Bessie Kane’s Trial

Was Justice Served?

Some 250 years ago, Dublin was divided by a case that was being conducted in the criminal courts. From the highest to the lowest strata of society in that city appeared to be divided into two warring factions on this case. It was almost impossible to speak in the home, or on the street, about this case without causing a quarrel because it was viewed as an elaborate means of illustrating the justice of the English administration in a troublesome country.

This case centred on a dispute between an old gipsy woman and a young servant girl. The question at issue was whether the gipsy had robbed and forcibly imprisoned Bessie Kane, or had Bessie Kane falsely accused the gipsy of being guilty for these things. It was, however, the force of incidental circumstances that caused the case to become so important to the populace, the jurists and the administration. In fact, the case became a question on the efficiency of Britain’s judicial institutions in Ireland, and how able they were to protect and provide justice to the innocent. Unsurprisingly, there were to be many inquiries and trials associated with the case, but I have space only to outline the most prominent highlights of these.

Bessie Kane was an unexceptional young woman who was almost nineteen years of age, and she had been employed in the house of a wealthy man, Edward Laing, living in Cohannon. On New Year’s Day she had been given permission to visit the home of her uncle in Lismore, but she failed to return to the Laing household at the time specified. Concerned about her whereabouts, Mr Laing’s family asked Bessie’s mother if she had seen her daughter, but she had not made called on her or any of her other relations after visiting her uncle.

The days passed into weeks as inquiries continued to prove unfruitful and Bessie’s mother suffered torment every hour that her daughter was missing. The newspapers were made aware of the mystery surrounding Bessie’s disappearance and the affair was soon the talk of every town. Much to everyone’s surprise, at the end of January, Bessie entered her mother’s house in terrible condition, being both emaciated and exhausted, and she had hardly a stitch of clothing on her back, leaving her almost naked. She was, of course, asked so many questions that they put her head in a spin and she found it difficult to give a coherent report of what had happened to her. But, Bessie gathered her senses sufficiently to give her listeners the story behind her disappearance.

Bessie told her audience that she had set out on her visit to her uncle at eleven o’clock in the morning, and that she had stayed with him until nine o’clock in the evening. She said that her uncle and aunt accompanied her as far as the edge of Lismore. From there she set off alone along the narrow country roads and passed by  the rear of the Hospital, at which point she was seized by two very strong, well-built men.

“They didn’t speak a word to me, at first,” Bessie told them, “but stole half a guinea from a little purse in my pocket, and three shillings in loose change. Then they stripped me of my dress, apron, and hat, folding them up, and putting them into a greatcoat pocket. When I screamed out, the man who took my dress put a handkerchief or something into my mouth.”

Bessie then described how the men tied her hands behind her, swore at her lewdly, and dragged her along with them. She said that she fainted, but when she recovered she found herself to be still their captive. They shouted at her, swearing terrible things, and demanded that she move on quickly. But, because she was still in shock, Bessie was carried or dragged for a considerable distance. She could not which, however. It was daylight the next morning, she told them all, when she was finally at her journey’s end.

Bessie Kane 1Of the place she finally ended up, Bessie could only recall that it was a disreputable-looking house, where she was met by a woman, who told her that if she would accompany her, she would be given fresh clothes. When Bessie refused, she said the woman grabbed a knife from a dresser, which she used to cut open her stays, and removed them. She then went on to describe how the woman and the other people in the house hustled her upstairs into a wretched-looking attic and locked the door. In that space she found only a miserable straw-bed, a large black pitcher nearly full of water, and a loaf of bread that had been cut into twenty-four pieces. Bessie continued to describe how she remained in that attic space for four weeks, eating so much of the bread and drinking a little water every day, until both were exhausted. She then told them how she made her escape, by removing a board which was nailed across a window. “First,” she said, “I managed to get my head out, and kept a tight hold of the wall, and got my body out. Then, I was able to turn myself around, and jump into a small, narrow alley-way that led to a field not far away. Having no other clothing  than an old bedgown and a handkerchief, that I found in that attic in an old, grimy fire-grate, I managed to travel twelve miles along roads I did not know until I reached my mother’s house. And, as I travelled, I did not dare to call into any place along the way, in case I would fall again into the hands of those horrible people.”

