VOICES FROM THE NORTH INNER CITY
Once the biggest and busiest red light district in Europe, Monto has been celebrated in song – most famously by Irish folk band, the Dubliners. And in story – most notably when Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus visit a local brothel in the Nighttown section of James Joyce's Ulysses.
Brothels – known locally as “the kips” or “the digs” – were an established feature of life in the north inner city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Up to 1,600 prostitutes worked in an area of less than one square mile.
Barely a few blocks in extent, Monto was so well known as a centre for late-night drinking and prostitution that it rated a mention in the 1903 (tenth) edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica:
“Dublin furnishes an exception to the unusual practice in the United Kingdom in that city police permit ‘open houses’… carried on more publicly than even in the south of Europe or Algeria.”
Origins of the Nickname
Monto derived its name from Montgomery Street, (since renamed Foley Street), which runs parallel to the lower end of Talbot Street on the way to what was Amiens Street Rail Station (now Connolly Station). Buckingham Street and Lower Gardiner Street marked this compact area’s boundaries.
A Blind Eye
Monto was unique in Britain and Ireland in that its brothels operated without interference from the police. Anyone could set up a brothel in Dublin. In 1868, the police had certain knowledge of 132 brothels operating in the city.
All Catered For
Mecklenburgh Street in the heart of Monto was arranged to suit the needs of clients from all classes. The higher numbers in the street was where the so-called “flash houses” were found. The lower numbers were where the less-well-off were catered for.
Monto Madams and their “Poor Unfortunates”
Monto was run by the ‘madams’ who were exploitative, had a fearsome reputation and enforced their brand of control over all who crossed their paths. The prostitutes had to pay for lodgings, food and protection, as well as having to rent their working clothes.
When they were young and alluring, they were in demand. But older, less desirable prostitutes would often find themselves on the streets at the mercy of less choosy clients.
Some ended up suffering from venereal diseases and alcoholism. When they could no longer work to support their drinking habits or pay for accommodation, a lot of them plunged into drinking methylated Spirits on the streets.
Pregnant women were tossed out onto the streets, left to fend for themselves, not only unloved but unwanted. Their plight touched the hearts of ordinary local people, who often came across the discarded women huddling in the doorways of Monto tenements. Some would provide permanent homes for these infants who were often sympathetically described as “Monto babies”.
Visitors who availed of Monto’s illicit pleasures included famous literary figures such as James Joyce and Oliver St. John Gogarty, not to mention a Prince of Wales, who later returned as King Edward VII.
Downturn in Trade
In 1921, after the War of Independence, Monto experienced a downturn in trade as British troops were no longer stationed in the vicinity. When the new, overwhelmingly Catholic Irish Free State was set up in 1922, the country fell under the social control of the Catholic Church and prostitution was driven underground.
Frank Duff’s Campaign
Monto was eventually closed after a concentrated campaign by Frank Duff, former secretary to Michael Collins.
Having joined the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, he became aware of how these women were earning their keep. He appealed to them to mend their ways. Most had nowhere to go and no alternative means of survival. Duff organised lodgings in a local convent and he also petitioned the new Free State Government. The President of the Executive (Head of Government) William T. Cosgrave, agreed to buy a house on Harcourt Street which he turned into a hostel.
In September 1921, Duff founded The Legion of Mary and increased his efforts to close down the area.
Closure of Brothels
Duff’s long campaign came to fruition on 12 March 1925 with the closure of the brothels following a police raid. There were 120 arrests.
One madam, Polly Butler, was sentenced to six weeks in prison.
It was the only time in the area’s history that a madam received a jail term.
“When I used to be coming home from Rutland Street School, me and my pals used to stop at Synnott’s shop in Railway Street to buy some sweets.
I will always remember this woman, her name was Becky Cooper. She lived in Railway Street. She used to stand at her hall door and when she would see me. She used to call me over and ask me to go over to the pub and get this big jug filled up with porter. “That’s a good boy,” she’d say when I brought it back, and she’d give me a few pennies for doing that for her.
I was to come into contact with Becky again years after, when I got married in 1940 and went to live in some of the last tenement houses that were left in Railway Street.
By this time most of the tenement houses had been demolished and blocks of flats were built on the site where some of the most famous houses of Monto once stood.”
BILL BOY PRESTON - BORN 1921, CORPORATION BUILDINGS
“Once it got dark, you were called into the house, as the girls would be coming out of the houses to meet the men.
I used to play in Corporation Buildings and I would hear my mother calling me and my brothers from the window. I knew it was time to go in and go to bed.
I remember in the night time, lying in bed, you always heard the poor girls singing in the streets.
They were lovely singers, they would sing sad songs. You could hear them from a long way off up Corporation Street.
One girl would start to singing first, then after a while they all joined in. I used to look out our window in the night time and see them standing under the lamplights or walking up and down the street, waiting on the men. “
ELIZABETH DILLON - BORN 1915, CORPORATION STREET
“I was born next-door to Paddy Clare’s pub. I became friendly with one of the poor unfortunate girls that used to be around Monto. Her name was Bella Reilly, from Belfast.
I met Bella while I was playing marbles in the street one day and she called me over to her. She said “Lefty (that was my nickname and she must have heard my pals call it), come here, I want you.” From that day on we became good friends.
One of my regular jobs for Bella was to go over to the Ballast Office, near O’Connell Bridge. The Ballast Office was where they kept track of what ships were coming into Dublin. Bella would ask me to go over and ask the man what time such a ship was coming into Dublin at. “If the man asks you why you want to know,” she said, “tell him that your daddy works on the ship.” I would go and get the information and when I got back she would give me a shilling.”
GEORGE SMITH - BORN 1917, 1 FOLEY STREET
“I was only a child at the time, but I remember the houses that the madams owned. Some of them had lovely hall doors that were polished every morning by this woman we called the Granny Butler while we played in the street.
The unfortunate girls looking for clients wore mostly little black wraps around them. Some wore nice dresses. They were lovely looking girls.
Purdon Street was known as “The Man Trap” because when they got the men down there, there was no way out. I saw two women fighting over a client in Purdon Street. One of the women was holding the other woman by the hair and saying to her, “I won’t let you go till I bleed you.”
Elliott Place was a small street with a lot of alleyways. It led into Faithful Place. And there were a lot of avenues that led out into Railway Street. There was a pub in Railway Street called Joe O’Reilly’s, facing Mrs Meehan’s house. Some of the women stood up to the madams over what was happening in the street.
I remember one of the women that did not like what was going on was fighting with one of the madams. She was shouting up to the madam’s house for her to come down to fight her, “Come down to me and I will read your pedigree, you old cow, ya!””
MARY FORAN - BORN 1924, 40 RAILWAY STREET
“Our back window at 25c Corporation Buildings faced out onto the side of Jack Maher’s pub in Purdon Street.
There was this big wall that went between Corporation Buildings and the houses in Railway Street but I remember I used to look out the back window over at the girls going in and out of the pub with the men they had picked up.
Some of the madams like Becky Cooper and Polly Butler would be nearby, supervising the girls and who they were going with. But what I noticed was this little gate that was hanging off its hinges that led into a laneway alongside the pub.
When the girl came out of the pub with a man, who was usually drunk, she would bring him in through the little gate. After a while she would come running out with his wallet in her hand and away with her down the street.”