History, so the saying goes, is written by the victors. What's not so often remarked upon is that history is almost always – or has been almost always – written by men. That’s changing, thankfully, and when it comes to Irish history, two of the women at the forefront of that change are Elaine Farrell and Leanne McCormick. They’re interested in women behaving badly – specifically Irish women in the 19th century behaving badly – and that’s the basis of their book, Bad Bridget. Ryan Tubridy, not averse to the occasional chat about matters historical, spoke to Elaine and Leanne about the women and girls who emigrated to North America and got on the wrong side of the law.
"It’s not just about the crime, it’s actually about the domestic life, it’s about the motivations for emigration, it’s about relationships."
The starting point for the book is 1838, just before the peak of emigration in the years of the Great Famine and following that. It was a time that saw women and girls sent to abroad to try and make money to send back home:
"And Ireland’s very different in terms of emigration, compared to other European countries, where often women would travel as part of a family group, so you’d see it as daughters and wives, all going together with men – and Ireland’s very different where women are travelling on their own and often very young."
The youngest that Elaine and Leanne found was a 7-year-old girl, who travelled on her own. Many women would travel alone with the intention of meeting with relatives, but the journey times were so long and the economic realities so stark for immigrant families, that often the addresses women were given would be out of date by the time they arrived at what they thought was their destination. So instead of sending money home, the women would end up living in tenements in dire poverty.
The likes of New Yok City in the mid-19th century, Leanne and Elaine point out, would have been so huge and so unfamiliar as to be potentially overwhelming for a young woman from rural Ireland:
"Here's this girl from rural Ireland in the middle of all of this, it’s all happening and the noise on the streets and when you see those pictures of somewhere like Mulberry Street as well, you just get the whole feeling of that constant mass of people and languages and all sorts of things as well, so it must have come as a shock."
But why call the book Bad Bridget? Well, Bridget is, it turns out, like Paddy for men, used as a derogatory term for Irish women who’ve moved abroad in search of a better life:
"It comes up so often, particularly in North America, the term Bridget or Biddy and used in that derogatory way, often to apply to all Irish women, so you see people often talking about their servants as Biddy and Bridget, even though that’s not their name, you know that’s just the term that’s given."
What about some of the women whose stories are featured in the book? Leanne and Elaine feature women they found who’d spent time in prison abroad. One of the standouts is Lizzie Halliday:
"We came across her in a prison register and it said "Murderer" and we thought, okay, we’ll see if we can find anything about her and suddenly, you know, she has her own Wikipedia page, she’s there and, you know, her infamy is related to the fact that she was the first woman in New York to be sentenced to death by the electric chair."
Reader, Lizzie Halliday was not executed by the electric chair. Instead, she was sent to an asylum for the remainder of her life. And when she died in 1918, the New York Times dubbed her "the worst woman in the world." Lizzie had been sent to prison for murdering her husband and two neighbours:
"The thing that really I think, that captured, people were so interested in Lizzie’s story, was that there didn’t seem to be any motive for this murder. It wasn’t about – she didn’t gain anything by killing them. It wasn’t about money, it wasn’t about jealousy. The normal reasons why people might be pushed to murder weren’t there for Lizzie Halliday."
Lizzie was also at one stage accused in the press of the day of being Jack the Ripper. And if you look at her Wikipedia page, she’s described as an "Irish-American serial killer." Sounds like she was a very bad Bridget indeed.
You can hear Ryan’s full chat with Elaine and Leanne by going here.
Bad Bridget: Crime, Mayhem and the Lives of Irish Immigrant Women by Leanne McCormick and Elaine Farrell is published by Sandycove.