The Curragh, 6th September 1861. Nellie Clifden watched the two moustachioed officers approach through the tumbling Kildare rains, their red tunics fading into the deep green furze of the gorse. She recognised them from before. The Grenadier Guards, the most elite infantry regiment in the British Army, had been stationed at the Curragh all summer.
As the officers drew closer, more and more women appeared from the furze, perhaps sixty women in total. Like Nellie, most wore a frieze skirt wrapped around their legs and a blanket around their rain-soaked shoulders. Aged between seventeen and 25, many were orphaned during the Great Famine which had desecrated Ireland during their childhood years.
Bereft of options, they had turned to prostitution and made their way to the Curragh Camp, the biggest army barracks in Ireland. To the 12,000 troops stationed at the Curragh, the women of this extraordinary harem were known as the Curragh wrens.
The soldiers called them ‘wrens’ because their homes looked like nests. There were ten nests in total, each one stitched into a dense strip of gorse just a few hundred metres from the entrance to the army camp. They measured no more than nine foot long and seven foot broad. The roof, if you could call it that, stood just 4½ foot high. There was no window, no chimney. But the walls were impressive, 20 foot thick in places, a closely compacted mesh of bog earth and gorse branches.
At length the two men drew up outside Nellie’s door. She ushered them in through a ramshackle corrugated door held in place by two splintery posts. The men crouched low and entered in upon the bare earth floor. A solitary shelf supported a teapot, some cups, a small box and an unlit candle. The men could see the pile of straw beside the hollowed out ground where Nellie and her sister wrens had their beds.
Nellie invited them to sit upon two upturned saucepans beside a turf fire, the smoke languorously spilling out the door. It was a wet afternoon at the tail end of summer. Outside the wind was howling across the plains of Kildare.
When the officers finished making their proposal, Nellie laughed. She was a good-humoured girl and the officers considered her the best of the wrens.
Some said she was from Connemara but nobody knew how or why she had ended up at the Curragh. Perhaps she had come with a soldier who had since died or otherwise abandoned her. Maybe she was still hoping he would return.
Or was she from Waterford? In August 2014, I was contacted by Jean Donnelly who, fascinated by Nellie, had a search of the IFHF website and found an 'Ellen Clifton' baptized in the Catholic parish of Abbeyside in Co Waterford in 1844. That would have made her 17 years of age at the time of her upcoming 'Royal Appointment'.
One of her friends was a wren whose life story began with ‘no mother, no father’ and an aunt who kept a whiskey store in Cork City. One day an artilleryman had come into the whiskey store and, by and by, the girl became pregnant. When his regiment was posted to the Curragh, she followed him. Some years later, she told a journalist how the soldier wanted no more to do with her when arrived. ‘He told me to come here instead, and do like the other women did. And what could I do? My child was born here, in this very place. And glad I was of the shelter, and glad I was when the child died - thank the blessed Mary! What could I do with a child?’
Perhaps, like most of the wrens, Nellie simply considered prostitution as a reasonable livelihood and the Curragh, with its vast number of men, as a sensible place to be. All of the girls were agreed that life in the furze was preferable to the alternative horrors of the workhouse at Naas.
That evening, Nellie Clifden slipped into a freshly washed corset and starched white petticoat, stepped into a stiff crinoline dress, inserted her stockinged feet into wooden clogs, fastened a bonnet to her head and exited her nest.
In gentlemen’s clubs and stately mansions across Ireland and Britain, Nellie Clifden was about to become an extremely well-known name. ‘A local of easy virtue so familiar with the barracks that from routine she could find her way to any particular man's bed in the dark’, opined one man. ‘Vivacious and pretty and cheerfully promiscuous’, said another.
The mess party was still in full flow as Nellie delicately made her way through the barracks to the officer’s quarters. As instructed, she made her way to a seperate house wherein she found a bedroom somewhat bigger than those she was used to. Nellie sat on the bed and waited.
The man who came into the bedroom was tall, bearded, 20 years old and a little bit drunk. He was clearly a first timer. After some obligatory small talk, Nellie drew him towards her and began unbuttoning his uniform. Embossed upon each button was a Royal Garter bearing the Grenadiers’ motto ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense ‘(Evil be to him who evil thinks).
Nellie clearly impressed her client. Three nights later, she was summoned back for a second visit. And the following night, the young man excitedly wrote ‘NC, third time’ in his diary.
However, greater forces were already at work. This affair was not destined to last. The officer was Edward, Prince of Wales, eldest son to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and the future Edward VII.
A somewhat wild child, Edward’s parents had sent him to spend ten weeks with the Grenadier Guards ‘on the short grass’ of the Curragh precicely so that he might learn the essence of discipline.
Indeed, just two weeks before the prince’s first encounter with Nellie Clifden, Queen Victoria had personally visited the Curragh to watch him parade.
However, the prince was a fun-loving young man and inevitably there was much jocular talk amongst his fellow officers about his sheltered upbringing and his sacred virginity.
It was inevitable that someone would suggest calling in one of the ‘Curragh Wrens’.
The Prince of Wales was evidently much taken by Nellie Clifden. However, the officers of the Guards were not all prone to silence. News of this ‘most disreputable liaison’ quickly became the talk of gentlemen’s clubs across Britain and Ireland. They began to refer to Nellie as ‘the Princess of Wales’.
