Nighttown: Dublin’s 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

Entry under occupation for Maud Hamilton, 1911 Census (National Archives of Ireland)

Entry under occupation for Maud Hamilton, 1911 Census (National Archives of Ireland)

In the 1911 Census, the occupation of two Dublin women is entered as prostitute. One was Maggie Boylan living as a boarder on Faithful Place, the other—whose original entry of “unfortunate” was amended by a clerk—was Maud Hamilton on Elliott Place. Both Faithful Place and Elliott Place were off Purdon St, now completely disappeared. At the time of the Census, it was a street running parallel to, and north of, Foley St.

Purdon St with Elliot Place and Faithful Place highlighted (OSi)

Purdon St with Elliot Place and Faithful Place highlighted (OSi)

Foley St was called Montgomery St, and this gave the name to the small area just west of Connolly Station that was once one of Europe’s largest red-light districts: the Monto. The Monto came to prominence in the late nineteenth century, and lasted well into the twentieth century, until the new State, prompted by the Legion of Mary, effectively shut it down.

There is no specific boundary for the Monto, but it is considered to be within the boundaries of Gardiner St (to the left/west), Talbot St (to the south), Amiens St (to the east) and Gloucester St to the north.

There is no specific boundary for the Monto, but it is considered to be within the boundaries of Gardiner St (to the left/west), Talbot St (to the south), Amiens St (to the east) and Gloucester St to the north. This map ca. 1840 shows many street names before they were changed. The red cross marks Montgomery St.

Oddly, my awareness of the Monto came about through a gift of the book Science and Technology in Nineteenth Century Ireland, which contains an essay by Tadhg O’Keeffe and Patrick Ryan. They write that there is little surviving of the Monto today, with streets, houses, and street names cleared away. They have used the Ordnance Survey maps of the city to trace the growth and decline of prostitution in this small area.

Why did the Monto come about? Early nineteenth century records suggest that prostitution was more prevalent on the south side of the city; with one of the city’s better known Madames, Margaret Leeson, setting up shop in Pitt St, now Balfe St, site of the Westbury Hotel (and the subject of this blog’s first post). In a second essay, O’Keeffe and Ryan propose three reasons why this small part of the north inner city became one of Europe’s most notorious red-light districts. Firstly, the area was far enough from respectable eyes to enable the containment of prostitution away from upper and middle-class residential districts. From the 1870s, there was no shortage of powers  available to the police to shut down brothels and arrest their occupants. But they were not used, and the area was openly acknowledged to have ‘open houses’ in a publication of high repute as Encyclopaedia Britannica. Ths is not to say arrests didn’t take place. Luddy reports the Dublin Metropolitan Police records: 2,849 arrests in 1838, 4,784 in 1856; and running at about 1,000 per year from the 1870s. A low of 494 was recorded in 1899.

Secondly, the area was a slum, meaning rents were low. And thirdly, and most likely crucially, the area was perfectly positioned next to Amiens St station, Dublin port, and Aldborough House. Amiens St likely provided plenty of young women from the country looking for work. The port and Aldborough house—converted from a school to a military barracks during the period of the Crimean war—provided plenty of clientèle along with the demand of locals.

Elliot Place, 1930s, from the Frank Murphy Collection (Old Dublin Society). Reporduced in Luddy and O'Keeffe and Ryan.

Elliot Place, 1930s, from the Frank Murphy Collection (Old Dublin Society). Reporduced in Luddy and O’Keeffe and Ryan.

Keeping track of street names in the area is no mean feat. Looking at Rocque’s map from 1756, the area is mostly undeveloped. The extract from Rocque shows Mabbot St running roughly N-S, with “Worlds End Lane” running east-west along what became Montgomery St. O’Keeffe and Ryan suggest that this name indicates that even then, the area “had a long-standing reputation for the darker side of life.”

Rocque's Map, 1756, showing Worlds End Lane, which would become Montgomery St

Rocque’s Map, 1756, showing Worlds End Lane and Great Martin’s Lane, which would become Montgomery St and Mecklinburgh St.

