by mariocorrigan on July 23, 2008

WHEN once a wren’s nest is distinguished from the natural mounds of furze amidst which it is placed, after-recognition is tolerably easy ; though at a first glance it is so much like a mere bush that you might well pass by without dreaming that it was the habitation of human creatures. However, there are differences, of course ; and thus after I had looked for a few moments at my first nest, and glanced around and beyond it, I saw that I was in fact in the midst of a little village, with as many-homes shall I say ? and as many inhabitants as some English hamlets whose names are well marked on the map. Dotted about to right, and left, and onward, at intervals varying from 20 to 100 yards, were other bushes, which bore not only certain signs of man’s constructive skill, but of woman’s occupancy. Suspended against the prickly sides of one of them was a petticoat, against another a crinoline ; an article so bulky and intractable that it could not well be got inside. Indeed, the probability is that it never did get inside at all-never was inside ; but was put on and taken off, as occasion required, at the hole that served for a door. How could three or four large-limbed women, crinolined accordingly, live in a space no bigger than the ox’s crib or the horse’s stall ? Besides, that is exaggeration. To be particular, the nests have an interior space of about nine feet long by seven feet broad ; and the roof is not more than four and a-half feet from the ground. You crouch into them, as beasts crouch into cover ; and there is no standing upright till you crawl out again. They are rough, misshapen domes of furze-like big, rude birds’ nests compacted of harsh branches, and turned topsy-turvy upon the ground. The walls are some twenty inches thick, and they do get pretty well compacted-much more than would be imagined. There is no chimney-not even a hole in the roof, which generally slopes forward. The smoke of the turf fire which burns on the floor of the hut has to pass out at the door when the wind is favourable, and to reek slowly through the crannied walls when it is not. The door is a narrow opening nearly the height of the structure-a slit in it, kept open by two rude posts, which also serve to support the roof. To keep it down, and secure from the winds that drive over the Curragh so furiously, sods of earth are placed on top, here and there, with a piece of corrugated iron (much used in the camp, apparently-I saw many old and waste pieces lying about) as an additional protection from rain. Sometimes a piece of this iron is placed in the longitudinal slit aforesaid ; and then you have a door as well as a doorway. Flooring there is none of any kind whatever, nor any attempt to make the den snugger by burrowing down into the bosom of the earth. The process of construction seems to be to clear the turf from the surface of the plain to the required space, to cut down some bushes for building material, and to call in a friendly soldier or two to rear the walls by the simple process of piling and trampling. When the nest is newly made, as that one was which I first examined, and if you happen to view it on a hot day, no doubt it seems tolerably snug shelter. A sportsman might lie there for a summer night or two without detriment to his health or his moral nature. But all the nests are not newly made ; and if the sun shines on the Curragh, bitter winds drive across it, with swamping rains for days and weeks together ; and miles of snow-covered plain sometimes lie between this wretched colony of abandoned women and the nearest town. Wind and rain are their worst enemies (unless we reckon in mankind), and play “old gooseberry” with the bush dwellings. The beating of the one and the pelting of the other soon destroy their bowery summer aspect. They get crazy ; they fall toward this side and that ; they shrink in and down upon the outcast wretches that huddle in them ; and the doorposts don’t keep the roof up and the clods don’t keep it down :-the nest is nothing but a furzy hole, such as, for comfort, any wild beast may match anywhere ; leaving cleanliness out of the question. Of course, I did not make all these observations at a first visit. It was afterwards that I found No. 5 Bush (they are called No. I Bush, No. 2 Bush, and so forth by the wrens themselves) was a really superior edifice in its way-larger, better than any other ; and well it should be, for it was the abode of five or six women. Other nests were smaller, and fast going to decay ; but even in the smallest three women were harboured, while one was tenanted by as many as eight. Altogether, there are ten bushes, with about sixty inhabitants. In them they sleep, cook, eat, drink, receive visits, and perform all the various offices of life. If they are sick, there they lie. Brothers and mothers and fathers go to see them there. There sometimes-such occurrences do happen-they lie in child-bed ; and there sometimes they die.
