The 'Curragh Wrens'
Naas & Athy Prison Records
From the mid-1850s, the records of Naas and Athy prisons record a uniquely local offence: trespassing on the Curragh Camp. The majority of the culprits belonged to the group of women known as the "Curragh Wrens", described so vividly in James Greenwood's article in the Pall Mall Gazette of 1867. Historyeye examines these prison records for further potential insights into these women's lives.
Naas Jail, and Athy Jail before it, recorded its own unique crime from the mid 1850s - Trespassing on the Curragh Army Camp. The usual sentence was a fine of ten shillings or one week in prison. In all cases the prisoner served the sentence. The main culprits were young women, most of whom were not from the neighbourhood.
There were always multiple entries for the same people. One individual, Bridget Doolan, appeared up to fifty-six times between the years 1856-8. She was 24 in 1859, 5’3’, with brown hair, grey eyes and a fair complexion. She came from Moate or Stradbally and was described as a labourer with no education.
Pall Mall Gazette of 1867
It is almost certain that many of the inmates in Athy and Naas jail belonged to the group known as the ‘Curragh Wrens’, described as such by journalist James Greenwood for the Pall Mall Gazette in 1867. (1. )
In his article, Greenwood identified between fifty and sixty women living on the Curragh plain and using the furze for shelter. He described specific events and individuals, almost certainly disguised with false names.
There was a "Mary Burns" who was reported as having died in the furze. The formidable 5’10’ "Kate", who terrified all the others. There was the "wren" who could write beautifully (the only one with writing skills according to Greenwood.) There was a "Miss Clancy" and a young woman from Arklow. He described a "Bridget Flanagan" from Dublin. He also spoke of four year-old "Billy Carson", a child of one of the "wrens".
These names and particulars were cross-referenced with the available jail registers for 1867 to see if any could be linked to Greenwood's account. (2.)
Many 'Curragh Wrens' were not Irish
What Greenwood didn’t mention, but what quickly becomes obvious from researching the prison records, was that at least seven of the habitual Curragh trespassers were not Irish at all. Instead they came from places as far afield as Plymouth, Chester, St. Albans, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool and Coventry.
Surprisingly a Mary Burns was indeed mentioned in the real record. She was habitually jailed for camp trespassing over many years and had several aliases - including Bridget Byrne, Mary Oates and Mary Hurley. In 1866 she was described as 28 years of age, late of Dublin, illiterate, RC, 5’0’ with brown hair, grey eyes and a fresh complexion. Her last entry was in March 1867.
After that she disappears from the pages, supporting the theory that she may be a match for the individual who died in the furze in James Greenwood’s account. Her death didn’t appear to have been registered with the General Register Office under any of her names however.
Nobody from Arklow was identified in the registers. A possible match was a Mary Jane Turner, from Wicklow, illiterate, RC, 21 , 5’ 1¼’, charged with trespass on Oct. 25th 1867. Nobody called Bridget Flanagan was found, although a Margaret Clancy was in evidence from Dec 24th, 1864, described as illiterate, RC, from Limerick, 20, 4’ 10 ½’.
No one matched the description of the much-feared 5’10’ ‘Kate’. A possible match was an Ann Brennan, 5’7’, RC, from Kilkenny, 28 years in 1867. Often brought in on a charge of drunkenness, she may well have been the individual in question, her height being well above the other "wrens" who were under five feet tall in most cases. There was no evidence of the existence of Billy Carson’s mother.
'Curragh Wren' Statistics
Eighty-nine habitual Curragh trespassers were identified for 1867, the year of Greenwood’s Pall Mall Gazette article. Nine of the trespassers could read and write. (10 %). Twelve of the eighty-nine were Protestant. (13%). There were two cases of infanticide and one of child desertion for that year. The breakdown of place of origin of the camp followers for that year was as follows:
Thanks to English Census records, it is known that one camp trespasser, Eliza Kiff, (born 1845) was almost certainly the daughter of Thomas and Susan Kiff (née Cockle), agricultural labourers from St. Michael's parish, St. Albans, Hertfordshire. In 1861, Elizabeth Kiff, whose surname is strongly associated with Hertfordshire, was working in a silk factory and living at St. Albans with her widowed mother, who was to remarry later that year. How she ended up in Kildare is anyone's guess.
