by mariocorrigan on July 23, 2008

VISITING the bushwomen of the Curragh in the daytime naturally seemed to an incomplete way of ascertaining how they really lived. The wren is, of course, a night bird, and ought to be seen at night by any one who thinks it worth while to learn her real characteristics and the part she plays in the economy of the universe. Therefore I ventured on a journey to the bush one evening, making myself as safe as a man can be who goes into haunts of recklessness and crime with nothing about him to tempt cupidity, and with a stout stick for the casual purposes of defence.  I did not suppose I should have any extraordinary adventures, but the Curragh is a wide place, and very lonely, and such of the Queen’s troops as consort with the bushwomen are often a dangerous character, especially when they happen to be drunk.
It was already dark when I set out from that miserable little town, Kildare, directing my steps first towards a landmark uncomfortably called the “Gibbet Rath.” Gibbet Rath I made out without much difficulty ; and from that spot made my way across the dark and silent common to the bush village, which, as I have already said, is far in its interior. I had marked the path pretty accurately on former visits ; and, after passing many a bush that might have been a wren’s nest, I presently discovered a glimmer of light here and there in the distance, which assured me that I had not gone wrong. These lights were the turf fires of the wrens, burning upon their earthen floors in a homelike way, which, at a distance, was pleasant enough. But arrived amongst the nests a difficulty did arise. Here were several, but how could I distinguish the one at which I could most rely, from previous acquaintance, upon a civil reception ? There were no means of distinguishing it at all ; and after wandering between one and another in a vain attempt to make out No. 2 nest, I resolved to take my chance and enter that which was nearest at hand. This particular nest, however, needed no addition to its assembled company. Peeping in through the hole that is called a doorway, I observed that the bush was tenanted by six wrens, two soldiers, and two little children. The women were smoking, the soldiers roasting potatoes, or “spuds,” as they called them, at the fire ; the children, poor little souls ! were huddled amongst the women, awake and lively, and perfectly contented. As soon as my presence was known I was invited to enter. So I went in, just to light my pipe ; and still the women smoked, and the soldiers roasted potatoes, and the children stared about them with innocent inquiring eyes, and a pretty picture of humanity they made crouched and crowded together in the low-roofed little den. But my visit was not to this nest ; and therefore, after a few compliments and the circulation of my tobacco pouch, I ventured to ask my way to No. 2 nest. One of the women rose to show me the way. The others put away their pipes at the same moment, and getting together the various articles of their evening attire, sallied out to dress in “the open.” Their stockings were already outside, hanging upon adjacent bushes. These the women gathered, and then proceeded to dress in the light that streamed upon the common from their fire and their one candle. Stockings, boots, the Curragh petticoat, the starched cotton gown, and with a little deft arrangement of the hair, there they stood clean and decent enough-to look at. The toilette being completed, each took a glance at herself in the looking-glass, and then they went away into the darkness, the soldiers with them, leaving my guide behind. She faithfully showed me to No. 2, and then went back to keep watch till her companions returned from one more excursion into the most dismal swamp of vice where they find their daily bread.
No. 2 nest had also a turf fire burning near the door ; by the light of which I saw, as I approached it, one wretched figure alone. Crouched near the glowing turf, with her head resting upon her hands, was a woman whose age I could scarcely guess at, though I think by the masses of black hair that fell forward upon her hands and backward over her bare shoulders that she must have been young. She was apparently dozing, and taking no heed of the pranks of the frisky little curly-headed boy whom I have made mention of before ; he was playing on the floor. When I announced myself by rapping on the bit of corrugated iron which stood across the bottom of the doorway, the woman started in something like fright ; but she knew me at a second glance, and in I went. “Put back the iron, if ye plaze,” said the wren, as I entered ; “the wind’s blowing this way to-night, bad luck to it.” The familiar iron pot was handed to me to sit upon, my stick was delivered over to poor little Billy Carson, my whisky flask and tobacco were laid out for consumption, and I laid myself out for as much talk as could be got from the watching wren. Billy Carson had not the splendid appearance he wore when I last saw him, in his Sunday frock. His clothes were rags, and they were few and foul. The face of the poor child was of the colour of the earth he sprawled upon ; but there were his thick curly black locks and his great big eyes, so full of fun and sense, of innocence and spirit, as if he wasn’t a wren’s child at all. While I looked at this unfortunate little fellow, wondering what was likely to be the end of him, and what my own end might have been had I begun life as a wren’s little boy, the woman still sat crouched near the fire, with her face hidden on her folded arms, in a very miserable and despairing attitude indeed. I asked her whether the boy was hers, by way of starting a conversation ; she bluntly answered me without looking up that “it wasn’t, thank God.” I tried again. “Have some whisky ; you’re cold.” “Indade I am, but it’s not whisky that will warm me this night,” said she. But next minute, she jumped up, turned some whisky into a cup, tossed it off with a startling rapid jerk of hand and head, went to the looking glass (an irregular fragment as big as the palm of your hand), and wisped her hair up in a large handsome knot. Then the whisky began to operate ; her tongue was loosed. She readily answered all the trifling questions I asked of her, meanwhile putting Billy to bed, who had got sleepy. I was very curious to see how this would be done when she proposed it to Billy, but there was nothing remarkable in the process to reward expectation. The straw was pulled from under the crockery shelf, and Billy was placed upon the heap dressed as he was, with an injunction to shut his eyes. He did so, and the operation was complete.
