Between 1882 and 1915 in Boston, Massachusetts, more than 12,500 women were sent to jail. About 35 per cent of them were Irish, despite the fact that Irish women made up just 17 per cent of the city’s population.
In New York in 1862, Irish women made up 86 per cent of the women prison population, amounting to more than 14,000 Irish women in jail in that one year.
In Toronto, between 1859 and 1881, 6,000 Irish women were jailed, compared with 1,800 of their Canadian counterparts. You would be forgiven for thinking, at the time, that Irish women were a particularly deviant bunch. Which was the kind of thinking that often landed them behind bars in the first place.
To hear more about these wayward women and what led to their incarceration, have a listen to Bad Bridget, a podcast from Leanne McCormick, of the University of Ulster, and Elaine Farrell, of Queen’s University Belfast, who dropped their first episode in December 2020.
The podcast has re-entered the Irish charts in recent weeks, likely thanks to the hosts’ appearance on The Tommy Tiernan Show, on RTÉ, last month. Those new listeners are in for some haunting, heartbreaking and occasionally hilarious tales of women who sailed to the new world, often alone, to make better lives for themselves and the families they left behind. Instead, poverty, sexual assault, addiction, trauma and violence led them to altercations with the law and a system ill-suited to protect them.
These are the stories of Marian Canning, a 19-year-old Leitrim-born sex worker who in 1891 was accused of stealing from a man who solicited her services on the streets of New York. Without any evidence of her alleged thievery, and no lawyer to represent her in court, Canning was sentenced to seven years in jail. Or Catherine O’Donnell, jailed for manslaughter when her 12-week-old child was found dead outside a police station after she was unable to keep up with childcare and too ashamed to go to relatives.
Or, delightfully, Ellen Price, sent down with a red feather in her hat singing The Rocky Road to Dublin. Not to mention the likes of Mary Farmer, convicted of killing her neighbour with an axe and storing her body in a trunk she took with her when she moved into the dead woman’s house.
What emerges from these grim retellings is the harsh reality of immigrant life in 19th and early-20th century North America, particularly for Irish women who found themselves on one of the lowest societal rungs and living in conditions described by one New York committee tasked with investigating tenement life as being “in the most eligible position for an attack of yellow fever”.
McCormick and Farrell make academia accessible through detailed research and animated conversation, and they cannily lean on the ever-listenable Siobhán McSweeney – aka Sr Michael of Derry Girls – to narrate some of their case studies, as well as other actors and experts in their field to illuminate historical context and modern parallels.
But the real stars here are the Bad Bridgets, the bowsies and the brokenhearted, the sinned against and sinning, all trying to make their way in a brand new world that instead insists on putting them in their place.