If Bessie’s disappearance had created excitement, her sudden reappearance in the condition she was in, and with such a story to tell, caused uproar. Although not an exceptional woman, Bessie was an attractive-looking girl. When she saw the sympathy that was being showed to her she became excited, and quickly agreed to a theory that had been formed by some of her friends. They suggested that the people who had taken her had wanted to use her in the most awful way, and they would weaken her resolve by forcing her to stay in such poor conditions, but Bessie had courageously and patiently resisted them. This was now the story that was told far and wide, and it was spoken of in every tavern and at every dinner-table, rousing the anger of many of the good citizens.  Being the parents, and having daughters of their own, they feared who might become the next victim of this diabolical crew from which this poor girl had fortunately escaped. As the story spread more and more people rallied around Bessie, ready to avenge the wrongs done to her and punish the perpetrators.

Bessie soon found that she had become one of the most important people in Dublin. She was given many, and considerable funds were raised to assist her to bring the kidnappers to justice. She, of course, was required to help in the investigation by remembering every little incident in her dreadful experience that might just lead investigators to the place where she was held. She believed that it must have been on Henry Street, because she had been able to look out the window and managed to catch of sight of a coach, which she recognised as being one that a former mistress had been accustomed to travelling in. This clue, along with the distance she had travelled, gave investigators an idea that they should concentrate their search in that area of town. During their search they found a dilapidated old lodging-house that was kept by a family named Wallis, who appeared to match persons that Bessie had described to them. Moreover, this house had an attic space in which lay an old straw-bed, and there was a black pitcher found in the house.

Bessie was taken to this house in a coach alongside her mother, with her friends accompanying her on horseback. It was like a triumphal procession through the streets, with many of the crowd rushing into the squalid lodging-house, and the natural astonishment and confusion of those people living in the house was taken to be a sign of their guilt. At first, Bessie seemed to be a little confused and undecided, but this was taken to be a sign of the excitement she was feeling as she recalled the horrors that she had endured. She was told not to worry any more since she was now among her friends, all of whom would support her. Finally, she told them that she was in the house where she had been imprisoned and treated so wretchedly.

There was a gipsy woman in the house and one of the witnesses recognised her as being like ‘Mother Carson’ the sorceress, whose portrait they had seen. She sat, totally calm, bending over the open fire smoking a clay-pipe, and ignoring the hustle and bustle around her. Bessie immediately pointed to her and said that she was the woman who had cut her stays and helped to put her in her prison-room. But, even this direct accusation did not disturb the total indifference that the old woman was showing to what people were saying. However, when the old woman’s daughter stepped up and said to her, “Mother, this young woman says you robbed her,’ she jumped to her feet, turned on the group.

Bessie Kane 2With an ugly and angry face, the old woman said, ‘What do you mean I robbed you? You had better take care what you are saying. If you have once seen my face, you could never mistake it, for God knows he never made another like.’ Then we she spoke about the day Bessie was robbed, she gave a wild laugh, and told them all that she was more than a hundred miles away in Cork. She did not call herself ‘Carson’, but ‘Sullivan’ and her son, George Sullivan, was with her. Although Bessie did not seem to recognise him at first, she finally declared him to be one of ruffians who had attacked her at the rear of the hospital. At last, the people around Bessie were satisfied and imprisoned all the people they found in the house.

The strange, wild facial features of the old gipsy woman appeared to have added some sense of terror to the whole affair and, in the afternoon, when two of Bessie’s friends were discussing the whole matter over a meal in a local Inn the conversation turned to the gipsy. One of the men said, “By God, Mr. Laing, I hope the Almighty has already destroyed the model that he made that face from, for I wouldn’t want him to make another like it.”

It was discovered that Mrs. Wallis, who kept the lodging-house in which Bessie had been held, belonged to a well-known disreputable family, and she admitted to investigators that her husband had been hanged. This admission caused events to speed ahead and Bessie, if she had told lies in her effort to hide the real causes of being absent, suddenly found that the entire incident had taken a much more serious turn than she had intended. Before things went too far and innocent people were hurt Bessie had to make up her mind whether to recant everything or go through with it. Now that she was something of a celebrity and enjoying all the attention she decided on the latter course, certain in her own mind that all Dublin would support her. Alone, Bessie could not have pursued the charges, but the popularity of her cause had given her courage. Then, a young woman named Purity Hill, who lived in Mrs Wallis’s lodging-house, took it into her head that it could be very profitable if she was to partner Bessie Kane and she came forward to give testimony which corroborated the whole story.