My eyes had not taken in one-tenth of what is above described, when they were brought to bear upon the group of women which had first arrested my attention. They were three members of the family of No. 5 Bush. One was a perfectly neat-looking girl, washed, combed, and arrayed in a clean starched cotton gown, and with bright white stockings and well-fitting boots ; she had evidently just completed the one toilette of the day. Two others squatted at the bush door, and they were foul as any Hottentots. One filthy frieze petticoat worn about the loins, another thrown loosely over their backs-that was all their clothing. Their towzled hair hung down upon their naked shoulders, and straggled upon their unwashed faces, as they sat in a full stream of gossip. All three were fine limbed women, large and sturdy ; as, indeed, are many of the inhabitants of this Arcadian village. Now and then I came across some fragile creature, her strength broken ; but these were the exceptions rather than the rule, certainly. And several of them were not only fine-looking, but well-mannered girls-when sober ; and I had an opportunity of seeing a letter written by one in as pretty and “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.
“Good day to you, sir, and will you walk into our little house ?” This greeting was addressed to me by the woman in the clean cotton gown, and that in a voice and with a manner that had nothing in them but simple civility. At the same moment her companions rose up, and one of them attacked my carman, Jimmy Lynch, with language that was absolutely appalling. Now my courage was first put to the test, no less by the civil invitation than by the astounding outburst of this black-haired young virago. To walk into the little house was what I had come for ; and there was the invitation to make myself acquainted with a Curragh interior, and the domestic economy of the wren. It was not with any alacrity, however, that I bowed my head and crept into the bush-leaving Jimmy to bear with the monstrous blasphemies, the raving obscenities, of the girl of eighteen outside.
It was washing day at No. 5 Bush-with one of its tenants, at least ; and she appeared to be engaged upon all her clothes at once (excepting only a single frieze petticoat which she did wear)-in a tin saucepan. Another young woman idly squatted near the doorway, was bidden to get up “and give the gintleman a sate ;” when it appeared that she was sitting on another saucepan, bottom upward. This vessel was perforated all over, at the sides and at the bottom alike ; the only explanation of which seemed to me at the time to be that this was an Irish device for letting the fire get more readily at the water ; however, I learned the real use of a perforated saucepan afterwards. With apologies to Miss Clancy, I accepted the “sate” she proffered, and disposing myself upon it with more or less of grace, looked about me to discover the appointments of a wren’s nest.
Little observation was needed to make the inventory complete. The most important piece of furniture was a wooden shelf running along the back of the nest, and propped on sticks driven into the earthen floor. Some mugs ; some plates ; some cups and saucers ; a candlestick ; two or three old knives and forks, battered and rusty ; a few dull and dinted spoons ; a teapot (this being a rather rich establishment), and several other articles of a like character, were displayed upon the shelf ; and a grateful sight it was. I declare I was most thankful for the cups and saucers ; and as for the teapot, it looked like an ark of redemption in crockery ware. If they were not, as I told myself when my eyes first rested on them, the only human-looking things in the place, they did give one a comfortable feeling of assurance that these wretched and desperate outcasts had not absolutely broken with the common forms and habits of civilized life. And that this feeling was not a strained or singular one I learned afterwards in conversation with a soldier. This gentleman averred to me on oath, with the air of a man who is going to startle you out of all false and maudlin sympathies, that wrens used cups and saucers “just like other people.”
