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Sex History: The Curragh Wrens

By Sexpress Editor Caoimhe Battault

The Curragh Wrens are not widely discussed or perhaps even know about, but their existence may be one of the most upsetting parts of the history of Ireland. A product of the Great Famine, the Wrens were women who gathered on the plains of the Curragh in County Kildare in order to survive. They became prostitutes for the British soldiers of the Curragh Barracks, the largest foreign based Barracks of the British Empire. Many of these women were unmarried mothers, alcoholics, free-thinkers, mentally ill, criminals or anyone else who may be considered “beyond the pale” of societies acceptable. Their desperation and circumstances made them the lowest of the low and were looked down upon even by other “indoor” prostitutes.

Their name came from their living circumstances.  Much like the songbird, the women burrowed into the ground of the Curragh for shelter, using the strong furze as roofing. James Greenwood, a nineteenth century English journalist, wrote a piece for the London Pall Mall Gazette, which gives people today the most accurate, if veiled by Victorian misogyny, information about the Wrens. This includes their living spaces. He wrote how the nests were grouped into villages and so low “you crouched into them, as beasts crouch into cover… no standing upright until you crawl out again.”

It was no secret (or surprise) that the Curragh Wrens were terribly abused, both by their clients and the people of the neighbouring town of Newbridge. There were many reports of terrible gang rapes by soldiers of the Wrens, and they often suffered terrible disease and STDs. They were banned from the shops in town, with only one widowed shopkeeper in Newbridge allowing them custom there. One priest from the town was said to have ripped the clothes from a Wren and began whipping her bare skin with a riding whip “until the blood spurted on his boots.” The army made sure to “take care” of the women by bringing a water cart to the villages twice a week and allowing them shop for food at the army market. However, its important to remember that these women were a useful “commodity and outlet” for the army, and these gestures were unlikely to have been from goodwill, but rather selfish reasoning.

Although these women had extremely tough lives, one aspect of their living was unusual and gave a sense of hope. Through their ostracization, the Wrens began a communistic lifestyle. They shared all income, belongings and even children. There was no leader or hierarchy and the women all took care of each other, all being from similarly traumatising backgrounds. Due to their banishment from society, the Curragh Wrens created their own society, one which allowed for differences and unconventionality and seemed far more appealing than the workhouse.