On the 21st of February, Mary Sullivan and Susan Wallis were brought to trial for a capital offence, the evidence against them being contained story told by Bessie. When Mrs Sullivan was called on to testify in her own defence, she gave a short and clear account of how she had, from day to day, gone from one distant place to another during the entire time of Bessie’s alleged confinement. Two or three witnesses came forward and, somewhat timidly, corroborated her statement. There were, however, others who would have appeared on her behalf to provide convincing testimony of Mary’s innocence, but were afraid to expose themselves in the intimidating atmosphere that filled the city, where contradiction of their idol’s story was not well received. Indeed, three men who did come forward to dispute Bessie’s story were treated unpleasantly, and money was collected to prosecute them for perjury. Dreading the strength of the popular opinion against them, these men had to incur great expense to prepare their defence. But, before the day of trial some of Kane’s supporters began to feel certain misgivings, and no prosecutor appeared. The counsel for the accused complained that this was totally unfair, especially when they had incurred great expense to defend the charges. The accused men felt that it was vital that the stain of perjury should be removed from their character, and they said that they had witnesses  who would give clear, ample, and convincing testimony which would fully prove their innocence of all charges and the falseness of Bessie Kane’s story.  They believed that without a trial they would not have the triumphant acquittal they wanted but might be suspected of having agreed to some dubious compromise.

Mrs Sullivan was finally convicted of all charges and sentenced to death. But the Lord Mayor of Dublin, who was nominally at the head of the commission for trying Sullivan, believed that she was the victim of lies and public prejudice. He now decided to carry out an in depth and searching investigation, to avoid, if possible, the scandal that might befall British institutions in Ireland carrying out what could be perceived as a judicial murder, although the victim was from the lowest strata of society. Initially, an inquiry was established by the law-officers of the crown, and this resulted in the woman Sullivan receiving a royal pardon. The Lord Mayor, however, having satisfied himself that this poor woman had narrowly escaped death from lies told about her by Bessie Kane, supported by an outbreak of popular zeal, was not happy. The gipsy woman had escaped, but the Lord Mayor thought that an example should be made of the one who falsely charged her. Accordingly, although he was met with much opposition to his efforts, both verbal and written, with controversial pamphlets being published against him as an enemy of Bessie Kane, he was determined to bring this popular idol to justice.

At the end of April, Bessie was brought to trial for committing wilful and corrupt perjury. Over the three weeks of trial the case against Bessie proved to be complete and crushing. With perfect clarity the whole truth about the movements of people involved in the trial was laid open. The absurdity of Bessie Kane’s story was shown to be inconsistent in every little detail with her initial testimony and the facts that had since been discovered. When Bessie had first described the room, in which, she said, she was shut up, it was subsequently was compared with her story and important and serious discrepancies were discovered. She said that she had been unable to see anything that went on in the house from where she was confined. But, in the room in question there was a large hole through the floor for a jack-rope, which gave a full view of the kitchen, where the house inhabitants usually congregated. Bessie also gave a description of every article in the room in which she was held prisoner, had made no mention about a very remarkable chest of drawers that were found in the room she identified as being the same. Any possibility that this piece of furniture had been recently placed there was shown to be impossible because of the damp dust gluing it to the wall, and the host of spiders which ran from their webs when it was removed. Bessie had also said that she escaped her prison by stepping on a penthouse, but there was none against the attic of Mrs Wallis’s house. Furthermore, the windows were high, and she could certainly not have leaped to the ground without causing herself severe injury. She stated in her testimony that not one person had entered the room during the four weeks of her imprisonment there. It was shown, however, that during the same period a lodger had held an animated conversation from one of the windows of the same attic with someone chopping wood outside.

