The Wildest of Gees: the Curragh Wrens
Our newest adventure began in Tallaght with some art, culture and undertold women’s stories in Rua Red. Their current exhibition, They Come Then, the Birds, is inspired by a community of women who lived in the Curragh for nearly seven decades of the 19th century, sharing resources and childcare, living collectively while independent of the constraints of a deeply misogynistic society. Sound idyllic? In reality the Curragh Wrens led short, brutal lives, digging out underground spaces beneath thorny furze bushes to create some protection from the bitter winds howling across the flats of the Curragh. They survived on the little they could earn from sex work, servicing the soldiers of the nearby army camp (and, reputedly, a member of the British royal family). They were reviled by the local community, refused service in shops and treated as outcasts.
That harsh reality stands at some odds to our first impressions on entering the immersive space of Amanda Coogan’s performance art. Three large screens depict smiling women, their faces partially masked, cavorting around blooming furze bushes on a sunny day. The more time we spent among, between and behind the screens, the more the exhibition revealed itself. Spiky furze hangs from the ceiling, casting ominous shadows. The elements of the show are connected by ropes of a satisfyingly menstrual red. As we watched the women move about the screen, the layers of meaning became evident. We spot an eye drawn on the palm of a hand, a reference to the ‘we see you’ response to the news that Mother and Baby Home survivors’ testimonies had been destroyed. A woman splays her legs and flashes her gee, mimicking a Sheela na Gig. Chocolate is passed between women and stuffed into bras. The costumes, handmade by Coogan, are reminiscent of the wren boys.
For those not familiar with Amanda Coogan’s art, you may recognise her from last year’s Toy Show, signing and dancing to The Weekend’s Blinding Lights. Coogan is an ISL interpreter, and a child of Deaf adults, and sign language is woven through the exhibition. One ISL phrase echoes ‘we see you’ while another says ‘don’t touch me’. The accompanying prints in the gallery act like explanatory stills. We see the wren as A Sheela, and signing hands captioned ‘Noli mi tangere’ (don’t touch me). A series called ‘Chocolate in the hand, custard in the knickers’ depicts the transaction of sex work. The themes of the exhibition are also explored in the beautiful essay ‘Unruly Bodies’ by Kate Antosik-Parsons in the accompanying programme (definitely buy the programme!).
The exhibition is the first in a planned Magdalene Series commissioned by Maolíosa Boyle, executive director of Rua Red. And because we asked nicely (and our Sinéad knows her), we got to chat with her and development manager Joyce Dunne about wrens and gees and misogyny. Maolíosa has long had a fascination with the Magdalene laundries, as a professional artist and as a young single mother at a time when the last institutions had not yet closed their doors. It comes as a shock to us, who were all at some point pregnant and unmarried in the 90s and had assumed that age of stigma and shame was in the past, that the last one (in Derry) closed in 1998. There but for the grace of…
To some extent, the wrens’ fate was a precursor of the laundries. One of the reasons their story has survived in history is that they were the subject of Victorian moralising in the British press and there was a clamour to do something about these “wicked women”. The wrens were of course to blame for the incidence of STIs among soldiers and ‘lock hospitals’ were set up to address this. Under the Contagious Diseases Acts, women could be taken there against their will, inspected and held for months. So the wrens were eliminated through the institutionalisation and legislation of their bodies. No one appears to have considered stopping the men spreading the STIs.
Obviously the lockdown had an impact on the planning of the exhibitions, delaying the opening but also giving the artists (Coogan, Alice Maher, Rachel Fallon, Jesse Jones and Grace Dyas) more time to reflect on and respond to unfolding events relating to the MBH commission, and to discuss and influence each other’s work. That time was a blessing, reckons Maolíosa, and has allowed the series to evolve into something more collaborative. All the artists had explored similar themes in previous work but had never worked together before. It also created more time for research, including a series of online lectures. One of these, by Marina Warner, explores Mariolatology or the cult of the Virgin Mary.
Mary Magdalene, after whom the laundries and the series were named, was a saint, the first person to discover Jesus on Easter Sunday and touch his palm (an act echoed in the exhibition). It was a much later interpretation by Pope Gregory 1 that suggested she was a prostitute, the whore to Mary’s Madonna. In the patriarchal world view, there are only two types of women. This series explores Mary Magdalene through a contemporary feminist lens.