Of course I wanted to know how my wretched companion in this lonely, windy, comfortless hovel came from being a woman to be turned into a wren. The story began with “no father nor mother,” an aunt who kept a whisky-store in Cork, an artilleryman who came to the whisky-store, and saw and seduced the girl. By-and-by his regiment was ordered to the Curragh. The girl followed him, being then with child. “He blamed me for following him,” said she. “He’d have nothing to do with me. He told me to come here and do like other women did. And what could I do ? My child was born here, in this very place, and glad I was of the shelter, and glad I was when the child died-thank the blessed Mary ! What could I do with a child ? His father was sent away from here, and a good riddance. He used me very bad.” After a minute’s silence the woman continued, a good deal to my surprise, “I’ll show you the likeness of a betther man, far away !-one that never said a cross word to me-blessed’s the ground he treads upon!” And, fumbling in the pocket of her too scanty and too dingy petticoat, she produced a photographic portrait of a soldier, inclosed in half a dozen greasy letters. “He’s a bandsman, sir, and a handsome man he is, and I believe he likes me too. But they have sent him to Malta for six years ; I’ll never see my darlint again.” And then this poor wretch, who was half crying as she spoke, told me how she had walked to Dublin to see him just before he sailed, “because the poor craythur wanted to see me onst more.” The letters she had in her pocket were from him ; they were read and answered by the girl whose penmanship I have already celebrated, and who seems to be the only woman in the whole colony who can either read or write. I could not find another, at any rate.

From this woman, so strangely compounded, I learned, as I sat smoking over the turf fire-and the night was bitterly cold-much that I have already related. I also learned the horror the women have of the workhouse ; and how, if they are found straying over the limits allotted to them, they have to appear at Naas to be fined for the offence (a half-crown seems to be the fine commonly inflicted), or to be sent for seven days to gaol. There, according to this woman, they get about a pint of “stirabout” for breakfast, at two o’ clock in the afternoon some more stirabout and about a pound of bread, and nothing more till breakfast time next day. I cannot but think this a false statement, and yet she spoke of the workhouse as a place still more unlovely. However, she had suffered so much privation last winter that she had made up her mind not to stay in the bush another such season. “At the first fall of the snow I’ll go to the workhouse, that I will !” she said, in the tone of one who says that in such an event he is determined to cut his throat. “Why, would you belave it, sir, last winter the snow would be up as high as our little house, and we had to cut a path through it to the min, or we’d been ruined intirely.” In this way she talked, and I listened, and heard how one of the inhabitants of the place I was in had been seduced at the age of thirteen years and four months by an officer in a rifle regiment-a circumstance of which my companion seemed to think there was some reason to be proud. “A rale gentleman he was.” In some such spirit one woman declared to me, with a scornful air, “It wasn’t one man brought me here, but manny ! and that’s the truth bedad !” I also heard that in winter some of the women knit stockings to sell at the camp market, adding a little money to the common stock that way ; and further, that sometimes an officer took a fancy to the companionship of some particular wren, and smuggled her into his quarters.
