Breaking bad: 'Bridgets' podcasts shed light on darker side of Irish emigration to US

It is not a narrative that sits nicely with the Irish-American emigration story, but two Belfast academics are now telling the real-life crime stories of 'Bad Bridgets' from Ireland in a series of new podcasts featuring Derry Girls actress Siobhan McSweeney. Gail Bell finds out more

Leanne McCormick, left, of Ulster University, and Elaine Farrell from Queen's University Belfast, the academics behind the Bad Bridget podcasts
Leanne McCormick, left, of Ulster University, and Elaine Farrell from Queen's University Belfast, the academics behind the Bad Bridget podcasts Leanne McCormick, left, of Ulster University, and Elaine Farrell from Queen's University Belfast, the academics behind the Bad Bridget podcasts

SIOBHAN McSweeney is evocatively rendering the true tale of Maggie Smith, a young Irish-American woman who imbibes to excess because she “has the asthma” when she pauses – with dramatic effect – and switches seamlessly to the admonishing tones of a US judge.

The scene is a courtroom in Washington state and the era is some time in the 19th century when America was “awash” with ‘Bad Bridgets’ who didn’t quite crack the American dream.

That dream was promised to more than five and-a-half million Irish men, women and children who sailed across the Atlantic between 1838 and 1918 to a better life, but as the Derry Girls actress recounts in a number of mesmirsing new ‘Bad Bridget’ podcasts for Queen's University Belfast, the dream quickly turned into a nightmare for thousands of women who emigrated from all over the island.

Women like Maggie, who found themselves on the wrong side of the law, often due to poverty, lack of support and increasing prejudice from native north Americans, many of whom viewed the visitors en masse through a blurry, stereotypical lens.

To finish Maggie’s story, she was sentenced to 10 days in a Washington institution while she considered taking ‘the pledge’ and although her drunkenness was a relatively minor indiscretion, writers of the podcasts, Belfast academics Elaine Farrell and Leanne McCormick, have unveiled truly “heartbreaking” stories that go behind the traditional emigrant success story to reveal those that “history has chosen to forget”.

Elaine, a senior lecturer at Queen’s who specialises in Irish social history, and Leanne, senior lecturer at the School of Arts and Humanities at Ulster University, have brought five years of painstaking research vibrantly to life in the podcasts produced by Colm Heatley and featuring McSweeney and well known Belfast actor Marty Maguire.

The first two podcasts have just launched on the Queen’s website and on Spotify and iTunes, with the writers hoping they will shine a new light on the difficulties faced by women in Boston, New York and Toronto in the 1800s and early 1900s.

“I don’t think these women’s stories fit the accepted narrative of the Irish-American success story, but they need to be told,” says Elaine, for whom chatting and “having the banter” on a podcast is a whole new departure from the lecture hall (or, more currently, teaching online from her Queen’s office or her home in Belfast).

“We have it in our heads that Irish men and women went out to America and the men became businessmen and built these American cities or entered politics and became presidents, but the migration story is a little more complex than that.

“Many women were forced into sex work and led lives of petty crime, while others were accused of murder and infanticide. In the case of Lizzie Halliday, originally from Co Antrim, she became a serial killer and was the first woman to be sentenced to death by the electric chair in the US.

“It is a fascinating subject for us, bringing these stories to a public audience – and also an international audience – and having Siobhan read our words and bring the stories to life on the podcasts has been brilliant.”

For Elaine, herself (technically) an unmarried mother from Sligo – as collaborator and podcast co-presenter Leanne good-humouredly points out in one of their light-hearted exchanges – it has been shocking unearthing the sheer numbers of women who fell into crime on the 'other side of the pond’, many due to being abandoned by the fathers of their illegitimate children.

“That exchange with Leanne was part of the banter we have developed naturally with each other,” she laughs, “but yes, I am unmarried with a three year-old son and I live with my partner, so I would definitely have been frowned upon in the 1800s.

“When we travelled to Boston, New York and Toronto for the research [the joint project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK] Leanne and I were struck by the number of young Irish women who travelled alone, some as young as 12 or 13. Some of the women also travelled while pregnant and unmarried, expecting to leave the shame behind, but encountering it in their adopted country as well.”

One tragic example was found in the case of Catherine O’Donnell, an unmarried Irish mother, then living in Boston, who was sentenced to a jail term of one year for manslaughter after her 12 week-old baby boy was found dead.

“The mother told how her baby died in her arms after she was wandering in the rain for two days with nowhere to go, but there were other claims that she left the infant by a bridge and when the tide came in, he drowned,” Elaine reveals. “Whatever the truth of the story, it brings home the shame of illegitimacy and the vicious circle of a woman on her own trying to get work in a new country but not having enough money to pay to pay for childcare and no family to help out.”

But migration was not always a one-way street and Elaine cites the desperate case of a Ballymoney-born widow and her eight year-old daughter who packed up their shattered American dream and returned home to Ireland in the 1860s.

The woman had married in Ireland without her father’s permission and, estranged from her family, left for New York with her husband who struggled to earn enough to support his wife and, later, their new daughter.

Tragically, he became ill and died after a few months in hospital, leaving his widow to work as a poorly-paid servant – but she too struggled from the effects of heavy work and decided to try to reconcile with her family in Ireland.

In this case, there was a happy ending when in August 1860, the woman received a letter from her ageing, father, Thomas M in Ballymoney, welcoming her home with the words: ‘Dear child, with your old father, the time will seem very long until it please God that we meet again…’ She was helped on her way by The Five Points House of Industry in New York.

“Because I have been researching women in crime for several years, in a way I feel like I’m a little desensitised in terms of getting emotionally involved, but they really are heartbreaking stories,” Elaine says. “What we want to do in the podcasts is remind people that these are real women and these are real experiences that they went through.

“What has also been surprising has been the level of interest from the general public, and we weren’t really expecting it, to be honest. Yes, people have this interest in crime, but we weren’t thinking that people would be so interested in Irish women from the 1800s.

“Then we noticed at some of the events at which we were giving talks, and also from students when we were teaching on the subject, that people were genuinely interested in finding out more.

“Research writing can be a heavy subject and with notes and references, it is not really accessible to everybody, so we wanted to have something that would grab people’s attention for about 20 minutes or so – the length of each of the five podcasts. We hope they give these forgotten women’s voices their rightful place in Irish-American history.”

:: The Bad Bridget podcasts are available on iTunes, Spotify and all other podcast platforms, as well as the QUB website.