‘Paddy Petticoat’, a nineteenth-century Irish ‘hermaphrodite’ criminal. Part iii: The label

A few years ago, when researching infanticide cases in Irish newspapers, I came across a brutal murder in County Kerry in 1894. Alleged murders were not particularly unusual during the nineteenth century, but what caught my attention in this case was the suspect’s tendency to cross-dress! Known locally as ‘Paddy Petticoat’ or ‘Paddy Wad’, he must have been quite an unusual figure in rural Ireland! A year or so ago, I was conducting research for a project with the ever-dynamic Ciara Breathnach and I stumbled across the case of a ‘hermaphrodite’ in an Irish government prison. It was only on the train back to Belfast that evening that it suddenly dawned on me that ‘Paddy Petticoat’ and the so-called ‘hermaphrodite’ were the same person. The case appealed to my interests in nineteenth-century criminality, sexuality and imprisonment (and women’s fashion!). This is the third post in a series about the case.

Patrick Brosnan, convicted of the manslaughter of Mary McKenna in County Kerry in 1894 and sentenced to penal servitude for twenty years, was 169 pounds and 5 foot 4 inches on reception. Modern BMI calculations would agree with the historical assessment of the prisoner as ‘stout’.[1]  Prisoner C819, as he became, was judged to be ‘eccentric’ in mind on entry to the invalid department at Maryborough Prison.  Notes in the ‘distinctive marks or peculiarities’ column on his penal record confirm that he suffered from ‘ectopion vesicoe’, which was described as a ‘congenital deficiency of bladder’.  This condition is now more commonly known as exstrophy of the bladder and can vary in severity.  It can also be accompanied by ambiguous genitalia. [2] Brosnan was labelled a ‘hermaphrodite’ in his penal record.

Two days after his arrival to Maryborough Prison, visiting doctors carried out a thorough medical assessment.  As a prisoner, Brosnan would not have had the choice to opt out of this examination.  The medical officers noted ‘no hermaphrodism’ and this conclusion was added to Brosnan’s penal record.  The ‘hermaphrodite’ label was not crossed out.

IMG_4211 - Copy

Penal file, courtesy National Archives of Ireland (GPB/PEN/1896/129)

Much fascinating scholarship on intersex has emerged in recent years. The historical interpretation of the term ‘hermaphrodite’, understood differently at various time periods and sometimes used quite loosely, has also been examined.[3]  In 1829, for instance, an inquest was held in London on forty-two-year-old James Allen, who had been hit with a piece of timber while at work. The married man’s death occurred on the way to hospital. The medical examination by the doctor subsequently found him to have female genitalia, ‘perfect in all respects’. Unsurprisingly,

‘The discovery excited the utmost curiosity, and on the arrival of the coroner, the jury-room was crowded by the whole of the pupils of the hospital.’

Allen’s wife, whom he allegedly abused, seems to have begun to doubt her husband’s sex about eight months previously, telling a neighbour that she thought he ‘was not a proper man’. The deceased also allegedly ‘had a very weakly voice, and was without a beard or whisker’ and thus those in the locality ‘considered him a hermaphrodite’. [4]

Patrick Brosnan, 1894, courtesy National Archives of Ireland (GPB/PEN/1896/129)

Patrick Brosnan, 1894, courtesy National Archives of Ireland (GPB/PEN/1896/129)

Elizabeth Reis has suggested that individuals in history ‘living with ambiguous bodies generally shared the binary ideal and sought to blend in, if only because survival demanded it.’[5] Patrick Brosnan dressed in identifiable women’s clothing but this was understood to be for comfort and practical reasons rather than because of a desire to present as female.  Clothing aside, he represented as male and lived as a man. He worked as a caretaker on evicted properties, and assisted bailiffs on Kenmare’s estate, a position typically filled by men at this time. His prison photographs show facial hair, a factor that was discussed in the London inquest case mentioned above. Brosnan’s sex does not appear to have been questioned either in his local area or in court, and he was thus housed in the men’s prison.

