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Grafton Street 1870: 'The street literally swarmed with women of loose character'

Come Here To Me! Vol. 2 celebrates an unexplored Dublin: its public duels and street gangs, suffragettes and drag queens, as well as its not-so-secret gay bars and failed vegetarian societies.

Donal Fallon Historian, writer and broadcaster

ANY DISCUSSION OF prostitution in earlier times in Dublin will inevitably focus on the so-called “Monto” district of the north inner city, the area around Montgomery Street.

It became notorious enough to warrant a 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.”

Centre of prostitution in the city

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 where prostitution was to be found. In earlier decades, and in particular the 1860s and 1870s, the Grafton Street area 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 whether the emergence of the Monto district was tolerated to a degree because it removed the sight of women working in the Grafton Street area, something that clearly troubled some.

‘Poor unfortunates’

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 writer 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” that 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, guidebooks 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 was at odds with how a priest saw the street in 1877:

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. It wasn’t that numbers in Dublin were proportionately higher than the numbers in cities like London and Manchester – they were actually higher. Take the figures from Joseph V O’Brien’s study of Dublin at the turn of the century, for example:

In 1870, London witnessed 2,183 arrests for prostitution, Manchester 1,617, and Dublin 3,255.

No industrial employment options for women

The city clearly lacked any kind of industrial employment options for women (not least when compared to Belfast), with about 40% of all female workers in the 1901 census described themselves as “domestic labourers”.

To historian Pádraig Yeates, prostitution in Dublin “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.

Montgomery Street, across the Liffey and out of sight, was a world away from the fashionable Grafton Street. By the 1870s, the police had the powers they needed to close the brothels there, but the authorities instead allowed the district to function as a red-light district.

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”. It would be more than thirty years before the beginning of the end for Monto, raided at last in 1925.

Donal Fallon is a historian, writer and broadcaster based in Dublin. Come Here To Me! Vol. 2 celebrates an unexplored Dublin: Come Here To Me! Vol. 2  is published by New Island and available in bookshops now.

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About the author:

Donal Fallon  / Historian, writer and broadcaster

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