You can listen to the podcast of this review here.
Bad Bridget is a true crime and history podcast, with a sociological bent, from Queen’s University Belfast, and Ulster University. This podcast however bucks the trend of a slew of academicly styled podcasts, by not sounding like a lecture given to an echoey, half empty, lecture hall in a monotone voice. Our hosts, Dr Leeanne McCormick and Dr Elaine Farrell, are personable and warm. Siobhan McSweeny, who is Sister Michael in Derry Girls, to read extracts from historical records, and plenty of interviews with other experts. Pairing this talent with a musical bed means the show is both engaging and auditorily lively.
Bad Bridget focuses on criminal and deviant Irish women in North America from 1838 to 1918, specifically in the cities of New York, Boston and Toronto. A time when due to famine and poverty there was mass migration from Ireland to the new world. Women would often travel alone, going ahead of lovers some of whom never followed, or to meet kin, who had sometimes moved by the time they arrived at their port. Leaving these women alone in cities they did not know, unable to find any relatives or friends and, expected to send money home. While there are many stories of plucky migrant, Bad Bridget uncovers the stories of the women who were not so lucky. We have infanticide, drunkenness, sex work, insecure employment, and sometimes even sabotage and undermining by a woman’s own relatives. It all paints the picture of a world where the difference between success and failure could hang on the slimmest thread, which could easily be broken.
What did surprise me in the story was that often there was leniency shown to these women. While the world they existed in still had very rigid ideas of what was and was not proper it appears there were those in the justice system who understood not every woman who found herself in hard times did so through her own fault. Even if it was her own fault, that didn’t meant she did not deserve a second change.
As a committed fan of exploring deviant and criminal woman, Bad Bridget’s only flaw was that I wanted more. I wanted to understand more about the conditions of employment, I wanted to understand more about what the passage across the Atlantic was like, the sounds smells and sensations that would have greeted these women at their destination. I wanted to understand our Bridget’s housing and education, both in their adopted cities and their home. I wanted to understand the differing attitudes towards women in Ireland and North America. I also wanted to understand their legacy on Irish identifying populations in those cities today and back in Ireland – did the stories they wrote home change Ireland and where she saw herself in the world? I greedily wanted more stories that illustrate every point. I wanted a really deep dive.
Possibly a bit much to expect when the hosts also have papers to mark, lectures to give and research to undertake.
I contacted Dr’s McCormick and Farrell and they confirmed that they were thinking about a second series, and kindly agreed to answer some questions below. I for one will be looking forward to any more output from them immensely.
1. The voice and stories of working class women are so often silent in history. What attracted you to these women in this time period?
Elaine: We were fascinated by women’s stories, as you say they’re often left out of history. These are stories of poverty and struggles for survival. Many are heart-breaking, others are funny, and they drew us in!
2. It appears obvious that a lot of the crimes our Bad Bridget’s committed were rooted in poverty, class and bad luck. Do you believe these women’s lives would have been very different if they stayed in Ireland?
Leanne: It’s very hard to say, in some situations they might have been better or worse. But for many of these women they were leaving behind poverty and really tough lives in Ireland so it was unlikely that they would have had a much better life at home. For some women staying at home may have given them a support network that so many didn’t have when they emigrated, and that may have helped them in the difficult situations they found themselves in.
3. I was surprised at the understanding some in the legal system were willing to extend the BBs. Our image of the privileged of this era is one of rigid morality and lack of compassion. Were you surprised too?
Elaine: I’ve researched and written on infant murder and concealment of birth in the latter half of nineteenth-century Ireland and I knew that judges and jurors often interpreted the evidence in rather imaginative ways in order to avoid a guilty verdict for the capital offence of murder. So I wasn’t really surprised to see similar attitudes towards those kinds of crimes in North America.
Leanne: Though it is clear that even though courts could often be sympathetic, it was still women rather than men who paid the price for what was considered to be immoral behaviour. Historians like Maria Luddy and Mary O’Dowd, and Leanne Calvert, have also shown how sex outside marriage was more commonplace in Ireland than we might have imagined.
4. Do you think the impacts of treatment of Irish migrants to North America can still be seen in Irish identifying communities in New York, Boston and Toronto?
Elaine: In our first episode, Catherine Griffin, a NY public defender, speaks to parallels today in the ways certain communities are policed but the focus is not now on the Irish. In fact we saw a huge difference across our period in terms of attitudes towards the Irish. By the end of our period of examination we can see discrimination affecting other migrant groups beyond the Irish.
5. What is your favourite Bad Bridget story?
Leanne: My favourite is the story of Marion Canning, which features in Podcast 2 on sex work. I love this story, as not only does it have a happy ending, but we found some fabulous letters from Marion’s dad back in Ireland which tell us so much about family relationships and the ties that extended across the Atlantic.
Also Recommended: If you think Bad Bridget’s might tickle your fancy I would also recommend Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood. A fictionalised telling of the 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery in Canada by servants James McDermot and Grace Marks, an Ulster woman. It was also made into a decent adaption by Netflix. If podcasts are more your thing there is always Criminal Broads, by true crime writer Tori Telfer, who specifically looks at criminal women, and crime fighting women.