As the area began to be laid out in the mid-Georgian era, Great Martin’s Lane became Mecklinburgh St in 1765. Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburgh had married George III a few years earlier. This street ran through and beyond the Monto’s (loose) boundaries. Residents on the Upper part of the street, describing themselves as “respectable working classes”, lobbied to have the name changed so as to lose the association with the area, and this part of the street became Tyrone St in 1886. But just two years later, the residents in the Lower part had their street name changed to Lower Tyrone St. A medical student walking down Tyrone St in 1904 observed that “in no other European capital have I seen its equal. It was a street of Georgian houses and each one was a brothel”. The Upper and Lower Tyrone streets subsequently became Waterford St and Railway St in 1911, the latter name survives today.  Montgomery St had substantial slum clearances in 1905 and the street’s name was changed to Foley St, albeit with the same reputation. Mabbot St—immortalised by Joyce as the entrance to “Nighttown”—is now called James Joyce St. Are you keeping up?

The “other-worldliness” of the Monto, captured by Joyce in his expression of Nighttown is elaborated on by O’Keeffe and Ryan. This area of the city was the inverse of its surroundings; coming to life when Dublin slept, being run by women rather than men; public expressions in the most intimate of places.

Magdalen asylum in the Monto (OSi)

Magdalen asylum in the Monto (OSi)

While the growth of the Monto may have been due to the turning of the cheek by the law, religious groups were not so unobservant. The all-male and Protestant White Cross Vigilance Association organised patrols from 1885, keeping watch outside “evil houses”. Bizarrely, the neighbours of brothel owners and prostitutes in the Monto were the nuns: the Sisters of Charity, who took over the Magdalen Asylum established on Mecklinburgh St in 1822.But it was the Association of Our Lady of Mercy (Legion of Mary), founded by Frank Duff in 1921 which had the greatest impact on shutting down prostitution in the Monto. Their actions included the persuading of women to leave brothels and take up paid employment elsewhere. The new State’s police force could no longer turn a blind eye and in the Spring of 1925, a large raid resulted in significant numbers of arrests. While this did not shut it down completely, activity petered out over the following years. Street clearances and renamings means that there are no physical marks on the landscape recording this district’s history; the only thing that remains is a white tiled cross on the back of a Magdalen building awaiting demolition and reconstruction.

White tile cross over a gateway on the back of the former Magdalen Laundry on Railway St (Google, 2014)

White tile cross over a gateway on the back of the former Magdalen Laundry on Railway St (Google, 2014)


Updates, as they may come in the future, can be sent to your email address by subscribing below. 

  • Tadhg O’Keeffe and Patrick Ryan (2009) At the World’s End: The Lost Landscape of Monto, Dublin’s Notorious Red-light District, Landscapes, I, 21-38.
  • Tadhg O’Keeffe and Patrick Ryan (2011) Representing the imagination: a topographical history of Dublin’s Monto from Ordnance Survey maps and related materials, in Science and Technology in Nineteenth Century Ireland, Julia Adelman and Éadaoin Agnew (eds), Four Courts Press: Dublin.
  • Maria Luddy (2007) Prostitution and Irish Society: 1800-1940, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

7 thoughts on “Nighttown: Dublin’s Monto

  1. Wow ,,,, Ive heard of the area and some of the stories but as a Sounth Inner City guy married to an inner citty girl from the NorthSide its totally fabulous to hear stories from “the other side” ….. thanks for such an informative post

  2. Wow. Very informative, thanks for posting this. Just found via IrishGeneaology website (again v good) that my g g grandmother was born at 93 ‘Mecklinburgh’ street. She married my g g grandfather – a Crimean War veteran – of Aldboro barracks which I see is just round the corner.

  3. My grandfather and great grandfather were members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, none of whom would ever describe any of those girls as prostitutes, preferring Unfortunate’s instead.
    Because they were often tricked into that occupation, or ended there because of a lack of employment for women.
    Yet they were remarkably kind although routinely exploited by their ‘customers’.
    On one occasion my great grandfather had to extract one from a spiked iron railings on which she had become impaled, after being thrown through an upstairs window by her customer, a foreign sailor!
    Most would end their sad lives in the Townsend Street Lock-up Hospital, having become infected with syphilis. Arriving there too late to be cured and in the tertiary phase, their demented screams gave that area of the City the sobriquet of the Canary Ward.

  4. While the dire poverty and neglect of the area lead to prostitution there were many decent hardworking men and women lived and raised families in the area. Many of my ancestors going back to the 1800’s were born, raised and married and raised families in the area. Social neglect then and now are the causes of social problems not the people who are neglected and let down by a society who turn a blind eye.

