Sunday, October 25, 2020

Elaine Farrell's "Women, Crime and Punishment in Ireland"

Elaine Farrell is a graduate of University College Dublin and Queen’s University Belfast. In 2010-11, she held the position of Lecturer in Modern Irish History at Queen’s University Belfast and was an Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences (IRCHSS) Post-doctoral Research Fellow at University College Dublin, 2011-2012. She took up her current position as Lecturer in Irish Economic and Social History at Queen’s University Belfast in September 2012.

Farrell applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Women, Crime and Punishment in Ireland: Life in the Nineteenth-Century Convict Prison, and reported the following:
I open page 99 gingerly, not sure what I’ll find. Hopefully not a typo! Isn’t that what they say, you proof read over and over and as soon as you open the book you see the mistake! I haven’t dared to open it since I took it out of its box a few weeks ago.

Turns out page 99 is a few pages into Chapter 2, which focuses on family ties involving women incarcerated in the nineteenth-century Irish convict prison, the prison for serious offenders. Page 99 is part of a section entitled ‘“My dear and beloved mother I take this pen in hand’: Convict letters’. At this point in the chapter, I’m analysing penned letters to and from the female inmates, using quantitative evidence (like that 283 women released between 1881 and 1900 wrote around 1,486 letters to relatives and friends on the outside) and qualitative evidence in the form of case study examples of the thousands of women who passed through Ireland’s female convict prison.

In one such example, I show how the letters written by inmates Catherine Lavelle, her mother Mary and her brother Thomas (in the male prison) document Irish migratory practices as evidenced through recipients’ changing addresses. Following their convictions for the manslaughter of Catherine’s father, the addresses show that Catherine’s siblings emigrated to England and onto America. Her sister married relatively soon afterwards, as evidenced by her change in surname.

I am surprised at how well the test works. In showcasing qualitative and quantitative evidence, as mentioned above, the page demonstrates my methodology. The book prioritises the stories of individual woman, and several women feature on this page. It’s important to give women their names, they were not just numbers in an institution. Many (although not all) had experienced hardship, poverty, abuse or family bereavement prior to incarceration. They had relatives and friends on the outside who noticed their absences; women’s incarceration also had a significant effect on the everyday experiences and life trajectories of their dependents. The crimes for which women were sentenced to the Irish female convict prison varied significantly and this is showcased by the examples on page 99, from Maria Collins who stole a coat in Dublin and ended up in the convict prison to Mary Lavelle who was sentenced to life for the manslaughter of her husband.

Catherine Lavelle who is mentioned on page 99, features on the front cover of the book and is the focus of one of the five case studies that precedes each of the five chapters. She was 15 years of age when she was arrested and tried for her father’s murder, along with her brother and mother in County Mayo in 1881. The photograph was taken after Catherine had served around three years in prison. She’s in uniform, badges on either arm showing her progress through the system, in the typical pose at the time.

I try to imagine what Catherine could see as this photograph was taken. She could see the photographer, a female staff member at the prison. Perhaps she encountered other inmates on her way to be photographed. The complexities of friendships, rivalries and networks behind bars, between inmates as well as employees, are explored in Chapters 3 and 4. Catherine could see the walls that would contain her until her early release in 1888. Women’s options on discharge and their post-prison experiences are examined in Chapter 5.

Though the case studies of individual women, we get a glimpse of nineteenth-century Irish society. They offer us a fascinating insight of lived realities at a point in time. But it’s important to remember that these stories are not fictional and that these women are not made-up characters. The photograph on the front cover reminds us of that.
Visit Elaine Farrell's website.

--Marshal Zeringue