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The lot of the soldier’s wife was unenviable

So little was etched into the written record about our great-great-great grandmother, Mary McDonnell (1794–1869), the earliest known of our ancestors in this line from the county of Mayo. Of course, the system of record keeping favoured male heads of household, tradesmen, and soldiers. Women tended to fall off the archival radar.

While we are fortunate to have been able to trace our McDonnell line back to 1794, gaps remain between the few bits that are known to us. Limited information, interspersed by extended intervals, can frustrate the interpretation of events, an understanding of what led to next, and even the ability to hazard a guess as to why things happened the way they did.

Such is the case during the last half of Mary Burke’s life. In a very short span of time, her husband died—leaving her with limited (if any) financial resources, her daughter was married in haste (a blessing in disguise), and her son was given into the armed service at the tender age of thirteen years. Her children entrusted to the care of others, Mary had only to worry about herself.

A grieving widow is consoled by her young daughter. Digital image online at the Wellcome Collection; archival ref. 443368i (accessed 17th January 2011). Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International CC BY 4.0. — Readers are encouraged to visit the Creative Commons link to learn the rights and restrictions attaching to this image.

What were the alternatives available to a forty-five year old widow? Relief from the parish was a remote possibility, but the population was transient, and thus the coffers likely suffered. There was the workhouse, but everyone knew that once you went through those doors, chances were you were an inmate for life—with a reduced life expectancy at that. There were only a few options remaining for a woman of middle age: laundering, hawking, the peddling of wares.

The lot of a soldier’s widow was unenviable.

Source citation for this page: — Kilpatrick, Alison. “The lot of the soldier’s wife was unenviable.” Citing the life of Mary McDonnell (1794–1869), wife of John Burke (1796–1839), regimental tailor. Published to Arborealis, online at, accessed [insert date of access.].

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