STONING THE DESOLATE
By Charles Dickens
There are, in certain parts of Ireland and especially upon the Curragh of Kildare, hundreds of women, many of them brought up respectably, a few perhaps luxuriously, now living day after day, week after week, and month after month, in a state of solid heavy wretchedness, that no mere act of imagination can conceive. Exposed to sun and frost, to rain and snow, to the tempestuous east winds, and the bitter blast of the north, whether it be June or January, they live in the open air, with no covering but the wide vault of heaven, with so little clothing that even the blanket sent down out of heaven in a heavy fall of snow is eagerly welcomed by these miserable outcasts. The most wretched beings we profess to know of, the Simaulecs and Hottentots of Africa, have holes whereinto they may creep, to escape the heat of the sun or the winter’s rages, but the women-squatters of the Curragh have no shelter, there is no escape for them but to turn their backs to the blast, and cower from it. The misery that abounds round our large camps in England is a load heavy enough for us to bear, but it is not at all to be compared to what can be seen daily in Ireland. If one of these poor wretches were to ask but for a drop of water to her parched lips, or a crust of bread to keep her from starving, Christians would refuse it; were she dying in a ditch, they would not go near to speak to her of human sympathy, and of Christian hope in her last moments. Yet, their priests preach peace on earth, good will among men, while almost in the same breath they denounce from their altars intolerant persecution against those who have, in many cases, been more sinned against than sinning. This is not a thing of yesterday. It has been going on for years, probably fifty, perhaps a hundred.
Twenty years ago, in eighteen forty-four, I remember the priest’s coming into the barracks at Newbridge, with a request that the commanding officer would grant him a fatigue party of soldiers to go outside and pull down a few booths which these poor creatures had raised against the barrack wall. The priest, I am sorry to say, had his request granted, and at the head of the soldiers, on a cold winter’s day, he went out and burned down the shelter these unfortunates had built. At this time it was quite common for the priest, when he met one of them, to seize her and cut her hair off close. But this was not all. In the summer of forty five, a priest, meeting one of the women in the main street of Newbridge, there threw her down, tearing from off her back the thin shawl and gown that covered it, and with his heavy riding-whip so flogged her over the bare shoulders that the blood actually spirited over his boots. She all the time never resisted, but was only crying piteously for mercy. Of the crowd which was formed round the scene, not a man nor a woman interfered by word or action. When it was over, not one said of the miserable soul, "God help her." Five days afterwards I saw this girl, and her back then was still so raw that she could not bear to wear a frock over it. Yet when she told me how it was done, and who did it, she never uttered a hard word against the ruffian who had treated her so brutally. Had any person attacked a brute beast as savagely in England, as the priest had here treated this least of God’s creatures, the strong arm of the law would have been stretched out between him and his victim. Yet in Newbridge there was not even an Irishman man enough to take the law in his own hands, by seizing the whip from the priest and giving him on his own skin a lesson of mercy. For it was in Ireland, where even now inhumanity of this sort is encouraged; where dealers consider it a part of religion not to supply these outcasts with the common necessaries of life; where the man who would allow one of them to crawl into his barn or cowshed to lie down and die, would be denounced from the altar, and be ordered to do penance for his charity. I need not say what is the result of this refusal of all Christian help and pity to the fallen. It is open noonday immorality and drunkenness, and nightly licentious revellings. When all the vice is out of doors wandering shameless and defiant through the streets of Newbridge, the by-lanes of Cahir, and the purlieus of Limerick, Buttevant, Athlone, and Templemore, it becomes far more mischievous than it can be in the cellars and courts of the back streets in Dublin. It is everywhere to be seen, and what renders it less repulsive, is the very tyranny to which its victims are subject, for it is impossible at once to pity and abhor.
I will speak only of what I have seen. Last year I was in Mr. Tallon’s shop in Newbridge, when one of these girls came in and asked for half an ounce of tea. She was cleanly and respectably dressed – was perfectly sober and quiet, in her demeanour; in fact, from her appearance, I should never have guessed her position. The shopkeeper had weighed the tea and was about to give it, when, stopping short, he threw it behind him, saying, "No! I’ll not serve you." To this she made no reply, but meekly turned and walked away. Surmising what she was at once, I could not help saying, "Good God, do you refuse to sell a fellow-creature the necessaries of life?" "Yes," was the answer; "were she dying, I would not give it to her, or any like her." I attempted to argue with him, reminding him that it was only those without sin themselves who should cast the first stone or trample upon the fallen; but he would not listen. I called for the half ounce of tea, paid for it, and following her up the town, gave it the poor creature. Her look of thankfulness more than repaid me.
