Terry Fagan is not your typical folklorist. But then again Dublin’s Monto and its people are not typical subjects.
Born and reared in Corporation Buildings, the heart of the one-time notorious red-light district - Fagan has just completed a comprehensive history of the area.
"Its a living history told through the people who lived and grew up there. With all these new developments that are springing up around us - we feel its important for something to be preserved and documented before the whole place fades into history."
The book ‘Monto - Madams, Murder and Black Coddle’ is the product of the North Inner City Folklore Project’ which Terry joined in 1981. A graduate of the ‘Redbrick Slaughterhouse’, Rutland Street School - Terry’s initially poor experience of education was redeemed years later when he returned to take a first class honours diploma for Social Entrepreneurs.
He has been running the Project himself for the last few years, archiving, interviewing locals and writing up and compiling material, the latest being his Monto book.
"Monto derived its name from Montgomery Street, now Foley Street, which runs parallel to the lower end of Talbot Street on the way to what was Amiens Street Railway Station (now Connolly Station).
But the heart of Monto was Mecklenburgh Street Lower (now Railway Street) and the surrounding lanes and alleyways - many of which are gone and replaced by flat complexes such as Liberty House Flats," he explains.
He says the name changes, which were many, "were deliberate so as to confuse newcomers." In fact so popular was Monto amongst the British soldiers and sailors that it rated a mention in 1903 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica! However one ironic oversight, (or maybe it was a cheeky planner’s decision,) was the renaming of Little Martin’s Lane to Beaver Street!
As Fagan, explains: "The exact origins of the emergence of the infamous ‘Madams’ who ran the brothels is unknown but some of the more famous ones are listed in Thoms Directory in 1860 as owners of properties in the district. Its proximity to British Army barracks in Portland Row and of course the docks - which was the life- blood of the area, were key factors to its evolution."
In its ‘heyday’ between 1860 and 1900, Fagan tells how anything up to 1,600 prostitutes were working in Monto at any one time. All classes of people were catered for - wealthy professionals and indeed the odd royal, namely Edward VII, would have been entertained in downstairs parlour rooms with music and wine in the more plush Georgian residencies; while gents from the lower orders either utilised the laneways or the famous ‘Kips’ - where the girls bedded down for sleep during the day.
Many of the elderly men and women, Fagan interviewed tell of how the ‘Madams’ were despised by the uninvolved locals - for exploiting those they refer to as the ‘poor unfortunate girls’ - the vast majority of whom were country girls lured into the profession with the promise of initial housework.
The stories tell of how the Madams would keep them in debt, rent them the latest fashions and ditch them out onto the street when they became pregnant or as Fagan describes it - "when the effects of their lifestyle began to show… but they would always return at Christmas and give out presents to the children, many of whom were illegitimate, known as the ‘Monto Babies’."
A lot of the women suffered sexually transmitted diseases and according to Terry Fagan, were often put out of their misery in the Westmoreland Lock Hospital, Townsend Street; the favoured method of euthanasia was 'smotheration'.
The book also details how Monto was a hive of IRA activity: in particular during the war of Independence. "Phil Shanahan’s pub was the venue for an execution ordered by Collins on the February 5, 1921 when John 'Shankers' Ryan, a Dublin Castle spy and sister of a Madam - Becky Cooper, was shot," Fagan tells.
The area had several safe-houses for the flying columns and local paperboys acted as intelligence sources, keeping tabs on the movements of the British.
But the decline of Monto wasn’t far off. The onset of the 1920s saw the emergence of the Legion of Mary and the rein of the evangelical civil servant Frank Duff who led an all out crusade to flush out the remaining Madams and bring religion to the girls of Monto.
Duff’s success and the consequences of bringing religion to Monto and its people - the Magdalen asylums, the reform schools etc., will be the subject of Terry Fagan’s next project.
"Monto - Madams, Murder and Black Coddle" is published by Printwell and is available in Easons, priced £5.00.
This article by Martin Barry first appeared in the Dublin People.