-Saint Patrick’s Day Special-
The Wrens of the Curragh
-What is it?-
First and foremost, Happy Saint Patrick’s Day everyone! I hope anyone reading this has had the chance to celebrate in some way or another and cut loose on one of the best days of the year.
The recommendation this St. Patrick’s Day is a little unorthodox, in the sense that it’s not one set reading recommendation, but more what I think is an interesting sub-historical topic that I stumbled across last St. Patrick’s Day while doing some morning research on Irish history. It’s also more than a bit of a downer, at least at first, but I’ll do my best to try and highlight the parts of the story that matter, not just the ones that are salaciously depressing.
The Wrens of the Curragh were a group of women who lived on the outskirts of Kildare—a moderately-sized Irish town—from about the mid-1840s to the early 1880s. Their home was the Curragh, a vast plain stretching for miles around Kildare, and they were called Wrens because, in place of homes, they lived in “nests”—essentially burrows of grass that they wove and patched together—in a small community near a military camp on the plain.
Many of these women were social outcasts—single mothers, prostitutes, women who had followed men from the camp, only to be abandoned, the poor who would rather live in a field than a workhouse, or simply runaways who needed somewhere to stay. Their population was usually between fifty and sixty at any given time, and more than a few of them would stay year-round, sticking out brutal summers and long, cold winters with nothing but a few items of clothing and their grass nests for shelter.
They received a little bit of support from the surrounding community—the military camp would let them come and shop at a market several times a week, as well as supply them with water, and there was a widow who owned a shop in Kildare who let the Wrens visit and pick up supplies like milk, bread, potatoes, and sometimes a delicacy, like bacon, or lavender.
But life was often, as one might expect, bleak. Many of the women, to keep warm in the cold, or simply to cope, turned to alcohol. In order to make ends meet, some of the women would knit items of clothing that others could sell at the nearby market—but for many of the women, prostitution quickly became a way of life. Because of this, disease was often quick to spring up between the Wrens, and because the doctors of the military camp refused to see them, they would either have to find treatment themselves, or, barring anything but an immediate emergency, beg the soldiers to have the sick taken to the hospital in Naas, nearly nine miles away.
The Wrens were not much welcome in the town of Kildare, either. There’s a story that’s often repeated of a priest who, finding a Wren in the town, flogged her until “…the blood spurted onto his boots.” The townspeople watched and said nothing.
After nearly half a century, the community slowly dissipated, and the Wrens quickly passed into the annals of old stories and folklore.
-Why is it important?-
These women were regarded as the lowest of the low, the absolute bottom dregs of society. They were practically caricatures of what happens when one strays from the good and moral dictums of the social structure and instead chooses to steep themselves in vice, forever languishing in a barren waste of the soul.
Honesty first—to call their life a hard one is an understatement as wide as the plain they used to call home. There is no sense in trying to ease the discomfort of hardship with an injection of false or pretentious nobility.
These women, cast out from all forms of polite society, had the option to go back. They could have gone to a workhouse; they could have tried their luck with a soldier in the camp; they could have gone back into Kildare and begged for something, anything, to bring them back into regular life.
But they didn’t.
In an obvious sense, one could make the case that many of them were vagrants, the 19th century homeless who had no intention or motivation regarding their betterment, and were so sunk into their own depravity that the effort of rejoining any kind of decent society was so far beyond the pale of possibility that to even consider it for many of them would make them reach for a drink.
While I accept that this may have been the case for some, even a majority, I refuse to believe—on both a personal bias and what appears to be a repeat emergence of human decency, beauty, and will in even the most degraded of places—that the Wrens’ entire character could be reduced only to that of a hopeless wretch.
Instead, I find it, in a way, honorable in a sense that few often find the courage to practice in their own lives. They knew that they would face hardship one way or another, and they chose to face it on their own terms, and to try and make their own life, even if most of it was mired in misfortune. These women formed a community—they supported each other, for decades. There were children born to some of the Wrens, and many would help take care of the kids until they were either grown, or left with their mother. Many couldn’t read or write, so those who could would help them keep up a semblance of correspondence with family, loved ones, friends, and others. They helped each other cook meals. They took care of the sick. They did all of this without, as far as the records show, a formal leadership or institutionalized hierarchy of any kind. They did all these things because they either had to be done, or, given the circumstances, they were the right thing to do.
There is no argument that the material way the Wrens lived is no way to live at all—no human being should ever have to live in the way they did, at such a level. But there is perhaps something to be said in how they lived in such a bleak reality, and still found ways to try and make something of their own of it.
Though maybe not uplifting on a surface level, the Wrens of the Curragh paint a picture of people who, when subjected to misfortune and suffering, still found some way through it, in both each other, and the community they created.
If you want to read more, the Wikipedia article—trite, I know, but not always a bad place to at least begin research—is linked here.
There is also a series of articles written by James Greenwood, an English journalist writing for Charles Dickens’ journal The Pall Mall Gazette, who actually visited the Wrens’ camp and wrote down his thoughts and observations. It’s a fascinating first-hand account of the life these women lived, and maybe one of the only of its kind in existence. You can find them here.
I hope everyone has a great St. Patrick’s Day, and I wish you all good health and more than enough cheer. Sláinte!
“Wrens of the Curragh.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8 Jan. 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wrens_of_the_Curragh.
Irish Origins, and Irish Origins. “The Wrens of the Curragh.” Irish Origins, 9 Oct. 2018, https://irishorigins.wordpress.com/2017/11/06/the-wrens-of-the-curragh/.
Link to Wrens of the Curragh Podcast – Spotify
Link to Wrens of the Curragh Podcast – Apple Podcasts
Link to Wrens of the Curragh Podcast – SoundCloud