Bad Bridget: A Q&A with Dr Elaine Farrell (QUB) and Dr Leanne McCormick (UU)

Tell us a bit about yourselves...

Elaine: I’m a lecturer in History at Queen’s University Belfast, where I teach and research Irish social history. I’m particularly interested in crime, gender, and lived realities in 19th-century Ireland, and these are the topics that I’ve published on.

Leanne: I’m a Senior Lecturer at Ulster University. As well as working on Bad Bridget I am interested in gender history, history of medicine and sexuality. I was a co-author of the recent report into Mother and Baby Homes and Magdalene Laundries in Northern Ireland and have a new project starting called Queer Northern Ireland: Sexuality before liberation.

How did you come up with the Bad Bridget concept - what research lead you to this?

Elaine: I had been doing some research on Irish women in 19th-century Boston and was struck by the large numbers admitted to prisons and other institutions. I wanted to find out how extensive this was, who the women were, and the types of crimes they had committed.

How did you come to work together on Bad Bridget?

Elaine: While I was doing research on Irish women criminals in Boston, Leanne had been researching poor Irish women in New York. It made sense to join forces for a much larger project. That was back in 2014 and we’re still going strong!

Leanne: I had been working on a British Academy funded project that looked at Irish women and charity in New York and when chatting to Elaine found out that she was working on Irish women in Boston. It seemed like serendipity that we were looking at Irish women in these cities and there might be a bigger research project there. So, after lots of talking about it we came up with the idea of Bad Bridget which looked at criminal Irish women in Boston, New York and Toronto. We chose the name as Bridget was both a really common name for Irish women in the nineteenth century but also Bridget or Biddy was the name term used to refer to Irish women who worked as servants in American homes- often in a derogatory way. We successfully applied for funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and in 2015 started working on the project.

We focused on Boston, New York and Toronto and made lots of research trips to archives and libraries in the cities over the next few years.

At what point did National Museums NI/Ulster American Folk Park get involved?

Elaine: We filmed a Bad Bridget documentary taster at the Ulster Folk Park with Moya Neeson (Morrow Communications) in the summer of 2019. Afterwards, we got chatting to staff at National Museums NI about the project and, as we talked, it became clear that the research we had done tied in with ideas for the Ulster American Folk Park. We’ve been working with the brilliant National Museums NI on this exhibition since then so it’s very exciting to see it come to fruition now!

Leanne: We had been filming at the Ulster Folk Park in August 2019 with Moya Neeson from Morrow Communications who introduced us to Colin Catney and told him about the project. He saw the possible collaborations with the Ulster American Folk Park and put us in touch with Dave Tosh who introduced us to Liam Corry and Victoria Miller. We all felt that Bad Bridget would be a great collaboration with the Ulster American Folk Park and began to plan an exhibition. Andrew McDowell came on board, we successfully applied for funding from the AHRC and after many meetings later here we are today!

What are your objectives for the Bad Bridget exhibition?

Elaine: We want to showcase this untold aspect of the Irish female migratory experience. By exploring the crimes that Irish girls and women committed in urban America, we can get a glimpse of the daily realities of their lives, the ways they made money, their social activities, and the demands on their time and resources.

Leanne: We are keen to tell the stories of emigration that are often ignored or forgotten. Stories of the women and girls who left Ireland, often alone, often very young to make a new life in North America. For some they were very successful but for others, things were not so good. We wanted to show how hard it was for many women, how they often found themselves on the wrong side of the law and the lives they may have led. We want to tell these stories in an accessible and exciting way and for visitors to come away with a wider understanding of life for many women at home in Ireland and their emigration experience.

What’s the take home message for people visiting the exhibition?

Elaine: Irish girls and women got up to all sorts in urban America!

Leanne: That life for many women in Ireland and in North America was hard, that they often travelled alone, were very young and may have never left their small village before. They went to some of the biggest cities in the world and ended up on the wrong side of the law. That visitors come away with more understanding of how tough it can be to be a migrant, to leave your home, to be away from family and friends and support networks. That this might influence the way migrants today are viewed.

What are you looking forward to most about the exhibition opening?

Elaine: I’m really excited to see the various aspects of the exhibition come together, the voiceovers, soundscapes, illustrations, scents, objects and text! And hopefully visitors will like it!

Leanne: Seeing our research come to life in illustrations, words, smells and sounds. It’s so different from seeing it written on the page and being able to share it with such a wide audience is amazing.