These differences were, however, far from being the most surprising part of the evidence. Not content with showing that Bessie Kane had told lies, the prosecutor took up the laborious task of discovering just where the gipsy woman had been at that time, along with her co-accused son and daughter. Because of the wandering habits of gipsies, evidence into the most minute details had to be collected over a large area of country. But, the precision with which the statements of this group of people, from different ranks of society and quite unknown to each other, as well as to the person they spoke about of fitted each other, is very interesting. The most trifling and unimportant facts told with great precision the true story. The keeper of the lodging-house remembered the woman Sullivan being in her house on a certain day, making certain of it by an entry in an account-book. She also remembered that she had consulted the almanac at the time to ensure that she got the right day. The day of the same woman’s presence in another place was identical with the presence of an Excise surveyor, and the statements of the witnesses were tested by the Excise entry-books. The position of the wanderers was in another instance connected with the posting of a letter, and the post-office clerks bore testimony to the fact, that from the marks on the letter it must have been posted on that day. Bessie Kane had stated that she had been seized on New Year’s Day. The journey of the gipsy family, however, was traced throughout the distant parts of Ireland, covering every day from December until the day they arrived in the lodging-house, which was 24th of January. With their case strengthened with incontestable facts the counsel for the prosecution felt himself in a position to make Bessie’s whole story look ridiculous and show how absurd it was to those in Dublin who had so resolutely believed her.

The prosecutor stated, “Was it not strange that Miss Kane should subsist so long on so small a quantity of bread and water, almost four weeks in all? It is peculiar that she should ration her meagre store so well as to have some of her bread left, according to her first account, until the Wednesday. According to her last statement she said until the Friday before she made her escape, and unbelievably she saved some of her miraculous pitcher of water until the last day. Was the twenty-fourth part of a small loaf a day enough food to satisfy her hunger? If not, why would she not continue eating to satisfy her appetite, so she could ration herself for what appeared to her to be a precarious, uncertain future? Shall we suppose it was some revelation from above that came to her? Perhaps it was an angel from heaven that appeared to this model of virtue, and told her, that if she ate more than one piece of bread a day, her small ration would not last her until the time she was able to make her escape. Her mother, we know, is very enthusiastic when it comes to consulting conjurors and those who interpret dreams. Maybe her daughter dreamed what was to happen, and so she would not eat when she was hungry, nor drink when she was thirsty. This conduct by the prisoner, however, I suggest exceeds all bounds of human probability.”

Despite of her criminality being exposed, Bessie Kane, was not entirely deserted by her supporters. Two of the jury members had difficulty in reconciling themselves to the verdict of guilty and suggested that her story might be substantially correct, though she had, undoubtedly, made a mistake about the persons by whom, she said, had injured her. There were some imperfections in the verdict, and her supporters tried to take advantage of them. But, their objections were overruled, and a verdict of guilty was recorded against Bessie, who immediately pleaded for mercy, saying that she had sinned much less than she had been sinned against. She declared that survival had been her only objective, and that she had no wish to undertake the life of a gipsy.

The court had to seriously consider what punishment they would inflict on her. There were many of the ordinary people who were still convinced that she was not a wicked person, and there were fears that some supporters would make efforts to break into the jail in which she was imprisoned to free her. But, because there was no established transportation system in those days, it was not unusual for some criminals to be sent to plantations in North America or the West Indies, with their consent. In the case of Bessie Kane, therefore, the court acceded to the wish of her relations, that she should be forever banished to North America.

Sex and the Famine

Recently, I was reading through several books on the ‘Great Famine in Ireland’, or ‘Genocide for those who prefer to think of it that way.  I read about Mayo, Sligo, Galway and West Cork where the men women and children died in their thousands during the ‘Great Famine’ in towns like Skibbereen and Ballinrobe. But, among this list should be numbered a coastal town in County Clare that is located in the south-west of the county, near the mouth of the River Shannon. This is Kilrush and there were few places, except for those named above, that suffered more severely from a combination of eviction and famine in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Reading an article by Paul Gray and Liam Kennedy, both lecturers in history at Queen’s University, Belfast, which was published in a recent edition of “History Ireland”, heightened my interest in all areas of life affected by the Famine. They pointed out that Kilrush was renowned for something that I had never thought of before.  The area became noteworthy for the apparent surge in illegitimate births that occurred over the twenty years after the ‘Great Famine’. According to reports, by 1864 these illegitimate births accounted for at least ten per cent of all births that were recorded in the baptism register for the Catholic parish of Kilrush.  Both Gray and Kennedy point out that this was a remarkably high proportion for mid-Victorian Ireland, especially when one considers that prior to the ‘Famine’ the ratio was barely one percent in most years. Their conclusion was that the spectacular and sustained rise in recorded illegitimate births might suggest that there was a radical change in sexual mores in this County Clare town and its surrounding area. The surprise in these statistics lies in the fact that this occurred in the west of Ireland, which is generally considered to be the one region of Ireland were morals were high and, therefore, there were very few illegitimate births.