Presently the report of a gun was heard. “Gun fire !” cried my companion. “They’ll soon be back now, and I hope it’s not drunk they are.” I went out to listen. All was dead quiet, and nothing was to be seen but the lights in the various bushes, till suddenly a blaze broke out at a distance. Some dry furze had been fired by some of the soldiers who were wandering on the common, and in search of whom the picket presently came round, peeping into every bush. Presently the sound of distant voices was heard ; it came nearer and nearer, and its shrillness and confusion made it known to me that it was indeed a party of returning wrens-far from sober. They were, in fact, mad drunk ; and the sound of their voices as they came on through the dense darkness, screaming obscene songs, broken by bursts of horrible laughter, with now and than a rattling volley of oaths which told that fighting was going on, was staggering. I confess I now felt uncomfortable. I had only seen the wren sober, or getting sober ; what she might be in that raging state of drunkenness I had yet to find out ; and the discovery threatened to be very unpleasant. The noise came nearer, and was more shocking because you could disentangle the voices and track each through its own course of swearing, or of obscene singing and shouting, or of dreadful threats which dealt in detail with every part of the human frame. “Is this your lot ?” I asked my companion, with some apprehension, as at length the shameful crew burst out of the darkness. “Some ov ’em, I think.” But no, they passed on ; such a spectacle as made me tremble. I felt like a man respited when the last woman went staggering by. Again voices were heard, this time proceeding from the women belonging to the bush where I was spending so uncomfortable an evening. Five in all, two tipsy and three comparatively sober, they soon presented themselves at the door. One of them was Billy’s mother. At the sound of her voice the child woke up and cried for her. She was the most forbidding-looking creature in the whole place ; but she hastened to divest herself, outside, of her crinoline and the rest of her walking attire (nearly all she had on), and came in and nursed the boy very tenderly. The other wrens also took off gown and petticoat, and folding them up made seats of them within the nest. Then came the important inquiry from the watching wren, “What luck have you had ?”-to which the answer was, “Middling.” Without the least scruple they counted up what they had got amongst them-a poor account : it was enough to make a man’s heart bleed to hear the details and to see the actual money. In order to continue my observations a little later in a way agreeable to those wretched outcasts, I proposed to “stand supper”-a proposition which was joyfully received, of course. Late as it was, away went one of the wrens to get supper, presently returning with a loaf, some bacon, some tea, some sugar, a little milk, and a can of water. The women bought all these things in such modest quantities that my treat cost no more (I got my change and I remember the precise sum) than two shillings and eightpence halfpenny.   The frying-pan was put in requisition, and there seemed some prospect of a “jolly night” for my more sober nest of wrens. One of them began to sing, not a pretty song, but presently she stopped to listen to the ravings of a strong-voiced vixen in an adjoining bush. “It’s Kate,” said one, “and she’s got the drink in her,-the devil that she is.” I then heard that this was a woman of such ferocity when drunk that the whole colony was in terror of her. One of the women near me showed me her fact torn that very right by the virago’s nails, and a finger almost bitten through. As long as the voice of the formidable creature was heard, every one was silent in No. 2 nest-silent out of fear that she would presently appear amongst them. Her voice ceased ; again a song was commenced ; then the frying-pan began to hiss ; and that sound it was perhaps which brought the dreaded virago down upon us. She was heard coming from her own bush, raging as she came. “My God, there she is !” one of the women exclaimed ; “she’s coming here, and if she sees you she’ll tear every rag from your back !” The next moment the fierce creature burst into our bush-a stalwart woman full five feet ten inches high, absolutely mad with drink. Her hair was streaming down her back, she had scarcely a rag of clothing on, and the fearful figure made at me with a large jug, intended to be smashed upon my skull. I declare her dreadful figure appalled me ; I was so wonder-stricken that I believe she might have knocked me on the head without resistance. But, quick as lightning, one of the women got before me, spreading out her petticoat. “Get out of it !” she shouted, in terror. “Run !” And so I did. Covered by this friendly and grateful wren I passed out of the nest and made my way homeward in the darkness. One of the girls stepped out to show me the way. I parted from her a few yards from the nest, and presently “lost myself” on the common. It was nearly two o’ clock when I got to Kildare from my last visit to that shameful bush village.
This scene, which I shall never forget, gave me, so to speak, a bellyful. As I wandered over the common for two good hours, I saw that dreadful woman in imagination at every turn, and her voice disturbed my sleep when at last I did get to bed. I resolved to go no more a-nesting, but to return and write what I have now written, hoping that some good may come of it. I suppose it is not possible to allow such things to continue in a Christian country ?
PART 3 of the pamphlet on The Wrens of the Curragh to celebrate the 300th ARTICLE on EHISTORY 
[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 – typed and edited by Claire Connelly – re-edited Roy O’Brien]

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