The year 1859 recorded a total of 486 prisoners, broken down into 260 males and 226 females. But by 1865 there were 346 males and 810 female entries, a unique ratio for an Irish prison. (3). The Inspector of Prisons report for that year reveals that only Cork City jail had a greater proportion of female inmates. (4). In 1866 the numbers in the jail reached their peak at 1275 prisoners.
From this time on , there was an increasingly large cohort of male,foreign-born, non-military prisoners in evidence, perhaps reflecting the role of the Curragh in attracting a cosmopolitan mix of craftsmen,tradesmen and musicians. Lombardi, Italy and Baden, Prussia are just some of the diverse places of prisoner origin recorded.
By October 1870, the word ‘Prostitute’ was used for the first time to describe some of the camp trespassers. Up until then they were usually referred to either as ‘labourers’ or ‘no occupation’ in the written records.
The Lock Hospital opens in Kildare
There is a break in the surviving Naas jail records between Oct 25th 1871 and April 28th 1875. But when the records resume on 29th April 1875, a great change had occurred. (5). Not only were the numbers of prisoners much smaller (only 186 inmates in 1876), the 'Trespassing on the Curragh' cases had ceased entirely. Instead assault and larceny cases predominated. This change may have coincided with the setting up of the Lock Hospital near Kildare Town in 1869. (Indeed “escaping from the Lock” had now become a new prominent offence on the register pages).
The Curragh bye laws were rewritten in 1873 which had the effect of limiting camp followers to distant outlying areas. This is likely to be another reason for the major shift in prisoner type. It is also possible that there was an increasing tendency to turn a blind eye to the "wrens" activities. Tellingly there were a mere 232 entries for the year 1881 up to November, when the surviving register ends.
Genealogical research of the Naas/ Athy prisoners is understandably challenging. There is little in the way of familial relationships in this archive. By definition, the camp followers were largely cut off from family and community. The pattern was for individuals to feature very prominently for a few years and then disappear completely. It is difficult to know or trace what might have happened next. Knowing the prisoners' ages and various places of origin certainly makes for a solid starting point.
Children of the Great Famine
If the camp followers had children, they were not named by the registers, although offences involving their children indirectly identified their approximate birth years. For example - ‘Bridget Doolan, 24, from Stradbally, Dec. 1st ,1858, was charged with 'deserting her son, tying him to the workhouse gate and leaving him destitute.’ Again on Sept 25, 1859 she was charged with the same offence. The case was discharged when she was sent to the workhouse herself . With the exception of the English trespassers, these pages are perhaps the best birth record substitutes for the camp followers themselves, many of whom were born in the 1840s or late 1830s and were true children of the Famine.
An example here was ‘Mary Dixon, born Rathcoole in 1840. 26 years. 5’2’. R.C. Could read only. Brown hair and eyes. Sallow skin. Received one month’s hard labour for assaulting Colonel Edward Wodehouse, 24th Regiment, on the 14th June,1866 by ' throwing stones at him.’ There was no trace of her baptism in the relevant parish registers of Rathcoole or Saggart.
One of the few remaining veterans of the older registers, Mary Dixon was still in evidence in the final pages of the jail archive in 1881, though her description indicates that she had shrunk seven inches to 4’7’ in the intervening years, a small but telling detail that only a prison register could reveal. On the 20th of April 1881, she was tried at Curragh Sessions for assaulting a policeman. Mary Dixon's death occurred in Naas Workhouse ten years later in 1891, where she was described as a spinster and a servant by trade. (6).