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Library Image. Photo: Getty Images

Library Image. Photo: Getty Images

Library Image. Photo: Getty Images

Monto, in the heart of Dublin City, was once the biggest and most notorious red-light district in Europe. Celebrated in song and story, it was where Leopold Bloom went for sexual humiliation and where a young Edward VII was said to have gone for some high-end thrills.

Then on March 12, 1925 the church came along and threw all the working girls on to the street to fend for themselves, or into Magdalen laundries. Jim Cusack wonders if the church and their allies are trying to do the same to Dublin's current working girls.

Step out of Connolly Railway Station in Dublin and then head up Talbot Street in the direction of O'Connell Street. Second on your right, a hundred yards or so from the station, is James Joyce Street, formerly Montgomery Street, and a few paces on from that is Mabbot Lane.

There is an old Dublin street song, sung by children as a skipping rhyme, about Mabbot Lane. It is about prostitution. Here it is:

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

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Big fat men two pound ten

Little kids a penny

The song was resurrected and the street skipping of the children re-enacted by two beautiful and terrific young Irish actresses, playing the part of prostitutes, in a stunning piece of street theatre, World's End Lane, during last September's Dublin Fringe Festival.

The show was set in and about "Monto" -- the Dubliner's abbreviation of Montgomery Street, similar to "Burlo", for the Burlington Hotel.

Monto was, by all accounts, the biggest and busiest red-light district in the Europe of its era. The area is bounded by Talbot Street to the east, Mabbot Lane, Railway Street to the west and Amiens Street. The streets within it include -- to this day -- the choicely named Beaver Row.

Monto has been celebrated in literature -- James Joyce's Ulysses; song -- by George Hodnett, most famously performed by The Dubliners; theatre -- World's End Lane written and directed by Louise Lowe; and histories -- Monto: Madams, Murder and Black Coddle by local historian and community worker Terry Fagan.

In Ulysses, Joyce refers to the place as Nighttown. The young hero Stephen, his friend Lynch, and the middle-aged cuckold Leopold Bloom end up there after an evening's boozing. Stephen and Lynch go for the fairly straightforward experience. But Bloom is there for the sexual humiliation via a dominatrix at a joint run by "Bello". Bello was the real-life Bella Cohen, who actually did run an establishment that provided for the kinkier end of the trade in Monto. Around the corner in Montgomery Street was the top-end-of-the-market brothel run by Annie Mack, whose beautiful young women attracted rich clients including, it is rumoured, the then Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, who indeed was a frequent visitor to Dublin.

At its height it is said that 1,600 women worked in Monto from the lowest and cheapest houses (kips -- "sailors two a penny") to the most expensive (flash houses -- "big fat men two pound ten").

How Monto came to be a red-light district is unknown -- most likely because of its proximity to the docks ("sailors two a penny") -- but its demise is well documented. That happened within only a few years of the foundation of the State and the accession to power of the Roman Catholic church. The church's lay stormtroopers, the Legion of Mary, did the job, led by its inquisitor-in-chief, Frank Duff. War was declared on Monto. The new Catholic state stormed into action and a force of gardai and legionnaires raided Monto at midnight on March 12, 1925, and literally threw the women working there out on to the street and into the Church-run slave-labour laundries. Offended Catholic sensibilities were put right and the women were cast out.

The saddest street in Ireland was, and, to this day, remains Railway Street, off which Bella Cohen once ran her S&M joint, and where the rear walls of the Magdalene Laundry remain, a crucifix still standing over its jail-like entrance. That's the place for them hussies, the paedo priests must have thought to themselves.

The laundry was the last of the Magdalenes to close, in 1996. Up to the Seventies, young 'fallen' women were still being imprisoned in this hell-hole. It had official recognition from the Government as a remand prison. The girls -- "penitents" -- were given assumed religious names just like the nuns and enslaved, often never to see freedom. There are places like that today in the world, in Iran. Many of the Irish girls who went into this or the other laundries never came out. Some 133 unmarked graves were found in another Magdalene in Drumcondra a few years ago.

No one would ever countenance that sort of thing here again. No one would ever think that the religious orders of nuns who ran these concentration camps would do anything other than spend the rest of their days repenting their crimes against humanity. No one would, surely not?