There was little furniture in the nest beside the shelf and its decorations. Beneath it was heaped an armful of musty straw, originally smuggled in from the camp stables ; this, drawn out and shaken upon the earth, was the common bed. A rough wooden box, such as candles are packed in, stood in a corner ; one or two saucepans, and a horrid old tea-kettle, which had all the look of a beldame punished by drink, were disposed in various nooks in the furzy walls ; a frying-pan was stuck into them by the handle, in company with a crooked stick of iron, used as a poker ; and-undoubtedly that was there –a cheap little looking-glass was stuck near the roof. These things formed the whole furniture and appointments of the nest, if we exclude a petticoat or so hung up at intervals. There was not a stool in the place, and as for anything in the shape of a table, there was not room even for the idea of such a thing. Except for the cups and saucers, I doubt whether any Australian native habitation is more savage or more destitute ; he can get an old saucepan or two, and knows how to spread a little straw on the ground. Nor were any of the other nests (and I believe I looked into them all) better or differently furnished. The only difference was in the quantity of crockery. In every one the candle box was to be found. I discovered that it was the common receptacle of those little personal ornaments and cherished trifles which women in every grade of life hoard with a sort of animal instinct. In every one an upturned saucepan was used for a seat when squatting on the earth became too tiresome. In all the practice is to sleep with your head under the shelf (thus gaining some additional protection from the wind) and your feet to the turf fire, which is kept burning all night near the doorway. Here the use of the perforated saucepan becomes apparent. It is placed over the burning turf when the wrens dispose themselves to rest ; and, as there is no want of air in these dwellings, the turf burns well and brightly under the protecting pot. Another remembrance of a decent life is seen in the fact that the women always undress themselves to sleep upon their handful of straw, their day clothes serving to cover them.
While I was making the particular observations which were afterwards expanded into the above-described generalities, I was not allowed to remain silent, of course. However, by dint of a little management I contrived to confine the conversation to tobacco and whisky, my pouch and flask (well filled in expectation of a call upon them) furnishing the primary subjects of discourse.   Both topics were handled with such freedom and dexterity that in less than fifteen minutes they were fairly exhausted. I thereupon proposed to take leave, and was not opposed by anything like the cajolery or the solicitation for money that I expected to encounter. The women were quite sober, and therefore well-behaved : which I found to be a common characteristic. I verily do believe that the whole world contains no spectacle of degraded humanity so complete as those unfortunate women present when they come home in roaring groups from their hunting grounds, drunk. Their flushed faces, their embruted eyes, their wildly flowing hair, their reckless gestures, and, above all, their strong voices competing in the use of the most hideous language depravity ever invented, make such a scene as I believe can be matched nowhere under the sun. But the same women who in such circumstances seemed to be possessed with a determination never to be outdone in violence, or blasphemy, or obscenity, are, when sober, of civil conversation and decent demeanour. This is true not of one or two, but of many of them. So I had no more difficulty in getting out of No. 5 Bush than if I had been making a morning call at home. The person who was washing her clothes in the saucepan bade me good day with an expression of her assurance that I had a good heart, while Miss Clancy simply hoped I would keep my promise to come again when they were less occupied with domestic cares. When I got outside I found that Jimmy Lynch had been less fortunate than the Saxon stranger whom he had conducted to the strange place. He was still engaged in wordy conflict, and was so completely beaten that he retreated upon the car upon my first appearance, and started off before I was fairly settled on it. “Did any one iver hear the like ov them devils ?” he roared. “It’s disghusting intirely !”
But ready as Jimmy was to “call” upon the energies of Scottish Queen, I insisted upon his going slowly through the bush village, and then I was enabled to see on a first visit that its inhabitants at any rate were all of one kind and looked all alike. In the first place every woman is Irish. There is not a single Englishwoman now in the nest, though there were two of our countrywomen there lately : these girls, however, went away with a regiment ordered elsewhere. Then the wrens are almost all young-the greater number of them being from seventeen to five-and-twenty years old. Then they almost all come out of cabins in country places, and seem still to enjoy-most of them-some remains of the fine strength and health they brought from those wretched cots. Then there was a common look, shocking to see, of hard depravity-the look of hopeless, miserable, but determined and defiant wickedness. Fine faces, and young ones too, were marred into something quite terrible by this look, and the spirit of it seemed to move in the lazy swing of their limbs, and was certainly heard in their voices. And lastly they are dressed alike. All day they lounge in a half-naked state, clothed simply in the one frieze petticoat, and another equally foul cast loosely over their shoulders, though towards evening they put on the decent attire of the first girl I met there. These bettermost clothes are kept clean and bright enough ; the frequency with which they are seen displayed on the bushes to dry shows how often they are washed, and how well. These observations apply to the cotton gown, the stockings, the white petticoat alone-frieze and flannel never know anything of soap and water at all apparently. The “Curragh petticoat” is familiarly known for miles and miles around : its peculiarity seems to be that it is starched but not ironed. The difference in the appearance of these poor wretches when the gown and petticoat are donned and when they are taken off again (that is to say, the moment they come back from the “hunting grounds”) answers precisely to their language and demeanour when sober and when tipsy. In the one condition they are generally as well behaved and civil as any decent peasant women need be ; in the other they are like raging savages, with more than a savage’s vileness.

