The area was immortalised in Ulysses and frequented by soldiers, sailors and royalty. Tony O’Reilly, whose new novel is set there, describes why the law turned a blind eye to its illicit trade – until a fateful intervention
Down in Mabbot Lane, Lives a big fat lady, If you want to know her name, You have to pay a shilling, Soldiers two and six, Sailors two a penny, Big fat men two pound ten, Little kids a penny — Traditional children’s skipping rhyme
Where, at the turn of the 20th century, would you find the largest red-light district in Europe? It must be Soho surely, or perhaps Amsterdam, or Hamburg, or Naples? No. The biggest red-light district in Europe, the Monto, was on the northside of Dublin. The Monto was roughly the area bounded by Talbot Street, Amiens Street, Gardiner Street and Gloucester Street, (now Seán McDermott Street). Its name was derived from Montgomery Street, which ran parallel to the lower end of Talbot Street, towards what is now Connolly Station. Inside that small area, criss-crossed with squalid laneways and alleyways, there existed a thriving den of iniquity hidden in plain sight.
At one time, more than 1,500 unfortunate women plied their trade there in all kinds of conditions. From high-end brothels set in salubrious townhouses frequented by the toffs, all the way down to dilapidated terraced houses and cottages serving the soldiers, sailors and the poorer classes. King Edward VII was reputed to have lost his virginity there, while still the Prince of Wales, and in the ‘Circe’ episode of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus visit “Nighttown” (Joyce’s name for the Monto).
The Mabbot Street entrance of nighttown, before which stretches an uncobbled transiding set with skeleton tracks, red and green will-o’-the-wisps and danger signals. Rows of flimsy houses with gaping doors.
— Ulysses, James Joyce
How did the Monto come about? Early 19th century records suggest that prostitution was more prevalent on the south side of Dublin but that changed with the ever-shifting shape of the capital. The south side of the Liffey became more respectable and the Monto was far enough away from sensitive eyes to enable the containment of prostitution away from upper and middle-class residential districts.
Another reason was that the area was a slum, which meant rents were low. But the principal reason for its existence was that the Monto was perfectly positioned next to the train station on Amiens Street, Dublin port and Aldborough Barracks — providing plenty of male clientèle along with the demand of locals.
Amiens Street was also the arrival point for many young women, up from the country and looking for work. But they soon found themselves at the mercy of the persuasive madams who lurked around the station’s platforms.
The women’s place of work could have been on a large brass bed with a canopy or on a squalid mattress thrown on to bare floorboards.
Walking down Tyrone Street one evening in 1904, medical student Halliday Sutherland’s observation was stark and unequivocal, “in no other capital of Europe have I seen its equal. It was a street of Georgian houses and each one was a brothel. On the steps of every house, women and girls dressed in everything from evening dress to a nightdress stood or sat.”
Poverty was the driver for the unfortunate women of Monto and also for my grandfather, Christopher Flinter, who was born in 1890s’ Dublin city. I have borrowed his name and aspects of his early life for the protagonist in my historical novel Murder in the Monto, which is set in the weeks after the 1916 Rising.
When the 1901 census went online, I tried to find out more about my grandfather, who died when I was a child. In the census report, he lived with his mother and father and two siblings in the Liberties area of Dublin. But when I went to the 1911 census, there was only himself and his brother alive. So, I delved a bit deeper.
It transpired that both Christopher’s parents and his sister died from TB, a disease common in Dublin at the time. According to family lore, after their deaths Christopher was taken in by a Mrs Sherry who lived on Francis Street in the heart of the Liberties. Inside that tenement building, he slept on a landing with his brother Ned.
What made Flinter join the British army in 1914? Was it his desire to fight for small nations? Or an adventure? No, it was abject poverty that drove him out of the tenement and into the recruitment office in Portobello Barracks.
Put simply, the British army provided him with food, clothing and comradeship, something that was in short supply to a teenager growing up in the city of Dublin in 1914.
This reality sometimes doesn’t sit comfortably with the patriotic narrative of Easter 1916. For most Dubliners, the Rising was either undesirable or irrelevant.
It is easy to understand why it was not universally popular. Dublin at the time counted about 250,000 inhabitants, with 26,000 living in tenements in deplorable conditions. They were more concerned with surviving than politics. Add in other sections of the population such as British soldiers and their families, Crown civil servants and council officials, the Dublin Metropolitan Police, the clergy and the business class, and you could see why the seemingly hopeless uprising was considered inconvenient, to say the least. The executions of the leaders in May transformed public sentiment in the capital and the country.
But what happened to the Monto and why did it disappear from our history books? The district thrived from about 1860 until 1925 — and there was no shortage of powers available to the police to shut down brothels and jail their occupants. Arrests did take place but the numbers dwindled after the Monto became the centre of the night-time trade. The Dublin Metropolitan Police records show 4,784 arrests in 1856, down to about 1,000 a year in the 1870s. A low of 494 was recorded in 1899. It seems that the city and its custodians were prepared to tolerate a practice as long as it was corralled, covert and confined.
There was an early attempt to shut things down in 1911 but the prostitutes drifted up towards Sackville Street (O’Connell Street) and, after an outcry from Dubliners, a blind eye once again was turned. Ultimately, it was the founder of the Legion of Mary, Frank Duff, who finally got it closed down in 1925. Duff enlisted the help of the Jesuits, who organised the parish priest to condemn Monto from the altar. The date of March 12, 1925 was agreed upon for the final closure of Monto. On that day, a sizeable force of gardaí marched in and arrested more than 100 people, including several dignitaries and one TD.
From then, the Monto was largely forgotten, or its mention forbidden. The government of the new Irish Free State was embarrassed that it existed at all. Over the years since, it has almost disappeared from accounts in our history. The only things to remind us of its existence are the few remnants of buildings scattered around the area and, of course, George Hodnett’s song Take Her Up To Monto, belted out by the Dubliners. I wonder how many listeners fully gather the sense of its bawdy lyrics, and the heated business that was conducted a stone’s throw from the Custom House, as the carriages rolled up the quays.
‘Murder in the Monto’ by Tony O’Reilly, published by Poolbeg Books, is out now