Tuesday 25 June 2019

The Bloomsday world tourists never get to hear about

The squalor and brothels of Monto were a large part of 'Ulysses', explains Maggie Armstrong

Maggie Armstrong

Take me up to Monto, Monto, Monto

Take her up to Monto, lan-ge-roo

For fans of Ulysses and James Joyce, the annual celebration of 'Bloomsday' is a chance to indulge in a spot of costume-wearing and a meal at one of the many landmarks and pubs visited by the novel's hero, Leopold Bloom on June 16, 1904.

His peripatetic tour of Dublin, a day of wandering which forms the spine of the story, is a source of enduring fascination and delight for those who every year gather at locations on leafy St Stephen's Green or Sandymount.

But there's a side to Ulysses which the tourists and fans rarely get to see -- the exploration of the notorious Monto district in Dublin's north inner city, an area famously riven by prostitution and iniquity.

Here we take a look at Monto and the reality which Joyce -- through Bloom -- fleshed out in his novel


"Nighttown" in Ulysses is a slum of alleys, warrens, dens and parlours, where urchins, madams, prostitutes and intoxicated clientele roam. A "navvy" vomits into a gutter, two "redcoats" carouse. True to form, this was Monto in its heyday.

Throughout the 19th century until the 1920s, prostitution was tolerated in Dublin as long as it was contained. After the Act of Union in 1801, when tenements went up and Dublin's poor increased, a red light district prospered. The lawless Monto (after Montgomery Street, now Foley Street), nested at North Dock, between the Customs House and Mountjoy Square.

Worst of times

In 1863 the Irish Independent released police statistics counting 984 prostitutes in Dublin. By 1894 Dublin had 74 running brothels, mostly ghettoized in the Monto slumland.

Local historian Terry Fagan, of the North Inner City Folklore Project, explains how they were ranked, "first-class, second-class, third-class. As the girls lost their looks they went from the second into the third, and then into the shilling houses."

The best were known as 'flash houses', well furnished, with blazing fires, a 10-shilling entry charge, and £5 extra for liquor and sex.

Public nuisance

Brothels, or 'kip houses', operated in crumbling Georgian buildings next to the homes of the respectable working class. These were dressmakers, laundresses, carpenters, grocers, fish dealers and quay labourers.

Monto had a solid community, but many feared moral degeneracy and harm to public safety.

On March 29, 1865, 'A Mother' wrote to the Freeman's Journal in a plea to suppress prostitution. She lambasted the "obscene language" and "indecent conduct" of "the abandoned women who crowd our streets nightly, and ply their trade without the slightest attempt at concealment".


The "madams" who ran the brothels were wealthy and formidable businesswomen. Eliza Mack, who kept a brothel at No 85 Mecklenburgh St, was so fabled that the area was sometimes called Macktown.

Students composed this ditty in her honour: 'There goes Mrs Mack/ She keeps a house of imprudence/ She keeps an old black parlour/ For us poxy medical students.'

Bloom seeks her out in the novel, and we find her on the 1911 census, listing her girls' names and "occupations", from lace-maker to waitress, in beautiful calligraphic script.

Joyce's Bella Cohen, described in Ulysses as "a massive whoremistress", was probably modelled on one Becky Cooper, who operated from No 82, dressed lavishly and paraded the streets in a horse and carriage.

In the shadow of a shebeen

Single mothers, widows, soldiers' wives and girls escaping the workhouse, lured by "fancy men" promising decent wages, became the "poor unfortunates".

The old bawd's cries, in Ulysses, of "maidenhead inside ... you won't get a virgin in the flash houses", are chillingly accurate.

Seventeen of the 984 girls accounted for in 1863 were under 16 years, with violence and venereal disease rampant.

Rank and file

Clients of all hues visited Monto, but it thrived on its proximity to the port and military barracks. Army officers and sailors, tradesmen and tourists, or students out for a drink all visited the area, monitored by vicious bouncers known as "bullies". The 1911 census shows one ménage at No 2 Faithful Place, of two single women in their thirties and one Norwegian visitor, a "seaman".

Fast food

When Bloom arrives he first satisfies his gastronomic cravings with a disgusting snack of "lukewarm pig's crubeen" and "cold sheep's trotter" from Olhausen's pork butcher.

Among the many shops and shebeens that enlivened the area was Holmes's of Mecklenburgh Street. A local woman born in 1904 recalled going there for takeaway pig's feet and mushy peas.

Things fall apart

The night of March 12, 1925, saw the brothels raided and 120 men and women arrested. The driving force behind this was Legion of Mary founder Frank Duff, a saintly figure in folk memory.

In 1922 he had set up the Sancta Maria Hostel on Harcourt Street, an alternative to the Magdalene Laundry at 63 Gloucester Street. In the 1930s, after campaigns from W T Cosgrave's government, Monto was no more and the trade dispersed.

Irish Independent

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