A COMMUNITY like that which I am attempting to describe naturally falls into some regular system, and provides for itself certain rules and regulations. Fifty or sixty people separated from the rest of the world and existing in and by rebellion against society, naturally form some links of association ; and when the means of life are the same, and shameful and precarious ; when those who so live by them are poor as well as outcast ; and when, also, they are all women, we may assure ourselves that a sort of socialistic or family bond will soon be formed. It is so amongst the wrens of the Curragh. The ruling principle there evidently is to share each other’s fortunes and misfortunes, and in happy-go-lucky style. Thus the colony is open to any poor wretch who imagines that she can find comfort in it, or another desperate chance of existence. Come she whence she may, she has only to present herself to be admitted into one nest or another, nor is it necessary that she bring a penny to recommend her. Girls who have followed soldiers to the camp from distant towns and villages-some from actual love and hope, some from necessity or desperation-form a considerable number of those who go into the bush ; and I also learn that the colony sometimes receives some harvester tired of roaming for field work, to whom the free loose life there has, one must suppose, attractions superior to those of the virtuous hovel at home. She walks in and is welcome : welcome are far less eligible immigrants too. Suppose a woman with child who has followed her lover to the camp and loses him there, or is admonished with blows to leave him alone ; or suppose a young wife in the same condition is bidden by her martial lord to go away and “do as other women do” (which seems to be the formula in such cases) ; they are made as welcome amongst the wrens as if they did not bring with them certain trouble and an inevitable increase to the common poverty. I am not speaking what I believe they would do, but what they have done. It is not long since that a child was born in one of these nests ; and wrens had made for baby what little provision it was blessed with ; wrens smiled upon its birth (it was a girl) ; and wrens alone tended mother and child for days before it was born, and for a month afterwards :- then the unfortunate pair went into the workhouse. The mother of the babe which had so strange and portentous a beginning of life had followed its gallant father to the camp from Arklow-a fishing village many a mile away ; but he unfortunately diverted his benevolence into other channels, and she sought refuge amongst the bushwomen when her trouble was near. They did what they could for her, and brought her safely through without recourse to the doctor.
Although the birth of an infant is a novel event in the annals of the Curragh, the appearance of a mother with her baby in arms is by no means rare ; and though a child is certainly as much an “incumbrance” there as it can be anywhere, no objection is ever made to it. In fact, a baby is obviously regarded as conferring a certain respectability upon the nest it belongs to, and is treated, like other possessions, as common property. At the present time there are four children in the bush. The mother of one of them is the young woman whose amazing abuse routed my carman, as previously related. Her outrageous blasphemies were uttered over the face of the unhappy little one as it lay at her breast. But even she seems to have the tenderest love for the babe : she never could bear to think of parting with the “poor darlint,” she says, and she stays at home with it as much as possible, doing duty as watcher at night, while the others are away. The children all seemed to be well cared for. We shall see that an egg is always bought for Mary Maloney’s baby when the day’s provisions are procured, and I found one bright curly-headed little fellow in possession of a doll. Another, a certain little Billy Carson, was produced to me on a Sunday morning, in a rig of which the whole nest seemed proud. He was arrayed in a pretty light coloured stuff frock, for which, I was assured, as much as seven and sixpence had been paid. Should the children fall sick they would be taken at one to the workhouse ; for the doctor is never seen in the bush. In sickness the wrens administer to themselves or each other such remedies as they happen to believe in, or are able to procure ; and when these fail, and the case seems hopeless, application is made at the police barracks at the camp, and the half-dying wretch is carried to Naas Hospital, nine miles off. The medical officers in the camp are, of course, kept too busy amongst the men who are the wrens’ friends to have any time to spare for the wrens themselves. Something more must be said upon that subject by-and-by.
