutes put on their best and went soldier "hunting". He was there when they came back, drunk, with "their flushed faces, their imbrued eyes, their wildly flowing hair, their reckless gestures . . . hideous language". He tells of their "common look" and "hard depravity" and how they "existed in and by rebelling against society".

But he also tells how some of the women were "fine-looking and well-mannered". A letter written by one was, he says, "in as ladylike a hand as if it had been traced at a Davenport in Belgrave Square instead of on the bottom of a tin pot on the Curragh".

He writes about their loving care for their children, their honesty with his money when he "stood supper". And of the terrible sadness in most of them.

Myers had written about the Wrens in the context of Con Costello's book, A Most Delightful Station, about the British Army on the Curragh between l855 and l922. Costello is a retired army officer with a passion for his subject and for minutiae. In his book I first came across Rosanna Doyle. Her story wasn't untypical.

Doyle died on October l9th, l863 after pleas for help, made over several days as she lay dying, were ignored by both the relieving officer for the workhouse and the poor law guardian. The officer who at last brought her in said she'd been found "lying in a bush with very bad clothing on, and a sack over her; wet as if she'd come out of a river and unable to stand for weakness". She was placed in a donkey and cart on some straw, covered with a sack and taken on the three-hour journey to Naas. She died 10 minutes after being admitted to the workhouse.

A passionate campaign by one Mr Brown, head ranger for the Curragh, led to an inquiry, a manslaughter charge, a report in The Irish Times and a leading article which called for the crown to have "complete authority over the Curragh and to prevent, if possible, the vice and misery which now infects the place".

I sat down and wrote about the Wrens, eventually. The horror, and tragedy, of their lives couldn't be exaggerated. The problem was underplaying it so that readers could suspend disbelief and read on.

The novel spends time in Dublin, too, in the tenements of Henrietta Street, with the burgeoning middle classes of Haddington Road, in a Magdalen convent. It all led to more research and, in the end, to a story about women in l9th-century Ireland which, hopefully, does them some justice.

Friends Indeed by Rose Doyle, based on the Wrens of the Curragh, is published this month by Hodder and Stoughton, £10.99