Yet in Newbridge these people are better off than in any other part of the country; for a charitable farmer who owns some small fields near the barracks, has allowed them the use of a deep dry ditch by the roadside. This they have covered over with some hay and branches of trees, which forms for them a kind of shelter from the weather. Vastly different is it, however, in other parts of Ireland, where they can get no better shelter than a hedge affords. On the Curragh, for instance, the only protection they have from the pelting rain, the driving sleet, or the falling snow, is a furze bush; and this they are not allowed to erect or prop up by any means into a kind of covering. The moment they attempt to make a roof of it, it is pulled down by the police or under-rangers. I never believed it possible that such misery as I have here seen could be in existence even among savages. Often have I seen these women, as I went to exercise after a severe night’s rain, lying by threes and fours huddled together in a ditch, or by the lee-side of a bush. I remember one morning when I was on pass, making my way across the Curragh. Going down from the Grand Stand towards the Camp Inn, I passed a rising piece of ground on my left, under the brow of which the sheep and lambs were cowering together for shelter from the sharp north wind which was then blowing bitterly. I did not observe four women lying in a bit of a hole they had scooped out, until one called after me, and asked me to give her a shilling for God’s sake, as they were starving. The sight of them, wet, cold, and perishing from want and exposure, caused me to turn back and give the shilling; and I own that my remonstrance was very feeble even when she to whom I had given it jumped up, saying, "Long life to you! This will get us a drop of whisky," and ran off to get it. The mere prospect of the drink seemed to impart new life to two of them, but the other evidently cared nothing about that which gave her companions so much pleasure. Her eye was languid, her skin hot and dry, her head ached; she was suffering from an attack of fever. I left her, and walking back towards the station, met a policeman, whom I informed of her state, and he promised to get her taken to the workhouse if he could.
I discovered afterwards that an under-ranger had reported this woman’s case to the police, and that information of her illness had been
forwarded to Naas, when the policeman was told to apply to the relieving-officer at Newbridge. On looking for him, the constable learnt that the relieving-officer came only now and then to Newbridge, and that to find him he would have to go to Milltown. Thither the kindly man did not grudge going, and there he was told by the official that "he would see about it." Next day, finding the poor wretch still neglected, and sinking fast, he had her conveyed in a car to the Naas workhouse, where she died in a few hours after her admission. The head-ranger of the Curragh, Mr. Brown, of Upper Mount-street, Dublin, drew the attention of the poor-law guardians to the neglect of their subordinate, and demanded an inquiry into the matter, for the life of a fellow-creature seemed to have been sacrificed. The guardians refused to inquire, and that in terms which seemed to cast an imputation upon Mr. Brown’s veracity. That gentleman appealed to the corroborating testimony of the police and others, and again asked for an investigation, but in vain. He then, mindful at least of his own duty to his neighbour, applied to the poor-law commissioners, and also informed the civil authorities of the facts of the case. The commissioners took no notice of his representations until the Attorney-General issued an order that the relieving-officer should be prosecuted for manslaughter. Then the poor-law commissioners dismissed him from the situation, appointing another man to succeed him, on the express condition, as it was believed, that he should live at Newbridge, the most fitting and central place of residence, and on the direct road from Kildare and the Curragh to the workhouse.
But, on the 10th of September, a woman was brought by the police before Mr. Brown on a charge of drunkenness; it was also stated that she was ill, that she had been obliged to be brought in a car from the Curragh, and that she could not possibly walk to Newbridge. Mr. Brown saw her himself, ascertained that she was very ill, and that neither a poor-law guardian nor the relieving-officer was to be found in Newbridge. Here was another case of utter destitution and illness, which could not receive the prompt attention it required because of the absence of the official whose duty it was to provide a conveyance to take her to the workhouse. A guardian was at length found, and the woman was conveyed to Naas.
On the same day, Mr. Brown reported to the commissioners that their instructions had not been carried into effect, the relieving-officer not being a resident at Newbridge, and he again asked for an inquiry. This course of proceeding did not find favour in the eyes of the poor-law guardians, the chairman stating to the members that "this case was just a little bit of officiousness on Mr. Brown’s part," and in that spirit they gave their version of the whole affair to the commissioners, who had written for an explanation.
On the 23rd of that month the commissioners replied to the chief ranger’s letter of the 10th, when they stated that the relieving officer did reside in Newbridge, and that they "could not find any subject deserving of inquiry." Mr. Brown would not be satisfied with this kind of reply to a representation of such permanent importance to the poor wretches for whose lives he was fighting, and so, on the 12th of October, he again wrote to the commissioners a long letter, which appeared in the "Irish Times," and contained the following facts: "Three police stations are situated on the Curragh. The constables in charge state, and can show, that they frequently are obliged to go to the relieving-officer as part of their duty. They have invariably gone from the Curragh to Milltown, a considerable round from the Curragh to Naas poor-house. The constables stationed in Milltown stated the relieving-officer resided there. The constables at Newbridge make a similar statement. The county surveyor, in whose employment he is as a road contractor, states that Fitzpatrick, the relieving-officer, lives in Milltown. … Mr. Irwin, who is contractor to the poor-law guardians, stated to me in presence of a magistrate, a police-officer, and another person, that his wife had let a bed to Fitzpatrick, and that he took it immediately after I reported him." Mr. Brown concludes his humane appeal as follows: "Gentlemen, permit me, when on the subject of the Curragh, to ask you to draw the attention of the proper authorities to the probable state of the squatters thereon in the approaching winter. They sleep in the open air, little covering over their bodies, no shelter from wet or cold except that of a furze bush. When snow falls they follow the example of the Esquimaux, they lie with their backs upwards, in order to form a temporary support, for snow to rest on, which, when accumulated thereon assists to keep them partially warm."
Thus they are exposed all the year round: if it rains for a week they have to remain in it, having the wet ground for a couch, and a few wet rags for a covering. No refuge for them; no pity; no succour. In England the publicans will suffer them to remain by their firesides while their money lasts; landlords will let them rooms while they pay rent; shopkeepers will supply them with goods while they can find money for the articles: but here, in Ireland, they are outcasts in the fullest sense of the term, abandoned, persecuted, spurned. I am well aware that these women are the dregs of society, also that some mistaken Christians will say that "any pity shown to them is at best an encouragement of vice," while others, like Scrooge, will inquire "whether the workhouse and prisons are not still in operation?" To such it is useless to make any appeal. But to those who can feel for the poor and homeless, who, to the best of their ability, attend to the Divine commands to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and raise the fallen, I appeal for at least a thought of Christian mercy towards the wretched outcasts, who exist on the Curragh, and around our barracks in Ireland.
It is not only to the female eye that a review of soldiers, with colours flying, drums beating, and bayonets glistening, appears grand and inspiring. The dress of the soldiers, the gilding on the uniforms, the regular step, and the martial bearing of the men, are as if specially contrived for carrying the feelings and good wishes of spectators away captive. Again, when we look at a camping-ground with its white tents ranged in regular order – the flags flying and bugles sounding; the galloping to and fro of mounted orderlies, the passing of general and staff officers with their waving plumes, the turning in and out of guards, combined with the pervading neatness and regularity, have we not all the elements of a spirit-stirring scene? We see then all the pomp and circumstance of glorious war, with nothing of its attendant misery. But there is, as I have shown, around every barrack and camp an outlying circle of misery and sin, a haunting spectre which holds up its withered hands in mockery of all the tinsel. It has never been otherwise; for wherever large bodies of men congregate, these elements of wretched creatures will be found, whose life is a long sin and unceasing misery. It is the old story – a poor girl is attracted by a soldier when the troops come to her town. When he marches away, she leaves all – friends, fortune, and good name – to follow him; little recking of the pains that lie before her. Soon the trifle of money is spent, and then the clothes go piece by piece. When money and clothes are gone, what shall she do? She cannot dash through the ring of scorn already surrounding her, to go home and drink the bitterest dregs of her cup in the rebuke of her own kindred. The man she has followed lovingly and unwisely, had not means to support her; yet she cannot starve. Gradually the outcast sinks lower and lower, till she probably ends her days by the side of a barrack wall, or on the leeside of a bush at the Curragh. Of the soldiers who should share the blame of
this, men are ready enough to remember how they are in a manner cut off from all domestic joys or pleasures, and have as a class very little forethought. Their daily bread is always found them; whether in sickness or in health they need never know what a sharp thorn hunger is. And so, being thoughtless, the soldier does not prevent women from following him from town to town, and from barracks to camp. But if guilty so far, he is not wilfully hard-hearted. I have known many a soldier go to the captain of his troop, and getting a couple of months’ pay in advance, spend it on sending a poor girl back to her friends. I know also that for one or two months after a regiment has come to a fresh station there are weekly subscriptions made up among the men of each troop for the same purpose. Therefore I am sure that if a way could be shown for lessening the misery among those unhappy victims, every soldier in the army would give what he could afford. If each man would give a week’s pay to commence with, and a day’s pay yearly afterwards, those who had homes to go to, and relations willing to receive them, could be sent home whenever they were willing to return, while the others would at least be provided with a roof to put their heads under.
In India these camp-followers are placed under the care of one of their own sex – a female muccadum, or overseer, who is paid so much a month out of the canteen fund. This is advantageous in more respects than one. The women themselves are comfortably housed; they are obliged to keep their huts in good order, and themselves clean and well clothed; if they misbehave they are punished; in case of disease, they are sent to a native hospital till they recover. This system modified to suit home moralities might be advantageously introduced at our barracks and camps, and would go a great way to stay the spread of disease which fills our army hospitals, and ruins the health of our soldiers. As the hour before the dawn is the darkest, so I trust that, upon the night of these unhappy squatters, the first glimmering of dawn is soon to break. That such distress should exist, and that men should consider themselves most righteous in letting it exist, and walking on the other side with their eyes carefully averted, is but a new form of the old evil, against which His followers were warned as their worst wrong against Heaven by Him who was himself alone unspotted among men.
Source: Charles Dickens, All the Year Round, No 292, November 26, 1864
An eyewitness account of the Curragh Wrens by Charles Dickens, re-typed by Paul Cooke. Our thanks to Paul