The communistic principle governs each nest, and in hard times one family readily helps another, or several help one ; the deeps are not deaf to the voice of the lower deeps. None of the women have any money of their own. What each company get is thrown into a common purse, and the nest is provisioned out of it. What they get is little indeed ; a few halfpence turned out of one pocket and another when the clean starched frocks are thrown off at night make up a daily income just enough to keep body and soul together. How that feat is accomplished at all in winter-in such winters as the last one-which was talked of only three weeks ago as a dreadful thing of yesterday and its recurrence dreaded as a horrible thing of to-morrow-is past my comprehension. It is an understanding that they take it in turns to do the marketing, and to keep house when the rest go wandering at night ; though the girl whose dress is freshest generally performs the one duty, and the woman whose youth is not the freshest, whose good looks are quite gone, the other. And there are several wrens who have been eight or nine years on the Curragh-one or two who have been there as long as the camp itself. At that time, and long after, they had not even the shelter of a regular built nest. I asked one of these older birds how they contrived their sleeping accommodation then. Said she, “We’d pick the biggest little bush we could find, and lay undher it-turnin’ wid the wind.” “Shifting round the bush as the wind shifted ?” “Thrue for ye. And sometimes we’d wake wid the snow coverin’ us, or maybe soaked wid rain.” “And then how did you dry your clothes ?” “We jist waited for a fine day.” Only four or five years ago the wrens were not allowed upon the common at all-at any rate, nowhere near the camp. They were hunted off on account of the extravagant behaviour of one of the women in the presence of a lady (related to a general officer) who was riding on the Curragh. The wretched creature’s audacity cost her companions dear ; they were driven from the common and their hovels were destroyed. A ditch in “Furl-lane,” leading to Athy, was for some time afterwards their only home-those who would not seek shelter in the workhouse or the gaol ; as to which places they have no preference whatever. But by degrees they re-established themselves on the common, and there they remain, a credit to the country. I may mention here what I had nearly forgotten-which would be a pity-that there is beside the colony I have described another small hive of wrens on the other side of the camp. Their nest is pitched in a field belonging to an intelligent Scotchman. It contains a family of seven. In consideration of the shelter afforded to these wretched creatures by the humane proprietor of the field, who holds a good deal of land round about, they keep a sharp look out for trespassers on the Scotchman’s grounds. In this way they probably save the cost of a couple of men and their dogs. Indeed the proprietor himself is said to rate their services much higher, and to boast that “the wrens do his work better than twenty policemen.”
Whisky forms, no doubt, a very important part of these poor wretches’ sustenance. Whisky kills in the end, or it swiftly destroys all that is comely or healthy in woman or man ; but it can scarcely be doubted that without it the wren could hardly live at all. She would tell you existence would be impossible without it ; and unfortunately it would be of little use to answer that “enough” may be good for food, but “too much” is poison. They get it easily ; they get it from the soldiers when they can get nothing else ; and hunger and cold and wet dispose them too readily to go home with their heads full of drink though their pockets are empty. Then at any rate they are warm ; the appetite for food is drowned ; they are drunk, and being drunk “don’t care;” and how not to care cannot always be an undesirable end when your lot is cast amongst the Curragh bushes. But of course even the seasoned wren cannot live by whisky alone ; and I took some pains to ascertain how she did live. Nothing in the world can be got out of the plain itself, not even water ; and the nearest town or village is three or four miles off. But there is the camp within something like half a mile ; and though the wrens are forbidden, under severe penalties, to appear within three hundred and sixty yards of certain defined limits of the camp, the severity of this regulation is relaxed on three days of the week, when a sort of market is held there. A certain number of the wrens are then allowed to approach and make purchases, “just like other people.” But the market days at the camp are only three out of the weekly seven-Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday ; and though as