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 Main Street of Dublin

The street from Castle St to Thomas St first swirls one way as it wraps around Christchurch and along High St, and then swirls the other, as curves around Cornmarket and joins Thomas St at the junction of Francis St.

Ordnance Survey of Ireland Map showing area that was once Main Street, Dublin

Ordnance Survey of Ireland Map showing area that was once Main Street, Dublin

In the medieval city (1200-1500), this street was known as the Main Street of Dublin. The eastern end at Christchurch was called Skinner’s Row. Of course Lord Edward St is a recent addition, so what now is a rather awkward arrangement makes more sense in that context; Skinner’s Row continued on from Castle St, and led along the side of Christchurch; the alignment of the Lord Edward public house giving a hint as to the original flow. The “Row” of Skinner’s Row indicates that there was only buildings lining one side—indeed as it is today, with the medieval buildings replaced by Jury’s Inn. While the Dublin historian Sir John Gilbert has proposed that the Row was “a narrow and sombre alley” at just seventeen feet wide, this has been disputed. Hughes has suggested with some confidence that Gilbert has his time periods mixed up, and considers it improbable that the one area of the walled city that was to handle sizeable gatherings of citizens would not have been larger. As well as the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity (Christchurch), there was a Pillory at the eastern end of Skinner’s Row at its junction with Castle St., and High Market Cross at the western end at the junction with High St. Here, it was customary to read out royal proclamations and other public announcements (Hughes, 1941).

The Pillory was a place for public punishment. Even seemingly trivial events could lead to punishment. Bakers who were caught for a third time with a load lighter than stated were subjected to a stint in the pillory, a punishment which along with severe discomfort, carried with it “a degree of odium and degradation”. The punishment was restricted to the crime of perjury during the reign of George III, and finally abolished in 1837 (Frazer, 1886).

Extract of Speed's Map of Dublin (1610)

Extract of Speed’s Map of Dublin (1610)

All of this detail is visible on Speed’s Map of Dublin (1610). Main St runs from the east at Castle St (38 on map) through Skinner’s Row (42), High St (48) to the city wall at the junction of Thomas St at Newgate (50). The High Market Cross is visible to the right of No. 47 (St. Nicholas’ Church), and the little symbol next to No. 42 probably marks the location of the Pillory (Andrews, 1983).

Fishamble St (24 on Speed’s Map) is on the eastern end of the Main St. The steep slope of this street, best appreciated by walking or cycling up it, linked the walled city to its port below at the river. In medieval times, it was uninhabited and it served as a location for  fish markets which were brought to shore at the river below. The western end of Main Street was marked by Newgate, which merits its own article.

Before we leave the medieval era, it’s worth noting that rentals of the time giving names and occupations of the tenants demonstrate the city had a high proportion of well-to-do people within it walls. Hughes argues that while there were of course poor people, a reputation of a filthy and neglected city with pigs running through the streets is unfair.

Detail from The Tholsel, Dublin (James Malton)

Detail from The Tholsel, Dublin (James Malton)

In another age, the area is beautifully captured in some of Malton’s Views of Dublin (ca. 1791). These are discussed in some detail in Edward McParland’s gorgeous essay on their use as a historical source (McParland, 1994). Especially relevant are two of the Views: St Catherine’s Church and The Tholsel. In the latter, the street sign for Skinner’s Row is clear, as is the shopfront of Robert Thomas, Tallow Chandler. McParland has done the detective work to show that Thomas was indeed a tallow chandler at 1 Skinner Row in both 1791 and 1792, but not 1793. Sadly it appears that this accuracy does not extend to all of Malton’s prints; Patrick O’Murphy’s name on a bar has nothing to correlate with in business records. Nevertheless, the prints give us a beautiful representation of how these streets, which derived from the original Main Street of Dublin, looked in the city’s golden age.

Extract of St. Catherine's Church (James Malton)

Extract of St. Catherine’s Church (James Malton)

Notes

  • J. H. Andrews (1983) The Oldest Map of Dublin, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature
    83C, 205-237
  • William Frazer (1879) On the Dublin Stocks and Pillory, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Polite Literature and Antiquities, 2, 456-460.
  • James L Hughes (1941) Main Street, Dublin, Dublin Historical Record, 3(3), 67-77.
  • Edward McParland (1994) Malton’s Views of Dublin: Too Good to be True?, in Ireland: Art into History, Raymond Gillespie and Brian P Kennedy (eds), 15-25.

Keep to the left

One of my favourite source authors is J. L. J. Hughes, who wrote a paper in 1956 entitled “Dublin Street Names” which was on the topic of the book of the same name, published by Hodges Figgis & Co in 1892. What more could you want? It’s a wonderful ramble, and towards the end he addresses some questions that you were not likely to ask yourself, but now that I’m telling you, you’ll wonder why you never knew before. You will thank me at your next Table Quiz.

JLJ Hughes

When did numbering of housing begin?

House numbering began in 1774 after an Act of George III that year required householders to fix a number on their house. The number was decided by the Commissioners of Paving (oh, those Georgians), and there was an additional requirement put “at each end or corner of each square, street or lane the name it is usually or properly called or known.” This must have been the origin then of street signs.  The penalty for non-compliance was a whopping fifty shillings. A street directory published following the Act showed that compliance was prompt; merchant and trader addresses included a street number.

Why do we drive on the left?

In 1793, an Act of George III required:

that from and after the passing of this act, all and every person and persons riding any beast, or driving any carriage, car, or cart on any road within the said County of the said city of Dublin, shall ride such beast, and drive such carriage, car, or cart, on the left hand side of such road.

It is a guess, but I’m hoping a good one that by this time, traffic of man, beast, carts and cars had become quite substantial, and George, through his Dublin Parliament, were acting out of need to sort out the chaotic motion.

Why (oh why!) are odd street numbers on one side and even on the other?

This seems erratic, and perhaps visitors might say whether they can identify any exceptions. The origins to this are less than clear. Streets in the Pembroke Township (essentially Dublin 4) were listed in 1866 with odd numbers on one side and even numbers on the other. Our friend Hughes proposes that this idea may have arrived here from Paris. While the Parisians established street numbering much later than Dublin (Napoleon sorted it in 1804), the numbering was required to have even numbers on the right hand side (relative to the Seine). I’m not sure Dublin has a system of any sort, but it would be interesting to examine if there was a predominance of this arrangement in the old Pembroke township.

Notes

J. L. J. Hughes (1956) Dublin Street Names, Dublin Historical Record,14(2), 50-56.