We were blown away by the exhibition and fascinated by the wrens’ story. You too can experience They come then, the birds before 18 September (the next exhibition in the series opens 8 October) so hop on the Luas that stops just outside Rua Red. Amanda Coogan will also premiere a live durational performance in Rua Red Gallery on 16th, 17th and 18th September.
You can also do what we did next and hop into Miriam’s car down the N7 to explore the Curragh and see what trace of the wrens we could find ourselves. Acting on some tips from a friend who has been doing research on the wrens for her own project but who was unable to join us on the day, we narrowed our search to behind the barracks of the Curragh. Contemporary reports mention ‘undulations’ in the land that are not typical of the landscape there. We managed to locate what looked like a likely spot but the furze that surrounded the camp in the 1800s now only grows in patches. We reckoned that the relative height combined with the furze would provide some level of protection from the elements and allow for easier digging of nests into the side of a hill rather than down into the ground. Within sight of the area on one side is the camp, where the men came from, and on the other the road into Newbridge, where the wrens would stock up in a shop run by a local widow, the only local business that would serve them. We may be very wrong but if we were desperate women clinging to survival on a wide expanse of exposed land, that’s where we would choose for our “she barracks”. In the centre of our chosen spot, there was a perfect, grass-filled circle. A fairy ring, whispered Gill and Miriam as we skirted it nimbly. Ordinance from the army’s weapon tests, claimed a cynical Sinead as she strolled brazenly across it. Later, when Miriam and Gill couldn’t find Sinéad as we returned to the car, we just assumed that the fairies had taken her and shrugged. You don’t mess with the Sídhe!
In a nearby clump of furze, we tried to get a sense of what it might be like as shelter. Even on a (not particularly sunny) summer’s day, the wind belts across the Curragh and we were conscious as soon as we stepped into it that the furze created an effective windbreak and the temperature noticeably rose. Furze was associated with the British army, who introduced it to Ireland and planted it as a defensive border around their camps. It would have been profuse when the wrens lived there. As sex work was the only profession open to some women to make an independent living in those times, it made sense to locate near a barracks and there were similar camps across the country. The Curragh is only the most notable because of the contemporary media accounts. In his reports, Victorian journalist James Greenwood wrote that some of the women had been seduced and made pregnant by soldiers, or even married them, and had followed them when they moved camp. The army had a prohibition on marriage so the women were left, with their infants, to fend for themselves. Their presence was tolerated by the army, who let them attend the camp market and stopped local law enforcement from interfering with their business. Other local accounts tell us just how reviled they were by the local community. They were chased out of town, stoned and even whipped. A local priest took a scissors to one wren and chopped her hair “close to the head”. This act recurs in Irish history, a particular punishment for women and girls considered to be not respectable or, in war time, consorting with the enemy.
What’s missing in all of this is the voice of the women themselves. We don’t know their names, how long they lived, where they are buried and what life was really like in those nests. We know that some of the women opted to go to the workhouse in the winter, though conditions were scarcely better there and they had less freedom. Their fate is inextricably linked to events in history, the first such camps being recorded in famine times, the last being eradicated by the institutionalisation of women’s bodies that came to define the next century. The overriding sense we got on the Curragh was that of stories demanding to be told.
We’ll be returning to the Curragh with our better-informed-than-us guide, and of course we’ll be back to Rua Red for all the exhibitions in the series and Amanda’s planned live performance later in the year if we can manage it (possible future lockdowns / restrictions permitting). Next up are Alice Maher and Rachel Fallon on 8 October. Most exciting for us is that each of the artists in the series has been paired with a writer and Alice and Rachel have been working with Wild Gees fav Sinéad Gleeson (we may have mentioned that we stan Sinéad Gleeson) on a collaborative piece. The series will culminate in a documentary featuring all the exhibitions. We can’t wait.
Kate Antosik-Parsons (2021). Unruly Bodies in Amanda Coogan’s ‘They Come Then, the Birds’. Rua Red. ISBN 978-1-9196036-0-5.
Maria Luddy (1992). An outcast community: the ‘wrens’ of the curragh, Women’s History Review, 1:3, 341-355, DOI: 10.1080/09612029200200014
Donal O’Keeffe (2019). The wren women on the edge of every garrison town. The Avondhu.