The article’s authors questioned the possibility that the ‘Famine’ and the associated evictions were likely causes for the surprising rise in illegitimate births. They suggested that it was possible, that in all the tragedy and suffering experienced by the people of Kilrush and its environs during those years of ‘Famine’, that sexual morals may have been forced to disappear by circumstances. With starvation rampant, surely it is not too far-fetched to imagine that some women felt it necessary to barter their bodies for food, a roof over their head, or money to help their suffering.  It is an unfortunate fact of life that food shortages in a male dominated society can also open numerable opportunities for the sexual exploitation of women by unscrupulous men. In many cases there were many who became pregnant and were comfortable to declare that their husbands had abandoned them to sail for America, or other destinations. In more normal times, the alleged father would have most certainly been dragged to the altar and obliged to honour his responsibilities. These days, however, were far from being normal times. The collapse of the Irish peasantry’s potato-led economy, the decimation of family, the breakdown of communal support, and the beginnings of mass emigration made abandonment of responsibilities a strategic alternative for the restless and rash-minded males. For these women, in such desperate times, the ability to bring social pressures to bear on such men was not easily accomplished. The vulnerable and too trusting women, especially if the family and community support network had been lost because of death or emigration, were left to bring up the child alone in conditions that were not good for continued survival.

From the records it appears that illegitimacy in Kilrush rose considerably during the ‘Famine’, as well as during its immediate aftermath. The effects of the ‘Famine’, however, were only short-term rather than long-term in nature, which suggests other possible causes for the rise in illegitimate births in this area. One possible answer could be the fact that Kilrush is a port town, which are often associated with prostitution and illegitimacy. Furthermore, with the rise of coastal holidays during the Victorian era, the town became the gateway to the growing holiday resorts of west Clare, such as Kilkee on the Atlantic coastline. The authors of the article, Gray and Kennedy, quote a visitor to Kilkee complaining that the resort was “infested by a number of unfortunate women, who disturb the inhabitants and visitors at night”. This must have been a most enjoyable attraction to some of the visitors to the town because, despite a public condemnation from the pulpit of the Catholic Church, the infestation continued unabated. It is reported that two of these unfortunate ladies from Kilrush, were assaulted by the local priest as they plied their trade. The priest, however, was arrested and was subsequently fined one shilling and costs for his pains. There are also suggestions that the sex trade in this area was being supplemented seasonally, to coincide with the tourist trade, by prostitutes from Limerick city.

The increase in the incidence of illegitimacy suggests that this can only be a small part of the story as to why it occurred. There is, of course, the speculation that Kilrush, and the area surrounding the town, had within it a “bastardy-prone sub-society”. Research suggests, however, that of the 211 mothers recorded as giving birth to children outside wedlock in the quarter-century after the ‘Famine’, only eighteen per cent were bearers of more than one illegitimate child. The article gave the example of a woman called, Mary Giffin, had illegitimate children baptised in August 1858, August 1861, September 1863 and September 1868. A certain Margaret Byrnes is also mentioned, whose illegitimate children were baptised in June 1859, March 1861, August 1863 and May 1865. These examples, however, were more the exception than the rule and most single mothers did not repeat the experience of bearing a child out of wedlock.

The explanation put forward by Mr Gray and Mr Kennedy is much simpler than any of the preceding suggestions. Taking a more detailed examination of the Catholic baptismal register for Kilrush parish revealed that approximately sixty per cent of births for the period 1850–75 were to women from the workhouse. But, the Kilrush workhouse served the entire union and not just the parish of Kilrush. When these workhouse births were excluded from the statistics, then the numbers that could be attributable to Kilrush were reduced to the more normal levels expected in a town situated in the west of Ireland. From these results, then, the inflated levels of illicit sexuality in Kilrush after the ‘Famine’ appear to be due to a quirk of registration rather than from any radical shift in the sexual behaviour of Clare men and Clare women. But, the result raises wider questions about the validity of parish register information on illegitimacy.  This is true, not just for Ireland but for all those societies where the institutionalised provision of welfare might affect the recording of illegitimate births.

