Who were the bad Bridgets? Find out more at upcoming local literary festival
The success and talent of Irish emigrants to North America has long been lauded in song and in story. We boast about such success and influence in all areas, from building bridges and cities to involvement in politics, police, education and religion. We have erected monuments and named plazas in their honour and in truth, most of these accolades were rightfully earned. We have even glorified the anti-heroes, the many gang leaders who terrorised New York and Boston in the late eighties and nineties; we affectionately see them as Robin Hood characters looking after their own and helping and protecting families in need.
Emigrant women continued the tradition of the Irish Mammy and brought their children up to be God-fearing, law-abiding Christians. We are comfortable with this wholesome image. But, what of those women and girls who fell by the wayside and didn’t make it? We bury our heads in the sand and are loath to acknowledge that it was not all the American dream. Many thousands of Irish women ended up in prisons for crimes ranging from petty theft, drunkenness, prostitution and even murder. Some of these girls were victims of circumstance. They left their villages and townlands in rural Ireland with little formal education, little money and no knowledge of the world outside their own environments. They were ill equipped to handle life in big cities like New York, Boston and Toronto and quickly fell prey to unscrupulous exploiters. They had to earn money to live. Perhaps too, to repay their sea fare over and of course to send money back home as was the norm at that time. Their families would have no idea what these girls had to do to earn such money and saw these dollars as an indication of how well Bridget was doing in the new world.
Of course, not all were innocent; many women were more worldly wise and intrinsically deviant. They chose lives as pick-pockets, sex workers and brothel keepers, preying on lonely men and exploiting their fellow countrywomen by leading them into lives of crime.
As a large proportion of Irish girls ended up in domestic service, they became known collectively as ‘Bridgets’ since so many of them bore that name. A study of criminal and deviant women in North America 1838 to 1918 was carried out by Dr Leanne McCormick (Ulster University) and Dr Elaine Farrell (Queens University Belfast). Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council this study examined the background and history of these women and the factors that led to their incarceration. They have launched a series of podcasts titled ‘Bad Bridget’ and are working on a book based on their five years of research. The five-part podcasts have become a huge hit reaching no 2 in the Apple History podcast charts in the UK and no 14 in America.
Dromineer Nenagh Literary Festival are looking forward to welcoming Dr Farrell and Dr McCormick to this year’s festival. Come along and listen to their many tales varying from amusing to heart breaking to downright shocking. It is possible some of those girls would have emigrated from these parts. Perhaps you know of some Tipperary Bad Bridgets. Stories about girls as young as 10 arrested for being drunk to one who at 85 had been arrested 33 times. Young girls who had no one to turn to after giving birth out of wedlock and abandoned or killed their babies. And one of Ireland’s most famous female criminals, Lizzy Halliday, who had the dubious honour of being the first woman to be sentenced to electrocution by New York’s electric chair. Her sentence was commuted to life in a mental institution where she went on to murder one of the attendants.