Alice Rooney - An Intoxicating Life

By Karen Mitchell

Alice Rooney stood in the dock of Kirkcaldy Police Court. It was 1904, but it could have been 1879 or almost any year in between. Alice was a habitual hell-raiser, and the passing of time hadn’t tempered her rebellious nature.

The bailie appraised her, it wasn’t the first time she had stood before him, and it wasn’t the first time he had tried to guess her age. Her grey hair matted and dry, skin the colour of leather parchment, weather beaten and wearied by the trials of life, she would appear to be in the later years of her life, but in all likelihood was only in her mid-40’s.

The trial followed a familiar pattern, Alice pleading guilty to a charge of breach of the peace in Kirk Wynd. Her record leaving no room for leniency, she had the choice of 7s 6d fine, or five days in prison.

Before making her way back down to the gaol, Alice spoke to the Bailie;

“Will I gi’ ye a verse o’poetry I made in the cells, yer honour?”

The Bailie, bemused, replied that they had no time for that this morning. Alice, however, was not to be deterred.

"As I lay in my silent cell

I mony thochts had tae mysel’

Aboot the days that’s past, ye see,

An’ never can come back to me.

There’s better days in store for me;

I’m livin’, yet, in hopes someday,

Tae see my child that’s far away."

The words faded, and the “Little Poetess” faced the reality of five sobering days before she could continue her tempestuous, drunken, violent, heart-breaking life.

Life could have taken a different road. Alice had grown up in Dundee, her life little different from the neighbours', childhood ending abruptly; replaced by grafting in the mills.

It was the violent temper, the red mist would descend for the most innocuous of incidents: fights over rivals, intimidation, slurs and innuendos, raging against the poverty that she was surrounded by. With the addition of alcohol, she became a virago.

Barely able to sustain herself, three children, in quick succession, became attached to her skirt tails. Maternal instinct was buried deep, she did her best, but once the alcohol surged through her veins the savage beast arose. They followed her from workhouse, to gaol.

The first, a girl, found solace early in life, a grave securing a place to lay her head, something she never had in life. Her son, Patrick, found himself destitute at the age of seven, fatherless and motherless, the former unknown and absent, the latter in gaol. A place to call home was either “close” stairwell or “poor house”.  Alice’s last tie to motherhood faired just as poorly. The Sheriff in Dundee referred to her as an “unnatural mother,” having assaulted her seven month old daughter, by throwing her violently to the ground whilst in a whisky induced miasma. Guilt acknowledged, if repentance not shown.

When things got too hard, the open road prevailed. The miles, to and from, Bonnie Dundee constantly trod. Over the water to Tayport, St Andrews, Cupar, Kirkcaldy, Pittenweem, Methil and Gallatown, or up to Montrose, Stonehaven, Blairgowrie or Perth. An anonymous, unwelcome visitor, ready to explode like a cork in a bottle of warm beer, causing distress and dismay.

“Did ye hear aboot puir old Mrs Watson? Viciously assaulted in the street by that vagrant woman.”

“Aye, sixty days hard graft will sort her oot.”

Punishment, hardship, beatings, isolation, the ravages of time, none of these things caused a change in Alice’s behaviour. Men came and went. Children were a distant memory, except for Patrick. For Patrick she would walk miles for a fleeting visit. Gentle Patrick, institutionalised by years of living apart from society, being moved from east coast to west coast, finally making his way back to Dundee, finding security, a home, a purpose in life, in Liff Asylum; where he tended to the plants in the garden with a tenderness, and devotion, that allowed him to express his true character, a chance to nurture and cherish, something that had been denied to him in a life less than ordinary.

By 1913, Alice had reached the not insignificant figure of 121 appearances before the Bailie in Dundee. For such a milestone the charge was trifling, a group of boys had jeered and made fun of her in the Overgate, Alice reacted in the only way she knew how, knocking one boy down, pounding him with her fists, whilst the others ran off crying to their mothers (as young boys are wont to do). Bailie McDonald was in no mood to listen to the “Poetess” recite her rhymes. He was as wearied by the sight of her, as she was of him, so they played out the dance, and Alice being short of funds, accepted the twenty days, which would keep her off the streets but away from the harsh reality of winter.

The bells from the steeple had barely stopped ringing in the New Year of 1914, when Alice made what would appear to be the last recorded appearance in a long, wearisome, vocation. As if to embrace the enthusiasm that comes with the start of a new year, Alice greeted the court by “wishing all the gentlemen a good and happy New Year,” and continued, recalling her recent incarcerations “I have done my twenty days twice, and if you let me away to my work I will not take time to wait, but “rin” all the way.”

After this last noted event Alice - local worthy, vagrant, social rebel, worker, violent drunkard, poetess, traveller, mother, wife, and fighter - drifted away from life quietly and anonymously, just as she had entered it.

There was no legacy to leave, no headstone to memorialize, yet in the quiet corners of the town, where the ”cassie’s” still lie, and the tenements still loom, you might be inclined to imagine the footsteps and menacing rantings of Alice Rooney.


dundonian rebels, alice rooney