They were like any other back streets in a Victorian era city - though by day, perhaps, a little quieter and a little more deserted with windows shuttered and curtained, desultory children playing, a sailor or two looking lost and sheepish and perhaps a well dressed gentleman scurrying towards the better part of town.
The Monto was, reputedly, Europe’s biggest and boldest red light district in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Cut off from Dublin’s medieval heart and the city’s newer business and shopping districts, the square mile or so of streets, lanes and narrow alleys was a melting pot of soldiers, sailors, dockers, brawny madams and the vibrant, colourful life that comes with seafaring and military cultures. And Dublin had both - it was a garrison town, peppered all over with barracks, and the Monto district, a stone’s throw from the Custom House, was a cheerful sailor’s stroll from the teeming quaysides where ships unloaded their commercial cargoes and then their lusty crews.
The madams ruled their district with an iron will, organising a self regulating, hierarchy of services - the youngest, prettiest girls decorated genteel style parlours for select clients on the nicest streets, leaving the older, care worn and often ill women of the back lanes to less choosy, or well paying, sailors and soldiers. And there was no shortage of girls - desperate poverty made for desperate decisions, with reports in famine times of families selling their young daughters to merciless madams for the price of a square meal. Madams minded their business well, currying favour with men of power and influence and keeping the forces of law and order at bay. The famous - Edward Vll when Prince of Wales and James Joyce - and the infamous came to call, some by underground tunnels, out of view of the ordinary classes, others running the gauntlet of the teasing, flirting girls who lined the streets in all kinds of weather.
But the Monto fell quieter when the British left after independence - the Monto girls might even had had something to do with their defeat by passing on soldiers’ idle talk and pillow secrets. Ireland turned a corner, into a holier, more devout country where women of the streets would not be tolerated. The Legion of Mary determined on the closure of the Monto. On March 12, 1925 the police staged a midnight raid, emptying the brothels of clients and madams and into the police vans. The next Sunday the Legion pinned a picture of the Sacred Heart to each and every door. The Monto would be no more.