  5. The Montgomery Street area, the infamous Night Town featuring in Ulysses came about because of the existence of ‘cheap substandard housing’, most certainly not because of any ‘dedication to vice’.
    That area equally housed the working poor and the poorest of the poor.
    Its existence is an indictment of that so-called Empire where the Sun never Sets, rather than any inhabitants.
    Indeed, the most rational and dispassionate reason as to why Ireland needed to regain its Freedom is the very existence then of the despairing pockets of poverty.
    Apart, of course, from a growing national confidence that demanded its own Independent State.

    The unseemly truth was that the ‘United Kingdoms of Britain and Ireland’ cared nothing for its poorer Citizens in any of those Realms.
    The hundreds of years in ruling Ireland had witnessed no British rational and sustained attempt to ‘grow’ the Irish People and the Irish Economy.
    ‘Rational’, because of course a Richer People are a Healthier People, who would be intolerant of crimes, thus more content to live with the then political ‘arrangement’!!!
    If it could be demonstrated that it would benefit all.
    You might say that Arch Tories demanding the subservience of Ireland in the ‘Empire’, while tolerating or even encouraging a lack of investment and economic growth in Ireland, were the unwitting ‘architects’ of Revolution and Independence!!
    By the 1900’s the People of Ireland were without hope, without a chance of gainful employment, and assaulted on all sides by poor housing and sanitation that allowed diseases to walk the slums.
    Worst of all, a Father and Mother watched their children sicken and die because of poverty.

    But it is important to recall that Slums and grinding poverty existed then in every Irish city.
    Sir William Robert Wills Wilde FRCSI (March 1815 – April 1876) the Irish ophthalmologist [father of Oscar Wilde] had described Athlone as possessing no proper sewers, the town itself being more insanitary than Calcutta!!
    Author Ruth Illingworth, writes in her “The Little Book of Westmeath” that Wilde had discovered: –
    “Typhus and other diseases were widespread. In Athlone Workhouse…found children blinded by opthalmia, due to a lack of vitamins [in their diet]. Around 16,000 people died in [Roscommon]…[so] in 1849 a new graveyard was opened close to Mullingar Workhouse as a cholera epidemic added to the misery. Coffins were RECYCLED to cope with the number of dead[!].
    [Accordingly] some 21 thousand people left Westmeath, mostly for Britain and North America”

    The ‘fallen’ women in the Monto were Victims of this Monstrous Imperial Carelessness.
    More often than not ‘tricked’ into their ‘profession’.
    Even if not ‘tricked’ into that profession they still needed economic sustenance.
    Women had been placed at the ultimate risk of prostitution by the failure of successive British Governments to develop a balanced and prosperous economy that could employ all equally.
    Beyond the limitations of washerwomen, maids, tailoresses shop assistants, or governesses there were NO jobs for Women in 19th and early 20th Century Ireland.
    Prostitution was a Result, not an irrational fancy by the ‘supposed depraved’.

    Worse still ‘The Jobs Famine’ continued into Independent Ireland where Women were often viewed as either ‘naturally’ dependent or economically unimportant.
    In de Valera’s Ireland the Civil Marriage Bar forced Women to choose between their Job in the Civil Service [and their Pursuit of Financial Independence] OR Contemplation of Matrimony. The one must be sacrificed for the other, there were too few Jobs to go around.
    de Valera’s expenditure of scarce revenue upon his Gaelic Dream rather than investing in Industrial Ireland delayed the economic liberation of the Women of the Nation.
    That dream of the Women’s Economic Independence would be left for Taoiseach Seán Lemass and ‘Ken’ TK Whitaker, secretary of the Department of Finance to solve during the programmes for economic expansion.

    Accordingly, if someone in your hearing harkens back to the Good Old Days, The Rare old Times, you should remind them of the economic frailty of the vast majority Irish Nation then, particularly that 50% represented by the Women of Ireland.
    Males and Females both suffered economic deprivations and poor housing, and the Result, diseases generally, infant mortality particularly and numberless tuberculosis sanitoriums that seemed to occupy every hilltop.

    In that understanding we may wish to embrace all the Children of the Nation, the fortunate and indeed the unfortunate.
    Their lives gifted us the fine Country that we live in today.
    There are always Social, Economic and Medical problems for each generation to overcome.
    Unfortunately, there always will be another mountain to climb.

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