What kind of life did these unmarried mothers, who increasingly used the workhouse, live? The answer is not clear to us since the indoor relief registers for Kilrush, which would give some detail of the individual lives of unmarried mothers, have not survived. The indoor relief registers for the Rathdrum and Shillelagh Poor Law unions have somehow survived, and they provide a touching image of unmarried mothers and their children. While some of these women appear to have merited only a few lines, there were others who were more regular visitors. Mary Donnelly, was a 22-year-old servant from Arklow, who was admitted to Rathdrum workhouse on 16 August 1850. She was heavily pregnant when admitted and she gave birth to Thomas on 6 September, leaving the institution with the child ten days later and does not appear to have returned to the workhouse.  A certain Ellen Power entered Rathdrum workhouse on 18 February 1851, as a homeless 24-year-old charwoman. Her daughter was born on 27 March 1851 and taken from the workhouse without her mother on 8 August 1851.  Ellen subsequently left the workhouse on the 14th of that month. Another young woman called Eliza Ashton, a 22-year-old servant, arrived in Rathdrum workhouse on 17 September 1850, and left again a week later. Then, on 6 October, Eliza was admitted into the workhouse as a patient and less than a week later Thomas was born. Both mother and child left on 26 October, Eliza does not appear to have returned to the workhouse again.

While some unmarried mothers left little trace in the workhouse record, there were others who made many appearances in those records. A woman called Eliza Geoghan, a 25-year-old garden worker, used the Rathdrum workhouse 23 times between 27 August 1850 and 2 June 1862. During that time her son John was born on 21 December 1850, with mother and child subsequently leaving the institution on 24 February 1851. Both entered the workhouse again, however, with John being removed on 24 June, a month before his mother left. While nothing more of John is recorded, Eliza returned to the workhouse, pregnant again, on 19 February 1854, and Dennis was born just over a week later. Both mother and child left the workhouse on 23 June 1854, but they were to enter the institution three more times between June 1854 and April 1856. Unfortunately, during their last visit, beginning on 23 September 1855, Dennis was to die on 9 April the following year. Eliza appears to have left only 9 days later, on 18 April 1856 but returned many times, spending the winters of 1856 and 1857 there, though she gave birth to no more children in the workhouse. It appears that most of the time she lived within the electoral division of Dunganstown East, only changing her residence to another townland twice. On her last two visits to the workhouse, however, she was most probably homeless and suffering increased destitution. She was mostly described as a ‘servant’, but also a ‘garden worker’ and, on what was her penultimate visit, she was said to be ‘infirm’ and apparently unemployed.

Yet another example of the multiple user was that of Jane Allen, who was to use Rathdrum workhouse on 34 occasions between 17 September 1850 and 13 March 1863. She was a twenty-six years old servant, who first arrived in Rathdrum workhouse on 17 September 1850 and gave birth to her son, John, on 19 October. John was subsequently taken away on 6 June 1851 and Jane left four days later. While nothing more is known about John, we do know Jane was to have three more children: Eliza (30 July 1852), born in the workhouse, Ellen (1856), born outside the workhouse, and James (8 September 1861), born in the house. During these years Jane is known to have stayed in Dunganstown South or Dunganstown West electoral divisions, though she did occasionally change townlands. It is also known that sometimes she and her children would stay for several months. On other occasions they would  stay only a matter of days. Although during her earlier stays in the workhouse Jane was referred to as a servant, for most of the times that stayed in the workhouse she was described as a ‘charwoman’. More interestingly, it seems that her marital status changed during the period, for example she was registered as being single for the period up to February 1861, then she is described as ‘married’ during her stay in February/March 1861, but on her next admittance, in August 1861, she is described as ‘single’ once again. Her children were admitted as ‘deserted’ in March 1861, leaving in June 1861, but the family was reunited in August 1861. They were to enter the workhouse five more times after this and, on each occasion, Jane is described as married. Her marital status can be said to be confusing during these years and one must wonder if she was not in fact a deserted wife, or perhaps intermittently so.

