From the tragic story of ‘The Wrens’ to the execution of fellow Irishmen, Terry Corrigan tells the interesting, and lesser told, history of The Curragh in County Kildare
Mention the Curragh to most folks outside of Ireland and they will think of horse racing, but this 4,870-acre site in the county of Kildare holds more than just the history of last week’s winners and losers.
Boasting the largest expanse of natural grassland in Europe, this stretch of Irish countryside is as unique for its past, as it is for its present.
Its vast and lonely plains have accommodated men of war for centuries. It is even believed that an ancient king of Ireland, Laeghaire Lore was slain here in battle.
The Vikings travelled through this stretch on their way to raiding monasteries and towns throughout the country, and even The Duke of Wellington passed through on his way to The Peninsular War.
It was here that the troops were mustered for the start of the Irish Rebellion of 1798.
Indeed, has any other stretch of Irish landscape felt the weight of so many hooves upon its fertile turf, even excepting the thoroughbreds of the racecourse nearby?
The camp itself was built originally by the British in the late 19th century during the Crimean War; and has been a training and prison camp for both Irish and British throughout several conflicts on the roadmap of Irish history.
However, where there are army barracks, there will always be prostitution, and in 1869, English journalist James Greenwood wrote in detail about the “Curragh Wrens”.
In his book, The Seven Curses of London, Greenwood explains that they were so called because they lived in makeshift dens, referred to as “nests”, in the long grass around the camp.
Greenwood could hardly contain his outrage and repulsion at the whole set up. This after all, was not just an Englishman abroad, but a Victorian Englishman abroad.
However, after meeting one young girl, his mood softened.
She told him the story that after being orphaned, she had lived with an aunt who ran a whiskey shop in Cork. A charming young English soldier frequented the shop often and eventually seduced her.
When he was sent to the Curragh Camp, she went to find him to announce that she was with child.
On hearing the news, her aunt disowned her and kicked her out. Her only hope and salvation now lay with her soldier.
However, when she eventually found him and told him the news, he denounced her and told her to leave him alone. Reminiscent of a tragic heroine from a Thomas Hardy story, she was left heartbroken, alone and with nowhere to go.
Without the means to support herself or the child she was expecting, she reluctantly remained at the Curragh and joined the other wrens in their nests.
Soon after, her soldier was posted overseas, and she was never to see him again. Her baby died a short time later, and she faced her bleak life in the Curragh alone.
Greenwood seemed fascinated with the situation and returned over several nights and met many of the other wrens.
He discovered that they worked well enough as a community, and baby-sat each other’s children while the mother was out at ‘work’.
Whatever his personal feelings were, Greenwood knew well the plight of the ‘fallen women’ was a hot issue in Victorian England at the time, and the story of the wrens was pure gold to any investigative journalist.