Review of Elaine Farrell’s Women, Crime and Punishment in Ireland: Life in the nineteenth-century convict prison by Judy Bolger

Elaine Farrell. Women, Crime and Punishment in Ireland: Life in the nineteenth-century convict prison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.
ISBN: 9781108839501

Within this monograph, the lives of various nineteenth-century Irish convict women are brought to life by Elaine Farrell. In a vivid style, comparable to the book’s striking cover image of inmate Catherine Lavell, Farrell’s text illuminates the history of crime and punishment. The book delves into the period’s cultural and gendered assumptions by thoroughly placing these women’s stories within the wider themes of poverty, migration, motherhood, family and relationships. This is achieved through Farrell’s ability to give voice to a cohort of ‘ordinary’ individuals for whom there is usually no archival footprint. As Farrell notes, this book is ‘saturated’ with direct evidence of women’s personal writings, expressions of agency, socialising, networking, and mothering, from within the walls of the centralised female convict prison Mountjoy, Dublin. Yet, this text goes beyond the physical bounds of the prison walls by exploring the lives of the convict both before and after their convictions to argue that convict women’s histories reflected the precarious role of women within Irish society. (p. 257). One way Farrell articulates this argument is through her analysis of convict motherhood. The complexity of motherhood echoed the complexity of the convict. Within this framework, we are offered a wide analysis of the various differences, similarities and challenges faced by mothers and in turn, women during the nineteenth century.

Though titled as an exploration of the nineteenth-century convict prison, this work is predominately focused on the period after the cessation of convict transportation in 1854. Farrell situates her discussion of the nineteenth-century female convict prison system within thematic case-studies; an approach she has employed effectively in her previous works. Each of the five chapters opens with a ‘sub-chapter’, offering an innovative style. This mechanism provides the space to showcase captivating individual stories which are frequently coupled with striking mugshots. This sub-chapter approach creates a real-life component to the work which feeds through the subsequent chapter’s analysis, and supports the text’s overarching thesis. This methodology was constructed through Farrell’s dual analysis of surviving penal records. More specifically, Farrell was capable of framing her analysis both quantitatively and qualitatively via her investigation of ‘thousands of prison files’, such as the convict reference files, newspapers, annual reports of prison boards, commissioners investigations, and inmates’ individual penal files which often included letters to and from the prisoner. (p. 28).

Throughout the book, the various examples of poverty-related-crimes demonstrate the punitive nature of the period’s outlook towards impoverishment. For women, especially mothers, such poverty was uniquely associated with their maternal responsibilities. A typical example of this, was the case of Johanna O’Brien who was sentenced to life for forging cheques on the bank account of the father of her four-year-old child in 1855. This particular case reveals the tactics some mothers attempted in order to provide for their children within a legal system that did not place any responsibility on putative fathers for maintenance. In a rare unattainable treasure for a social historian, Farrell was capable of providing insight from the defendant herself regarding her charge and the motivation behind it. O’Brien asserted that ‘I think I have a claim on’ the father of her child for maintenance. (p. 3). Such a defence and expression of agency is striking when we consider that unmarried mothers at the time were legally considered the sole provider for their children. Farrell’s example here highlights that some mothers took the law into their own hands which proved unsuccessful. 

For any social historian of the marginalised, methodological challenges are normally tied up in the lack of appropriate sources, and the inability to present the lived experiences of those who survived under the regimes of institutions. As Farrell notes, other historians of poverty have alluded to the ‘faint’ but present voices of the poor. Unfortunately given the nature of bureaucratic sources, we hear very little from those who lived within the nineteenth-century institution. (p. 31). Similarly, while it has been discussed elsewhere that ‘deviant’ women’s criminal records must be considered with caution, within this work, Farrell goes beyond relaying a ‘top-down’ narrative of crime and punishment. She does this by elucidating individual women’s voices; their vocal and physical responses to authority and the prison regime; and by exploring their family lives outside of prison, to offer an incredibly unique and evocative history of a cohort of women whose voices are usually silent. The convict letters, though written and read under censorship and often via prison staff, provide brilliant accounts of everyday life within the prison, and of wider Irish society. All of Farrell’s quotes are verbatim, which gives an element of authenticity.  This is one of the text’s most attractive qualities, with examples of misspellings and poor grammar that allows the reader to connect quite distinctively with the convict. Such displays of ‘ordinary’ writings are so rare within Irish historical research that one is envious of Farrell’s unique opportunity to bring these stories to light which she does most diligently.

Farrell’s work signifies the astuteness of the nineteenth-century convict woman in many different ways. Examples of convicts procuring relationships, petitioning for leniency, seeking support and childcare for their children and negotiating networks all from behind bars challenges any assumption of a docile, dependent or victimised convict woman. While many of these convicts’ crimes were indicative of the subordinated role of women, their actual experiences within prison, as Farrell outlines, highlights their survival strategizing ability, which allowed for many of these convict criminal women to exert a level of agency within a system that demanded control and uniformity. Reflecting the changing approaches within gendered and women’s historical writing, this text is an invaluable study of female incarceration which includes a wide-range of fascinating discussions on ‘ordinary’ aspects of women’s lives that normally have evaded the history books. Such topics include menstruation, self-harm, gossiping, sexuality and sexual relations, religious persuasions and conversions, physical odours, and the complexity of familial relationships – all offer a poignant historical lens into these women’s experiences of the nineteenth-century convict prison system. The merit of this work, when reviewed within our long tradition of top-down historical writing, is the fact that the extraordinary exists merely in the ordinary.

Judy Bolger is currently a PhD researcher in the department of Modern Irish History at Trinity College, Dublin. Her PhD examines the social discourse surrounding impoverished mothers and women’s experiences of maternity and motherhood in Irish workhouses during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.