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)

Notes

This lapse in abstinence of blog posting is a form of birthday present to a friend and supporter of the blog: Happy Birthday! 🙂

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.

The Luxembourg School at Aldborough House

Gregor von Feinaigle. Line engraving by J. H. Lips after D. Lavater

Gregor von Feinaigle. Line engraving by J. H. Lips after D. Lavater (Wellcome Images)

In 1813, Professor Gregory (von) Feinaigle arrived in Dublin. His life to this point had been quite varied. Formerly a Cisterican monk, he had been expelled from the Monastery of Salem during the Napoleonic Wars, and after a brief dalliance as an industrialist, he moved into the education. He established himself in Karlsruhe, then moved to Paris, continued touring France, and arrived in London in 1811. After tours to Glasgow and Edinburgh, Feinaigle arrived in Dublin in January 1813. He would never leave.

Feinagle’s speciality was mnemonics, and their use as a tool in learning. Anxious to cultivate confidence among the nobility and gentry of Dublin, he quickly advertised his talks within a few weeks of his arrival. Proceeds from his talk held in the Rotunda rooms on his New System of Mnemonics  were given to aid the Fund for establishing the Dublin Female Penitentiary and the Richmond National Institute of the Industrious Blind. Feinaigle clearly had a sense of how to get his name out among the classes willing to pay for his services; the latter talk was attended by the Duchess of Richmond. Announcements carrying details of the talk included information for those interested that a course on:

the Principles of Mnemonics and Methodics, will likewise begin next Wednesday the 15th of January new private lectures on the Latin language principally intended for children of former subscribers of such pupils as will be presented by them. These young pupils will at the same time be instructed in other important objects of learning, such as History, Geography, Arithmetic, etc., and may receive further instruction in other languages. The price of these private lectures is one guinea a week. The subscription to be made at No. 12 Upper Sackville Street.

"The New Art of Memory" (1813)

“The New Art of Memory” (1813)

Something of a craze for Feinaiglianism quickly emerged. The self-styled Professor was encouraged to establish a school, and by August 1813, Saunder’s News-Letter carried an advertisement announcing that two contiguous and eligible houses at Clonliffe had been acquired to house a seminary for the education of youth after the system of Professor von Feinaigle. Information and enquiries about the school could be obtained from Bindon Blood of Charlemont St, Richard Williams of Drumcondra Castle (both trustees), Thomas Williams of Bank of Ireland, or Dr Harty of Gloucester St.

Engraving of Aldborough House, Dublin Penny Journal,  February 1836.

Engraving of Aldborough House, Dublin Penny Journal, February 1836.

Such were the numbers interested in applying, the Clonliffe houses were deemed too small, and Feinaigle himself advanced £4,800 to purchase Aldborough House, then unoccupied. The Clonliffe houses were retained for the female school. Forty subscribers paid £100, and £15,000 was expended on fitting the school up. This included the erection of a large hall and chapel as wings to the original building.

The school had three assistant lecturers (Rev William Lawler, Rev Piers Gamble, Mr Flynn), and named lecturers in Drawing (Mr Sandford), Natural and Experimental Philosophy (Rev Lawler), Chemistry (Michael Donovan), a Physician (William Harty), a Surgeon (Arr. Collis), and an apothecary (John Donovan). Prof Walter Wade of the Dublin Society was a  guest lecturer delivering courses in botany and agriculture.

After moving into Aldborough, the name of the building was changed to The Luxembourg, and indeed is marked as such on one map of Dublin (1821). It became one of the most successful Protestant schools in Ireland, providing students for Trinity College Dublin. Pupils called it “The Lux”, and among several pupils recalled in an 1874 article in the Irish Builder were James Caulfield, future Earl of Charlemont, Abel La Touche, Sir William and Sir Croker Barrington, as well as boys from Kilkenny, Donegal, Cork, and France.

The school had become a success quickly and was now a significant provider of expensive education for children of wealthy parents. Feinaigle decided to marry, and chose for his bride a widow, a former matron at the Rotunda. Sadly his success came to an abrupt end with his sudden death in 1820. He left a significant legacy at the time. Enrolment in the school was about 130, and schools after his system were being established in other towns in Ireland. Feinaigle’s own son Charles Gregory graduated from The Lux and entered Trinity College in 1834. However, Dublin was changing; this part of the city was deteriorating quickly, and a new master (Feinaigle’s step son) intent on pursuing an overtly religious curriculum put many parents off. The school closed and Aldborough House was abandoned once more until it was taken over by Dublin Castle to house soldiers during Daniel O’Connell’s monster meeting at Clontarf.

The Feinaiglian system never gained the acceptance that the Lancaster “monitorial” system did; the latter becoming standard in classrooms around the country. But Feinaigle is immortalised in Don Juan by Byron (1818), which includes in its first canto:

Her memory was a mine; she knew by heart

All Calderon and greater part of Lopé,

So that if any actor missed his part

She could have served him from the prompter’s copy;

For her Feinaigle’s were an useless art,

And he himself obliged to shut up shop

He could never make a memory as fine as

That which adorn’d the brain of Donna Inez.

The current status of Aldborough House is well documented on the Irish Aesthete’s website. You can receive email updates when a new post is published by subscribing below.

Notes

Michael Quane (1964) The Feinaiglian Institution, Dublin, Dublin Historical Record, 19(2), 30-44.