a rule the camp’s sweethearts do find means to get their daily bread, they have to get it from day to day. At Tuesday’s market Tuesday’s food may be bought ; but Wednesday’s food there is no money for yet. Nor can all they need be bought at the camp market ; and so they pay frequent visits to a certain little store or chandler’s shop. Learning this, I also visited the store, for opportunities of observing the particular purchases of the wren. Bread and milk and potatoes were the most conspicuous articles in the shop-in fact, the only articles to be seen in any quantity ; and so it was easy to discover what the good-natured little woman behind the counter was chiefly called upon to supply. I say good-natured little woman, for her manner to the degraded creatures who flocked to her shop was very considerate ; and they seemed to be thoroughly appreciative of its spirit. Bread, potatoes, milk, candles-these were the things most in demand. Thus, one woman carried off a stone of potatoes (12 lb.), twopenn’orth of milk, (in a tin can with a cross handle), a fourpenny loaf of bread, a penny candle, and “an egg for Mary Maloney’s baby.” Other women made purchases of tobacco, tea, and sugar ; and when these articles are added to the others a pretty complete account is given of the wren’s provender. Flesh meat is a rare luxury ; though sometimes a few meagre slices of bacon give token of its presence amidst half a stone of potatoes. Nor is tobacco a luxury merely. That weed is a well-known stifler of hunger-a fact which the wren discovers for herself before long. Water is a luxury. They would have to buy every pint of it, were they not permitted (on account of a little casualty which may be mentioned by-and-by) to get it from the military train. As it is, they do buy water sometimes of good-natured Mrs. Westley. I was in her shop one day when several wrens were marketing there. All were served but one-a civil and decent-looking girl, whom she detained while she carefully unfolded a little parcel. “There, Nelly,” said she, presenting the wren with a sprig of lavender, “put it with your clothes, my dear ; it’ll make ‘em smell nice.” Nelly had never seen a lavender sprig before evidently ; but she took it respectfully, tucked it into the bosom of her gown, and no doubt folded it in that garment when it was set aside. For, as I have said, the women-put off their decent clothes immediately they have no further use for them as ornaments ; for in that sense the print gown and “Curragh petticoat” are regarded. “Fine feathers make fine birds” is a saying as well understood in the bush as anywhere else. Thus, Bridget Flanagan, who had the honour of coming from the capital, was able to put down the pretensions of one of her companions who spoke of Dublin ladies as equals, by exclaiming, “You set yourself along wid such as thim ! Where’s your fine clothes ? Where’s your jewlree ?”
From all this a fair idea may be gained, I hope, of the intolerable life of the Curragh wren-intolerable to such of us, at any rate, as have any sense of public decency or public duty. We do not hear now of women being found dead amongst the furze, as they say used sometimes to happen, but surely things are terrible enough as they are to demand notice and remedy. It was the death of one of the wretched creatures which led to the granting of water to them from the camp supplies. In the nest where I spent one uncomfortable night, out of a desire to get my lesson thoroughly, a woman named Burns was suddenly taken ill, and in the morning was found dead amongst her companions. In this case a surgeon was brought, and there in the nest (I shuddered as the story was told to me) a surgical examination was made of the poor wretch’s body. An inquest was afterwards held in the same shameful place, and evidence taken of her companions. The medical evidence showed that the woman had perished through exposure to the weather and the drinking of foul water-collected anywhere on the common. A verdict to that effect was accordingly returned by the jury, who subscribed the handsome sum of thirteen shillings towards defraying the funeral expenses. She was buried in Kildare churchyard, to which better home she was attended by her companions. That must have been a pretty sight for the parson.  No similar death has happened in the colony since Mary Burns perished. The unfortunate creatures hold out as long as they can, and then crawl to the hospital or the workhouse to die there.
PART 2 of the pamphlet on The Wrens of the Curragh to celebrate the 300th ARTICLE on EHISTORY – all spellings etc. have been retained
[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 – typed and edited by Claire Connelly – re-edited by Roy O’Brien]

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: