by mariocorrigan on July 23, 2008

Reprinted from the “ Pall Mall Gazette.”
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. It was done simply in accordance with the routine of action necessary nowadays for the redress of grievances, and for the working of our administrative system. For it must have been generally observed that a new principle governs the performance of official duties in England. Elsewhere, when certain men are appointed to take part in the government of a country, they understand that they are to do the duties of their office forthwith. With us the understanding is quite different : no work is to be begun except under such emphatic demand as in private life would answer to the practice of regularly kicking your footman to the coal scuttle when the fire needs replenishing. No doubt it will be said that this is an evil consequence of government by public opinion ; but whatever the steps by which the result has been attained, we have now got so far in no government that those whose duty it is to check or to heal the disorders of our social system are indifferent and supine to a degree which has destroyed all hope of them. Confidence in public servants died long ago. It has come to be an understood and accepted thing that it is for them to conceal the manifold small evils which prey upon the country ; that it is for the public to discover them ; and that not even after discovery are they, the officers of the nation, bound to find means of remedy, unless it is demanded with considerable outcry. No doubt it is a very grotesque state of things, and one that is not paralleled in any other conditions of human circumstance ; but it exists, and we must accommodate ourselves to its existence. It was in accordance with this new exigency of political life that, years ago, some gentlemen who wrote in the Lancet took upon themselves the duty of other gentlemen paid to inspect the hospital wards of workhouses-who, in accordance with their traditions, saw and said nothing, or, seeing nothing, had nothing to say. Through the labours of the volunteer inspectors the most cruel practices, the most terrible sufferings were revealed again and again. But there was no outcry ; popular feeling was shocked, but silent ; and therefore the Poor Law Board did nothing to remedy what would not have been permitted for an hour had its president and secretaries been in the public service as well as in the public pay. It was not till what in official places is called a “row” was caused by workhouse revelations of a more curious and picturesque character, though really indicating less cruelty and guilt, that those who had the guardianship of our disabled poor began to think of putting an end to the infamous creation of their own neglect. But (and this is almost comically characteristic, though it is intolerable too), as the “sensation” referred to the London workhouses alone, only the horrors of the London workhouses were to be abolished. An equally shocking state of things existing and known to exist by our officials in provincial poorhouses was allowed to await the future investigations of the press and another outcry from the public.
In these circumstances, it was thought worth while 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 had not to wait to be informed of what was going on, or of the shameful and hideously wasteful consequences that flowed from it ; they had only to be told that it might be as well to seek some remedy. They knew long ago that the poor wretches congregated on the Curragh, in ditches and bush dwellings no better that those which are so distressingly savage when inhabited by Kaffirs, 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. For this is not only a matter of mere humanity-that answer, though it has sometimes proved very acceptable, will not apply in the present case. Our readers must have understood, though for obvious reasons we left it for inference, 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. It may be conceded that it is nobody’s business to take vicious women under official protection-nobody’s business to palliate the misery vice brings upon them but it is somebody’s business to put an end to a state of things which contributes to the hospital of the Curragh thirty-eight per cent. of its patients-of every hundred there thirty-eight recipients and disseminators of one most shocking and contagious disease. That is the latest report ; the latest, but not the worst of a long succession of reports, made in full knowledge of how they came to be so particularly bad. The gentlemen whose business it is to govern such matters have known the average rise to fifty per cent., without counting patients whose sickness was not immediately though certainly due to the same cause ; and they 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. They knew that no such precaution as is elsewhere taken, in the establishment of special hospitals or hospital wards, had been thought of ; and, 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. This is a part of the subject which has probably given the public some consideration. They have said, “Surely it cannot be from destitution alone that these women choose to live as they do live, not only in summer, but through all the inclemencies of winter. There is a workhouse open for them ; they would go there if they were not utterly abandoned to vice and in love with it.” And no doubt this consideration has turned many a mind from further care about the matter so far as the women are concerned. But let us correct that view of the case by a picture taken not just lately, but in the depths of a recent winter. At that time, when the ground was covered with snow, fifty women lay out upon the common, and fifty (their numbers differed by only two or three) 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. But before we make up our minds that nothing but the sheer infatuation of vice could have kept them in that condition while the doors of a poor-house were open to receive them, let us see how the others fared. The work-house itself was half empty ; but these women were not allowed to enter it and share such poor comforts as it might easily have given them. The whole fifty, with four children, were turned into 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. The beds were bags of foul straw, and two or three women slept on each of them-huddled, sick and sound together, without any attempt at separation : and more than one-fourth of them were not sound. The measurement of one of these hovels was as follows : length, 28 feet ; breadth, 14 feet ; height, 9 feet. Imagine a room, a broken hovel, of these dimensions ; imagine twelve such beds in it as we have described ; imagine those twelve beds occupied by twenty-three women and two children ; and ask whether you also would not rather have lain out on the common. That is a faithful picture ; nor need anything be added to it, except that these despised and certainly very wicked women were not even allowed to worship with the other paupers ; they had to thank God by themselves, and listen to the exhortations of his minister in their own hovels apart. This, we say, is a faithful picture taken not long ago. What has been done to improve that state of things ? Anything ? If not, ought not something to be done-say, to keep down hospital expenses ? Or are our rulers at the War Office waiting for the popular outcry as usual ?

For many a year mysterious little stories have been wafted to England from the Curragh-hints and glimpses of a certain colony of poor wretches there who lived as nobody else in the three kingdoms lived, and died most like people who do come within the bills of mortality-tramps and others-when they happened to perish of cold, want, and whisky, upon that vast common. In these stories there was always something so shocking that comfortable people were glad to disbelieve them, and something so strange that it was reasonable enough to set them aside : they were not probable in an orderly, commonplace, police-regulated, Christian community like our own. Besides, one could not read those little stories-paragraphs in odd corners of newspapers in the great gooseberry season-without a knowing suspicion that if only half they told was true more must have been heard of them. This seemed all the more likely because the Curragh is not an unfrequented nook in some distant corner of the land, but a plain near a capital city-an encampment wherein thousands of Englishmen as well as thousands of Irishmen constantly live, gentle and simple both, and where scores of strangers, visitors who go there for no other purpose but to see what is to be seen, peer about every week of every summer season. It did not seem at all natural that things so very unlike what ought to happen in the nineteenth century as those little wandering paragraphs hinted at could go on from year to year without investigation and arrest. But our own observation is that the wildest circumstances and most incredible anomalies of life are those which lie open to every eye, and are stared at, and are not seen. And therefore when, a few weeks ago, other little paragraphs came wafted from the Curragh-chiefly to the effect that the poor wretches of whom we have spoken are called “wrens,” “because they live in holes in the banks,” and that things are not so bad as they used o be some years ago, when it was not uncommon to find a wren (or unfortunate woman) lying dead amongst the furze of a morning, we though it worth while to ask a hardy man of brains to go and look into the matter. Hardy, we say, because it seemed to us now, as on a former occasion which need not specify, that to ask for accurate live knowledge from official persons would be answered by the gift of a stone, as it always is. Therefore we solicited some one to go to the camp, and find the wrens (if any), and visit their nests (if any), and spend time enough by day and night amongst them to let us know what peculiar people it is of which so many incredible hints have been given-and forgotten. What the nature of the task really was, and what additional knowledge it gives us of the world we live in, will appear from the following narrative :-
It was on an evening before September had cooled-three weeks ago and more-that I set out to investigate the manners and customs, the habits and habitat, of a bird not unknown indeed in England, nor even in London, but reported to be on the Curragh of a seriously peculiar kind. Rumour had told us all we had heard of the species ; Rumour is of ticklish veracity ; but one thing may be said for her, that if she sometimes tells more lies than is tolerable, she sometimes tells more truth than it is convenient to believe. “Before September had cooled” is not merely an ornamental phrase. It is meant to be remembered as a statement of fact ; because what aspect the place of my visit would have now, what it would wear when the turf of the Curragh, so soft to the foot, is even more silent to the ear under a winter day’s snow, has got to be considered as we go on. It is an important part of the lesson learned there on an autumn day, sharp enough, but very tolerable.
From London to Holyhead, from Holyhead to Kingstown, from Kingstown to Dublin-all this was within the limits of civilization. Not that I think it a matter for congratulation that anybody in the nineteenth century should be seasick. Nor that I wish the dispensation altered. The pleasantest spectacle I have witnessed for some time was a director of a railway company (who annihilated space) and a secretary of a telegraph company (who abolished time, and used heaven’s lightning as a messenger) alternate with a basin on a playful sea. Dublin-yes, Dublin is a civilized city too : there is not courage enough in the world to deny it. But Kildare, county town though it be, one may be permitted to withhold from it the all-sufficing designation. To Kildare my steps were directed, for that town is nearer than any other to the Curragh camp : -thence could I most easily go a-nesting.
From Dublin to Kildare, past much squalor that seemed less to lie upon the earth, in the shape of wretched huts of poverty and idleness, than to be born out it naturally, as toadstools are. At Kildare station carmen were rampant-great industry of tongue among them, and much ingenuity of speech. “Bedad, sir,” said one of them, with a snatch at my luggage, “I’m the man to match ye ! Ye’re in luck to-day, sir, indade. The mare I’m driving is the celebrated Scottish Queen-no less ! own sister to Achaivement, and the best blood in Ireland. And where’ll I be driving yer hanner ? Impayrial Hotel ? I’ll make no mistake, sir, seein’ there’s no other but one, and that’s a clubhouse.” And so I go to the Imperial Hotel, where the guest proposes, the host disposes. “Foive, did ye say ? It’s no dinner ye’ll be gettin’ at foive, sir, nor no baife aither ; it’s mutton ye’ll have.” And you have mutton at four. At least I did, or at any other hour when the table-cloth happened to be disengaged. But then, how do I know ? More honourable guests than myself may have been there, and it was necessary for me to look rough and sink all fastidiousness, because my business was with people with whom a gentleman is never seen, and can never mingle with a hope of learning anything : at least, so I thought then, though I have reason to believe now that a gentleman and an officer may sometimes send for a wren and nourish her in his honourable bosom.
In the afternoon, Jimmy Lynch-my carman on many little expeditions afterwards-a loud, loquacious carman, whose adoration was given to horses and his respect to Mr. Donnelly, who fought the great fight with Cooper in Donnelly’s Hollow-called to take me on my first visit to the Curragh. As we drove along, Jimmy talked of his mare-there was never such a mare ; of the fight-there was never such a fight ; while I, half listening, looked away to the vast common where an army lives all the year round. “How many men do you think, Jimmy ?” I asked, breaking into his raptures about the “Scottish Queen. “Well, thin, tin or twelve thousand, maybe ! and a mighty fine time they have of it !” “Without their wives and sweethearts ?” “Widout their wives, shure, and hwat of that, yer hanner ? But some of their wives is with them, I believe, good luck to them ! though there’s no sweethearts in the camp at all-divil a one ! But over there,” pointing vaguely with his whip across the common, “there’s many of them poor devils living in places made of furze inthirely. Winther and summer in a bit of a bush.” “Wrens don’t you call them ?” “Wrins ! That’s the name ov ‘em ! Wrins !-that’s what they do call ‘em, and a dridful life they lade. Most distrissing, believe me !” This exclamation was not priggish in Jimmy-it was only a note caught from the mouths of other intelligent tourists. A moment of silence and his mind sought relief in the virtues of his mare, while my eyes wandered over the common where many a furze bush was visible, but none which looked as if it could be inhabited by any creatures but birds of the air and beasts of the field.