Magdalene, the fallen woman rescued by Christ. Magdalene, the laundries run by nuns from four Catholic religious orders: The Sisters of Mercy, The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, The Sisters of Charity and The Good Shepherd Sisters.

Strangely, prostitution did not disappear in Ireland. Those girls who escaped the laundry became streetwalkers around the Grand Canal and St Stephen's Green. As is the case with streetwalkers, they were often beaten, robbed, forced to perform free for corrupt gardai and occasionally murdered.

Of the Monto women cast on to the streets the first to be murdered was Honor Bright -- real name Elizabeth O'Neill, also sometimes referred to as Lily O'Neill -- who was picked up by two men in a car off St Stephen's Green in June 1925. Her body was found the next morning at Ticknock in the Dublin Mountains. A retired garda superintendent, Leopold J Dillon, and a country GP, Dr PK Purcell, both on a night out from Kildare, were tried for her murder but, in what appeared like a fix, they were acquitted by a jury after only three minutes' deliberation. Prostitute murders continued to happen and to remain unsolved.

The last working girl to be murdered in Ireland was the unfortunate Sinead Kelly, stabbed to death on the banks of the Grand Canal in March 1998. In December 1996, Belinda Periera, working alone in an apartment in Liffey Street, was strangled. Neither killer was brought to justice. Young men working in the Phoenix Park have also turned up murdered from time to time.

Sinead Kelly, a girl from a loving and respectable family, who had been introduced to heroin by the man who became her pimp, fits the pattern of the five street prostitutes killed by the Ipswich murderer Stephen Wright in 2006, and the six killed by the "Crossbow Cannibal", the Bradford murderer, Stephen Griffiths. Both men were following in the trail of the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, who spent the entire Seventies murdering street prostitutes and then, when he had frightened all of the prostitutes off the streets, he turned on young women on their way home from work on winter evenings.

Streetwalkers and prostitutes working alone in apartments are tremendously vulnerable. This has been recognised in some countries where the right to life and liberty of sex workers -- the term used by the United Nations -- has been recognised.

Last September, Canada's supreme court struck out the country's prostitution laws, which were the same as ours, on the grounds that they posed a threat to the lives and safety of sex workers. This followed revelations that a pig farmer from British Colombia, Robert Pickton, had confessed to murdering 49 streetwalkers between 2002 and 2007. It also emerged that in 1997 he had attempted to kill a sex worker who survived and pressed charges. The woman had addiction problems and was ruled an unreliable witness so Pickton went on his murdering spree.

Sex workers in Canada became organised in response to the revelations about Pickton and brought the case which led to the supreme-court judgement in their favour. They were fed up living in fear and fought for, and won, their constitutional right to life.

Our current laws do not prohibit prostitution, but they state that if more than one sex worker (male or female) is present in a premises, that constitutes a brothel and is punishable by imprisonment and/or a fine.

If two sex workers were operating in the same apartment and had panic alarms or, better still, a third older man or woman present, they would be relatively safe. They would be infinitely safer than the young women forced to stand on street corners at night touting for business from men in cars.

There is a group working to amend Irish law that would provide safer environments for sex workers. The Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland (SWAI) is headed by a group of concerned academics and professionals whose aim is the reduction of harmful conditions for women and men who choose to work in the sex trade.

SWAI's spokesperson is Dr Teresa Whitaker, who has carried out a major piece of research for the Irish State on drug users who engage in prostitution. She is also a daughter-in-law of TK "Ken" Whitaker, architect of the economic recovery of Sixties Ireland. Hers is the first voice on behalf of those choosing voluntarily to be sex workers in Ireland. She believes in trying to reduce the harms associated with sex work and to ensure the safety and welfare of prostitutes.

You might have thought that with the exposure of the horrors of the Magdalene laundries and the sundry other activities of the Catholic church in Ireland, the religious orders responsible might be shy of sticking their noses into the activities of people working voluntarily in the sex trade. But you would be wrong.

The stated view of the religious is that no woman voluntarily sells sex to a man. They believe all women that do so are forced into prostitution, either through the circumstances of an abusive background, poverty or drug addiction. They believe all those foreign women working here are trafficked or forced into prostitution by organised criminals or because of extreme poverty. Strangely, this apparently does not apply to the quite large number of young men who are advertising their wares on the internet alongside the women. Never mind the rent boys, this is all about women being oppressed by men.

