THE CURRAGH WRENS
By Con Costello

Travelling by train from Dublin to Kildare in September 1867 a journalist from the Pall Mall Gazette from London described his route as being “past much squalor that seemed less to lie upon the earth, in the shape of wret­ched huts of poverty and idleness, than to be born out of it naturally, as toadstools are”. So little impressed was the visitor with the town of Kildare, which he believed to be the county town, that he remarked “one may be permitted to withhold from it the all-sufficing designation”.

  
At the railway station “carmen were rampant - great industry of tongue among them, and much ingenuity of speech. ‘Bedad, sir’, said one of them with a snatch at my luggage. ‘I’m the man to match ye! Ye’re in luck today, sor, indade. The mare I’m driving is the celebrated Scottish Queen, no less! own sister to Achaivement, and the best blood in Ireland. And where’ll I be driving yer hanner? Imperial Hotel? I’ll make no mistake, sir, seem’ there’s no other but one, and that’s a clubhouse”. And so I go to the Imperial Hotel, where the guest proposes and host disposes. “Foive, did ye say? It’s no dinner ye’ll be gettin’ at foive, sir, nor no baife either; it’s mut­ton ye’ll have”. And you have mutton at four. At least I did, or at any other hour when the table cloth happened to be disengaged. But then, how do I know? More honourable guests than myself may have been there, and it was necessary for me to look rough and sink all fastidiousness because my busi­ness was with people [he had come to investigate reports of prostitution in the vicinity of the army camp] with whom a gentleman is never seen"

  
Later, when the gentleman asked his carman to take him on a tour of the great open plain of the Curragh, he found that “the air is strong; an easterly wind was blowing, but with undulations here and there, and broken by mounds and raths, stretching along for a considerable distance and at a height at least distinguishable. The turf is soft and elastic everywhere. Sheep browse upon it; and there you may see the Irish shepherd, idler than anybody else in his green isle, and the Irish shepherdess (0 Arcadia!) flustering her rags out of their natural repose in an attempt to separate the sheep marked this way from the sheep marked that. That she might have been a beauty you see well, because her head, with its abundant locks, is bare, and so her well-shapen legs; but she isn’t the chance was lost long ago. The Scottish Queen bowls along. There are good roads from Kildare to the camp, and from time to time we meet cars upon them containing well-buttoned military men. Other military men are seen, in ones and twos and threes, lounging in one direction; they show in moving patches of red amongst the dark-green masses of furze.

“In a somewhat aimless way we came to a series of block huts, extending for two miles, perhaps, on either side of the road. Here and there a few groups of soldiers were seen lounging listlessly, or engaged in some athletic sport. Jimmy pointed out each object of interest as we drove along. ‘And that’s the Catholic chapel, your hanner. And that’s the Protestan’ church ... And this is Donnelly’s Hollow (strewed with many canvas tents) where the fight was! Hould the mare sir! hould Scottish Queen, and bedad, I’ll show ye where Cooper stood, and where Donnelly stood - well I know the futmarks ov’em’.

“Nor would Jimmy be denied. Fortunately, the Scottish Queen restrained the fiery impulses of her blood, and stood like any cart-horse still while Jimmy planted himself in Donnelly’s footmarks, and tried to satisfy the 4ast object of my journey by putting himself in a fighting attitude on that heroic spot’,.

It was almost dusk when, as they drove close to a patch of furze, the first wren” was seen, and the driver exclaimed: “and there’s a nest”. The visitor found that there were ten “nests” in all, accommodating about sixty women aged between 17 and 25, some of whom had been there for up to nine years. Located in a clump of furze, and known by a number given to it by the inmates - who numbered from 3 to 8, each nest consisted of a shelter measuring some 9’x7’ and 4’/2’ high, made of sods and gorse. With a low door, and no window or chimney, and with an earthen floor, the “nest” had for furniture a shelf to hold a teapot, crockery, a candle, and a box in which the women kept their few possessions. Upturned saucepans were used as stools, and the straw for bedding was pushed to one side during the day. At night the fire within the shelter was covered with a perforated pot, and the women undressed to sleep in the straw. In summer­time the “nests” gave some shelter, but in winter the wind whistled through them.

The women, who were all Irish, came from different parts of the country. Some of them had followed a soldier from another station, others came to seek a former lover, while the majority sought to make a livelihood. They lived, received their families, gave birth and died in the “nests”. Their clothing consisted of a frieze skirt with nothing on top except another frieze around the shoulders. In the evenings when the younger women went to meet the soldiers, in the uninhabited gorse patches, they dressed up in crinolines, petticoats and shoes and stockings. The older women remained behind to mind the children, of whom the visitor counted four, and to prepare food. All the takings of a “nest” were pooled, and the diet of potatoes, bread and milk was purchased on the few days when the women were allowed to attend the market in the camp. Otherwise it was out-of-bounds, but an army water-waggon brought them in a regular supply. While the hospital in the camp catered for soldiers, and where it was estimated between 38070 and 5007o of the patients suffered from VD, there was no medical aid for the women except in Kildare infirmary, or Naas workhouse and jail. Doctors did not come to the “nests”. The gentleman from the Pall Mall Gazette decided that, contrary to popular opinion, the women did not live in the furze because they loved vice. They were there because it was known that those who sought refuge in the workhouse at Naas lived in even worse conditions.

Following his visit to Kildare, the English journalist published a harrow­ing description of the condition of the women and, in the following year, when the Curragh of Kildare Act was passed it enabled the authorities to take action to regulate the use of the plains.

A positive attempt was made to alleviate the suffering of the women in the building of the Lock Hospital at Kildare. The name Lock is believed to have been derived from an old Lepers’ Hospital in London. It was later applied to institutions for the treatment of venereal diseases, such as that in George’s Lane in Dublin.

In the summer of 1868, on a 1½-acre site leased forever from the Duke of Leinster on the lands of Broadhook farm on the road from the town to the Curragh work began on the building of the hospital. It was estimated that the project would cost £6,048 and the accepted tender was for £5,200; in July of the following year when the work was completed the total cost was found to be £6,105.1 .0. Very soon the main road, from which the new 320 foot avenue to the hospital opened, was to become known as Hospital Road.
  
The hospital consisted of a group of one-storey slated buildings, linked with corrugated-iron roofed corridors, with a separate wash-house and laundry, a water tank, a dead house and coal sheds. A sewerage pit was made some distance away.
  
The two wards, to accommodate 20 and 16 beds, the matron’s quarters, medical stores, examining depot, segregation building, porter’s quarters and policeman~ s waiting room were built of Athy brick. Part of the segrega­tion building was adapted for use as a Roman Catholic chapel. The lighting of the buildings was by oil. Two outdoor recreation areas were laid out, and there was an appropriate number of baths and toilets attached to the wards. The plans for the hospital were made by the School of Military Engineer­ing at Chatham for the War Department, and to administer the institution a staff consisting of a matron, three nurses, a steward and a porter were appointed.After twenty years of use the Lock Hospital was closed and the buildings remained in the ownership of the War Department.

At the end of the 19th century it was decided to erect an artillery barrack on a large site around the buildings of the hospital which was converted to recreational rooms, an office for the commanding officer and stores. About 150 huts, to serve as billets, etc., were put up, and a large range of wagon sheds, stables and ancillary buildings built.
    The plan of the lay-out was that from the standard designs for infantry and artillery hut barracks then current in the British Army. Most of the old hutments were demolished when the present artillery barracks was built in the 1930s. It was named Magee Barracks to commemorate the legendary gunner of the battle of Ballinamuck in 1798.