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 ; and there you may see the Irish shepherd, idler than nobody else in his green isle, and the Irish shepherdess (O Arcadia !) flustering her rags out of their natural repose in an attempt to separate the sheep marked this way from the sheep marked that. That she might have been a beauty you see well, because her head, with its abundant locks, is bare, and so are her well-shapen legs ; but she isn’t-the chance was lost long ago. The Scottish Queen bowls along. There are good roads from Kildare to the camp, and from time to time we meet cars upon them containing well-buttoned military men. Other military men are seen, in ones and twos and threes, lounging in one direction : they show in moving patches of red amongst the dark-green masses of furze.
Jimmy has no precise instructions ; he is to drive upon the Curragh, and that’s all ; but he has a notion that generally we want to go to the camp, and particularly to the Hollow, the actual spot where Cooper was licked by the immortal Donnelly. In this somewhat aimless way we came 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. Jimmy pointed out each object of interest as we drove along. “And that’s the Catholic chapel, your hanner. And that’s the Prodestan’ church. And this is Donnelly’s Hollow” (strewed with many canvas tents) “where the fight was ! Hould the mare, sir ! hould Scottish Queen, and, bedad ! I’ll show ye where Cooper stood, and where Donnelly stood-well I know the futmarks ov ‘em !” Nor would Jimmy be denied. Fortunately, the Scottish Queen restrained the fiery impulses of her blood, and stood like any cart-horse still while Jimmy planted himself in Donnelly’s footmarks, and tried to satisfy the last object of my journey by putting himself in a fighting attitude on that heroic spot. With as little shock to his feelings as I could contrive I made him aware that I didn’t care extremely about Cooper or Donnelly ; that the afternoon was too far advanced for a regular visit to the camp itself, but that in driving back I should like to get a glimpse of the wren’s nests. Jimmy put his hands down slowly, and in silence remounted the car. The sojers he could understand as the object of a tourist’s gaze, and Donnelly’s Hollow as an object of his contemplations ; but “thim wrins !”
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. As far as the eye could distinguish within the waning limits of the light all was barren and cheerless. The sky above looked waste as the heath itself, and drearier ; for there were still those constantly recurring patches of furze to break the green monotony below, while there was nothing at all to break the grey monotony above. How in such solitary places at such times the mind also seems to close in from above and on all sides in a twilight sort of way, everybody knows. Mine soon got into that condition as we rolled over the noiseless turf ; so that it was with a start I presently saw a bare-headed, bare-footed woman standing only a few feet distant. Had the figure sprang out of the earth or dropped from the clouds my surprise could not have been greater ; true though it was that I had come to Ireland to see this very woman-her and her companions.  At the same moment, “There’s wrin, sir !” Jimmy shouted, “and there’s a nest ! and there’s another !” I saw no nest. The clumps of furze looked a little thicker than usual in the direction indicated, but there was nothing more remarkable about them. But when, jumping from the car, I walked a few paces onward, 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-“winther and summer in a bit of a bush.” Not one or two, but several groups-half naked, flagrant-indicating a considerable colony. I spent a long night amongst them afterwards, and believe I know pretty well all that is worth knowing of a tribe of outcasts as interesting, perhaps, as any which the scientific men of the Abyssinian expedition are likely to write books about. One thing I may as well add here. When your correspondent who inspected the casual wards of Lambeth told what he had seen there, he thought it necessary to warn your readers that there was not a single word of it that could justly be called exaggerated. So I assure them that what I may have to say of the Curragh shall not have a touch of false “colour” anywhere. But of course, in dealing with such a matter a great deal must be suppressed.

To commemorate the 300th ARTICLE on EHISTORY we will republish in parts, the original pamphlet on The Wren of the Curragh, which was reprinted from the Dicken’s newspaper The Pall Mall Gazette and published in 1867. My thanks to Maria Luddy for a copy of the pamphlet and to the late Con Costello for helping bring the story of the wrens to light – and of course to Reggie Darling and the Curragh Local History Group who preserve all traditions relating to the Curragh. Also Claire Connelly and Roy O’Brien for their help in its preparation.

[Apparently the pamphlet (based on the original newspaper article) was written by a reporter of the Pall Mall Gazette, James Greenwood, who visited the Curragh in 1867 – all spellings etc. have been retained]

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