Christina Matta notes that medics ‘had taken note of hermaphrodites’ sexual lives even in the early part of the 19th century, well before the introduction of homosexuality to medical literature.’[6] The sources that I have examined thus far do not detail Brosnan’s sexual history. The newspapers do not give any indication that the attack on Mary McKenna was sexually motivated. A couple of adult witnesses were questioned about the fact that Brosnan sometimes slept with the cattle, goats, dogs and cats in his care. Implicit in this, it seems, was a fear of deviant sexuality.[7] Maurice Leonard, agent for Lord Kenmare, clarified when questioned by the presiding judge, however, that Brosnan ‘made pets of them and they followed him about the road.’[8]

It would be fascinating to assess the lived experiences of individuals like Patrick Brosnan in nineteenth-century Ireland. A study of those with ambiguous genitalia, those who cross-dressed, or those who oscillated between genders, would shed much light on nineteenth-century Irish understandings of sex and sexuality. How many men, women and children in nineteenth-century Ireland had conditions like Brosnan? How did they cope with their perceived disfigurements and how were they treated in their localities? McClive has warned, however, that ‘hermaphrodite’ cases are necessarily limited.[9] The nicknames, the petticoats and other practical solutions to deal with his condition, and the ‘hermaphrodite’ label, are known in this case only because Brosnan was charged with a serious offence and sentenced to penal servitude. The final post in the series will examine his prison experiences.


For permission to include images, I am grateful to the Director of the National Archives of Ireland, and Aideen Ireland, Head of Reader Services.


[1] In modern BMI terms, Brosnan is on the line between ‘overweight’ and ‘obese’: www.nhs.uk/Tools/Pages/Healthyweightcalculator.aspx (6 Jan. 2015). [2] Association for the Bladder Exstrophy Community: http://www.bladderexstrophy.com/ (6 January 2015). [3] For example, Katelyn Dykstra Dykerman, ‘Eugenics and Intersex: The consequences of defining “normal” bodies’, 3 March 2015, Notches: (re)marks on the history of sexuality: http://notchesblog.com/2015/03/03/eugenics-and-intersex-a-historical-perspective-on-a-contemporary-problem/#more-1972 (12 April 2015); Gilbert Herdt, ‘Mistaken sex: culture, biology and the third sex in New Guinea’, in Gilbert Herdt (ed.), Third sex, third gender: beyond sexual dimorphism in culture and history (New York, 1994), pp 419-45; Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass, ‘Fetishizing gender: constructing the hermaphrodite in Renaissance Europe’ in Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub (eds), Body guards: the cultural politics of gender ambiguity (New York and London, 1991), pp 80-111; Jenny C. Mann, ‘How to Look at a hermaphrodite in early modern England’ in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, xlvi, no. 1, The English Renaissance (2006), pp. 67-91; Christina Matta, ‘Ambiguous bodies and deviant sexualities: hermaphrodites, homosexuality, and surgery in the United States, 1850-1904’ in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, xlviii, no. 1 (2005), pp 74-83; Cathy McClive, ‘Masculinity on trial: penises, hermaphrodites and the uncertain male body in Early Modern France’ in History Workshop Journal, lxviii (2009), pp 45-68; Marianna Muravyeva, ‘A Temporary Member’: ‘Hermaphrodites’ and Sexual Identity in Early Modern Russia’, 24 June 2014, Notches: (re)marks on the history of sexuality: http://notchesblog.com/2014/06/24/a-temporary-member-hermaphrodites-and-sexual-identity-in-early-modern-russia/ (accessed 7 January 2015); Cary J. Nederman and Jacqui True, ‘The third sex: the idea of the hermaphrodite in twelfth-century Europe’ in Journal of the History of Sexuality, vi, no. 4 (1996), pp 497-517; Tanya Ní Mhuirthile, ‘Building bodies: a legal history of intersex in Ireland’ in Jennifer Redmond, Sonja Tiernan, Sandra McAvoy and Mary McAuliffe, Sexual politics in modern Ireland (Dublin, 2015), pp 154-72. Elizabeth Reis, ‘Impossible hermaphrodites: intersex in America, 1620-1960’ in Journal of American History, xcii, no. 2 (2005), pp 411-41. [4] Belfast Newsletter, 20 June 1829. [5] Reis, ‘Impossible hermaphrodites’, p. 414. [6] Matta, ‘Ambiguous bodies’, p. 76. [7] Reis, ‘Impossible hermaphrodites’, pp 428-9. [8] Irish Examiner, 13 Dec. 1894. [9] McClive, ‘Masculinity on trial’, p. 52.

1 thought on “‘Paddy Petticoat’, a nineteenth-century Irish ‘hermaphrodite’ criminal. Part iii: The label

  1. Fantastic research Elaine, i had heard the story and seen some of the reporting but the detail you go into is exceptional. The prison photograph adds an extra dimension also.
    Many thanks

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