Stories such as these help to give us a much clearer picture of the perilous existence that faced an unmarried mother at this time. To some the workhouse was viewed as a resource in the constant battle against poverty, especially among the peasantry, including unmarried or abandoned mothers. We can, therefore, say that to some extent the unmarried mother did have some support, but in mid- and late Victorian Ireland this support system was of an extremely restricted kind. Throughout rural Ireland the life that faced unmarried mothers was one of desperation.  They faced religious, family and community hostility, as well as an unsympathetic and sometimes punitive system of welfare provision. Those who were known as ‘bastard-bearers’ were generally ground down between the actions of society and the state although, to some extent, their Unfortunatelysituation may have varied within the urban and industrialised Province of Ulster

Little is known of the fate of the illegitimate children born during this period. But, Gray and Kennedy give us the case of Eliza Pearson, who was aged four-years when she was discovered at the door of ‘Shillelagh’ workhouse and was deserted by her mother, Anne.  Eliza was taken into the workhouse on 19 June 1850 and left on 10 April 1856. Another child, Thomas Dwier, who was aged five and described as a ‘bastard’, was admitted on 29 February 1852. His mother had been transported and had left him ‘destitute without food’ and, in fact, is one of the very few instances where a male illegitimate child is mentioned in the records available. There is, however, no record of his departure from the workhouse. Finally, Bridget Nugent was nine when she was deserted by her father and as a deserted bastard, she had no friends or home. She was, therefore, admitted on 10 January 1851 and did not leave the workhouse until the 28 July 1855.  

It has surely not gone unnoticed that unmarried and pregnant women suffered stigmatisation and degradation under both the workhouse system and in the larger society, men appear to have largely escaped notice or sanction. The Thurles union replied to a circular from the ‘Poor Law Commissioners’, concerning moral classification, by condemning the unfairness in gender terms of a system that singled out female morality in the workhouse. At the same time the Thurles Union pointed out that no classification in this respect has been made at the male side. It is a fact that there are few clues as to the unmarried mothers in Kilrush, whose names are contained in the parish records. It must be said that even less is known about those shadowy but potent figures of males who had set women on a downward course to vilification, destitution and disgrace.

It is an irony of the history of the Irish workhouses that they could have become places for ‘immoral behaviour’, despite the rules and regimentation that governed these grim institutions. In the minutes of the Kilrush union for 1853 it is revealed that the master and the matron of the workhouse had been accused of immorality. The accused persons were, however, later acquitted. According to the rules and regulations of the Poor Law system, women and men were to be strictly segregated within the penal institution of the workhouse. But in 1853 the master reported, no doubt with some concern – ‘I beg to report to the board that Mr Nolan the resident apothecary informed me on Sunday last that a pauper woman named Kate Quinn who has been in this house for a long time was pregnant. On enquiry it would appear that a pauper man named John Griffin who is also in the house for a long period is the father. Kate Quinn left the workhouse on the 15th inst. Griffin also took his discharge on the 17th inst.’

As expected ‘The Poor Law’ guardians were not amused – ‘It is much to be regretted that such an evil should have occurred, and the guardians conceive that there must be much neglect on the part of the officers in charge’.

The workhouse system itself was the subject of much criticism, and it certainly bore down heavily on its inmates, both in terms of physical hardship and stigmatisation. But, we must also recognise that it also furnished a safety net for the single mother in her battle for survival in an increasingly hostile moral climate of later Victorian Ireland. There appears to be a tradition within Ireland of labour exploitation and repression, and sometimes outright cruelty, in various societies like the workhouses and the later Magdalene asylums, that were run by Irish Catholic nuns. In pre-independence, or post-independence, Ireland it is evident that society would ensure that there was no easy way out of the trap of unmarried motherhood.

N.B. If you should wish to read more of the work of P. Gray and L. Kennedy the following books are available –

‘Famine, illegitimacy and the workhouse in Western Ireland’, in A. Levene and P. Nutt (eds), Illegitimacy in Britain (London, 2005).

Also L. Kennedy’s study,

‘Bastardy and the Great Famine: Ireland, 1845–1850’, Continuity and Change 14 (3) (1999).