Any discussion of prostitution in Dublin historically will inevitably focus on the so-called ‘Monto’ district of the north-inner city, the area around Montgomery Street which became notorious enough to warrant mention in the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1903:
Dublin furnishes an exception to the usual practice in the UK. In that city the police permit ‘open houses’ confined to one street; but carried on more publicly than even in the south of Europe or in Algeria.
Yet while ‘Monto’ emerged in the late nineteenth century, there was nothing new about prostitution in the city, indeed all that tended to change with time was the localities where prostitution was to be found. In earlier decades,and in particular throughout the 1860s and 1870s, Grafton Street and its environs was regarded as a centre of prostitution in the city. This infuriated sections of Dublin society, who complained repeatedly in the letters pages of newspapers that the street had become “impassable to virtuous women.” In the words of one writer to the Freeman’s Journal in 1870:
Let some half-dozen men of the G Division (Dublin’s intelligence police) parade Grafton Street at the hours of four to six. This was found very successful in Sackville Street during last summer, and I have no doubt we shall soon be free of these social pests, and can again escort our wives and daughters through one of our finest streets.
An earlier letter writer to the same paper described how the street “literally swarmed with women of loose character.” It is worth considering if the emergence of the later ‘Monto’ district was tolerated to a degree, on the basis that it removed the sight of women working in the Grafton Street area, something which clearly troubled some.
While the above letter calling for the G Division to be deployed against prostitutes bore little sympathy for the women themselves, others avoided such loaded and vindictive terms as “social pests”. A letter write who signed a piece of correspondence as ‘Strike At The Root’ instead referred to the women as “poor unfortunates”, and insisted that it was not “motives of avarice or sensuality” which drove most women to the streets.
Certainly, there were two very different versions of Grafton Street. While some, like our letter writers above, believed the street was in decline, guide books to the city throughout the 1860s and 1870s praised it, with one insisting that “the elite of Dublin…will be found in Grafton Street…This street…is the brightest, cheeriest street in Dublin. It is the fashionable shopping street. Equipages in the very perfection of good taste may be seen in long lines at both sides of the street in front of the principal shops.” This description of the street was at odds with that of a priest in 1877, who described:
Dozens upon dozens of females belonging to that class truly designated unfortunate, the majority of them not eighteen years of age….passed me, using language and openly flaunting a shame the very mention of which is enough to bring a blush to the cheek of virtue.
The sheer number of women working in Dublin in this period as prostitutes was quite remarkable. Take this table from Joseph V. O’Brien’s study of Dublin at the turn of the century. It wasn’t that numbers were proportionately higher than cities like London and Manchester, they were higher in general. In 1870 for example, London witnessed 2,183 arrests for prostitution, Manchester 1,617 and Dublin 3,255.
But, should it be surprising? The city clearly lacked any kind of industrial employment options for women (not least when compared to Belfast), and about 40 percent of all female workers in the 1901 census described themselves as “domestic labourers”. As historian Padraig Yeates has noted, “it [prostitution] was caused by chronic unemployment, aggravated in this instance by the presence of a sizeable military garrison.” Some nationalists developed a tendency to blame the presence of the military garrison in Dublin entirely for the presence of prostitution in Ireland, and as Maria Luddy has written, “the issue of venereal disease was much used by advanced Irish nationalists to denigrate the British soldier in Ireland and the returning soldier from the front.”
In examining the rise of the ‘Monto’ district, the blog Wide and Convenient Streets pointed towards the location of Montgomery Street as being a factor that allowed Dublin’s new red light district to develop:
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.
While the emergence of ‘Monto’ certainly brought about a decline in prostitution on Grafton Street, Sackville Street and the like, there were still women dragged before the Southern Police Courts in Dublin for working in the Grafton Street area. In October 1889, a DMP man in court described “girls loitering in Grafton Street,opposite the Provost’s house, and loitering for improper purposes.” Yet across the Liffey, ‘Monto’ was largely out of sight and out of mind, and it would be more than thirty years before the beginning of its demise.