There is now an increasingly vocal campaign from this group, which is finding support among sections of the media in Ireland who are of like mind. The intellectual basis for this campaign is a 195-page report, 'Globalisation, Sex Trafficking and Prostitution: the experiences of migrant women in Ireland'. It is published on the website of the Immigrant Council of Ireland.

It makes for depressing reading. Its theme is that all foreign sex workers here are victims of a massive male criminal conspiracy from the Eastern European mafiosi who have kidnapped, raped and brutalised them into sex-working for the Irish punters, who pay to further rape and degrade them.

The conclusion of the report is that we should follow the model adopted by the Swedish government in 1999 and totally prohibit prostitution and prosecute any man that pays a woman for sex.

Normally -- well, for hetero, middle-aged men anyway -- the words "Swedish" and "model" conjure up thoughts of an impure nature. Well, in this instance, they won't. Sweden's parliamentary coalition government is a mixture of right-wing Lutherans (the Christian democrats) and left-wing feminists and socialists -- a bit like our Labour Party, but with more wimmin. Until the ascent to power of this lot, Sweden had more or less the same prostitution laws as us. The Swedes, like us, took the view that sex work was not acceptable but OK so long as it wasn't too in-your-face: laissez faire.

The Immigrant Council of Ireland report on immigrant women allegedly trafficked into Ireland was paid for by -- step forward, the Religious Sisters of Charity. Yep, the same people who ran the Magdalene laundries are back and telling us it's time to make female prostitution disappear and for men who pay girls for sex to be locked up.

Surely not? This is 2011, not 1925. Surely the nuns can't dictate a moral agenda that seeks to eradicate female sex work and criminalise their clients? Surely female sex workers should be given protection from the scum who still seek to rob and rape them? Surely they should be confident that their rights to personal safety are protected and that they are not forced out on to the streets or into laundries? Not in this day and age?

Think again. Sweden is over a decade down the line on this and later this year is to enact further legislation that will put men who pay women for sex on the country's sex register, along with paedophiles and rapists. If some people have their way, that scenario could be the future in this country.

One of the other leading lay-advocates for the prohibition of prostitution and the prosecution of male clients is the head of the Women's Council of Ireland, Susan McKay. In an article in the Daily Mail last August she wrote: "Last week we were disturbed by the release from prison of Larry Murphy, who had brutalised and raped a woman who was not a prostitute in similar circumstances.

"It is horrible to know that there are other men too, who were never jailed, who consider that it is their right to treat women in this way. Prostitution is violence against women. The men whose demand for it is causing such misery must be prosecuted."

The prohibitionist lobby here is currently calling itself Turn off the Red Light and is supported by a group of lay and religious people who will be quite influential with the coalition government -- Fine Gael is basically Christian democrat and Labour.

An opposing campaign has been launched recently by the male punters and the female sex workers, but only by some and, so far, none publicly. It's calling itself Turn off the Blue Light, and is seeking a situation where men and women who work in the sex industry should be protected, not further endangered by being forced deeper and deeper into the shadows.

A Turn off the Blue Light website was set up only recently and one of its first postings was from a young man who wrote the following: "I'm a guy in my mid-20s living in a very small town in Kerry. I'll admit I'm not the greatest catch but, besides that, I don't often get the chance to meet or mix with eligible single women. Without the outlet provided by Escorts Ireland I would have to give up my decent job, which I'm heavily taxed on, and either move to a larger town/city where I will probably end up unemployed or have to emigrate because of fears for my mental health.

"I live in an area with a very high number of suicides among young men who don't have the opportunity to have intimate connections with women, however brief those connections are. I'm not saying that this is the only reason why they do this but I'm afraid that without this outlet I don't know what path I may eventually walk down.

"I'm a lonely person, but not a monster. The ladies I've spent time with have not been forced to provide the services that they do. And, no matter how lonely I ever get, if I felt that any of the ladies that I visited were under duress I would immediately report this to the authorities, damn the consequences for me."

This isn't Larry Murphy, this is Tarry Flynn. Yet, under the proposed changes to Ireland's prostitution laws he could be joining Murphy on the sex register -- and the girls cast out on to the streets again and murdered.

Local historian and community worker Terry Fagan does tours and talks and can be contacted at the Dublin City Folklore Centre, tel: (087) 922-2491

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