When Baron Stockmar, Albert’s most trusted advisor, learned the facts, he swiftly met with Albert and gave him an edited version of the young prince’s misdemeanours. Albert had an intense revulsion of all things sexual. In a bid to reduce his mentor’s suffering, Stockmar told Albert that Nellie was ‘a known habitué of the most vulgar dance halls’. There was no mention of prostitutes or Curragh wrens. Posterity would record Nellie's career as 'actress' but there is little doubt in this author's mind that Nellie Clifden was one of the higher class Curragh wrens.
Already ailing from overwork and gastric disorder, Albert took the news badly. ‘I knew that you were thoughtless and weak’, he wrote to his son, ‘but I could not think you depraved!’
Albert’s greatest horror was that the Irish girl would become pregnant and file a paternity suit against the prince, thereby destroying his sons’ chances of securing a wealthy European bride.
‘If you were to try and deny it’, he added despairingly, ‘she can drag you into a Court of Law to force you to own it and there with you (the Prince of Wales) in the witness box, she will be able to give before a greedy Multitude disgusting details of your profligacy for the sake of convincing the Jury; yourself cross-examined by a railing indecent attorney and hooted and yelled at by a Lawless Mob!! Oh, horrible prospect, which this person has in her power, any day to realise! And to break your poor parents heart.’
General Bruce, the commanding officer at the Curragh, was assigned to act as the go-between for father and son. The prince was to supply him with ‘even the most trifling detail’ of his ‘evil deed’ with Nellie Clifden.
Edward apologised but refused to name the officers who had landed him in the soup.
When Albert broke the news to Victoria, he spared her the ‘disgusting details’. The couple agreed that, first and foremost, an early marriage was now essential or the Prince would be ‘lost’.
Within three weeks of ‘NC third time’, Edward was plucked from the Curragh and shipped to Germany where he was introduced to Princess Alexandra of Denmark. Albert and Victoria had determined she should be his future wife.
He was then enrolled at Cambridge University and placed under constant surveillance.
The entire affair might have blown over but for Albert’s decision to visit his wayward son in Cambridge. ‘Bin recht elend’ (I feel miserable)’ he complained to his diary the day before they met. It was an emotional rain-swept encounter in which Albert forgave his son but warned that ‘forgiveness could not restore the state of innocence and purity which [you have] lost forever’.
Three weeks later Albert curled up and died. Contemporaries attributed his demise to typhoid fever. Modern scholars believe it was most likely stomach cancer. However, for the grief-stricken Queen Victoria, it was quite clear that her beloved husband had died because of his shock at the carnal night, or nights, their son had spent with an Irish harlot.
‘I never can or shall look at him without a shudder’, she wrote of Edward. For the next forty years, Victoria openly and repeatedly treated her son and heir with utter contempt and did all she could to frustrate his ambitions.
Over four decades later, Edward VII, King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions, and Emperor of India, returned to visit the Curragh with Queen Alexandra by his side.[i.b] As his carriage rumbled through the grassy plains of Kildare, he must have been afflicted with mixed emotions. His three night affair with Nellie Clifden had brought his family to the brink of self-destruction.
As to Nellie, her fate remains a mystery. Was she paid off by the Royal family? Did she change her name and go on to greater things? Or, when the prince’s lust was spent, did she grimly return to the furze bushes of the Curragh and solicit further shillings from passing soldiers?[ii] In any event, aside from a popular racing mare cheekily named ‘Miss Clifden’ by one of Edward’s friends, Nellie’s name and life story vanished from the archives without trace. But the impact of her encounter with the British Royal Family 150 years ago would reverberate long after her passing. [iii]
Costello, Con, The Curragh Wrens.
Greenwood, James "The Seven Curses of London". (originally published 1869; Kessinger Publishing, 2005 and digitized at http://www.victorianlondon.org/publications/seven17.htm)
Luddy, Maria, ‘Women in Ireland, 1800-1918: a documentary history’, Irish History Series (Cork University Press, 1995)
The Moat Theatre Group in Naas took on the stage script of 'The Only Glow of the Day,' which ran for a week in June 2011, as 'Rosanna Night Walker: the Wren of the Curragh'.
Also headed for production in 2011 was "The Quane's Laundry" by Imelda Murphy
[i.a] Jean Donnelly noted only two baptisms of a female 'Clifden' on the IFHF website: Catherine b.1843 and Johanna b. 1844, both in Limerick,
[i.b] Bertie and Princess Alix were married in March 1863 and succeeded as King and Queen in 1901. They had six children, including George V, grandfather to Queen Elizabeth II. Nicknamed ‘Edward the Caresser’, the prince continued to have a soft spot for mistresses for the remainder of his days. His conquests included Sarah Berhardt, Lillie Langtry, Jenny Churchill (Winston’s mother) and Camilla Parker Bowles’s great-grandmother Alice Keppel
[ii] Perhaps she died in the furze; there was no mention her when the Pall Mal Gazette correspondent visited in 1867. Venereal disease ran rampant across the Curragh during the 19th century. The army hospital treated the soldiers but for women, the only option for medical aid would have been the infirmary in Kildare infirmary, the Naas workhouse or jail. Doctors certainly did not visit the “nests”.
‘They lived, received their families, gave birth and died in the “nests”’, said the Pall Mall Gazette correspondent. ‘All the takings of a “nest” were pooled and used to purchase potatoes, bread and milk on the those days when the wrens were permitted to visit the market in the camp. An army wagon ensured they had a regular supply of water.
[iii] She is not to be confused with Nellie Bromley, an opera singer, burlesque actress and a courtesan of Bertie’s friend Lord Charles Wynn-Carrington. It is sometimes erroneously assumed that this was ‘Nellie Clifden’, particularly when Bertie wrote to Carrington and said he had ‘not heard about [Nellie] for a long time’.