Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Benburb Street #1: the old red-light district

A Dublin map showing Benburb Street or Barrack Street as it then was

Over the years Benburb Street has certainly been through the wars. Literally.

If you stroll, jog, cycle or take the tram along its route on a fine summer's day it can seem like a lovely spot today. Most of us can be forgiven for not knowing - or simply forgetting - about the street's sordid past.

But I deal in crime fiction, and this happens to be a real street in Stoneybatter with countless real crimes.

Of course there's much to say about the good side of Benburb Street, which I'll cover in separate posts with lots of photos, but today I'm concentrating on its dark side. That's dear dirty old Dublin for you: sunny and dark, Georgian splendours meet infernal slums.

Benburb Street in the Victorian age

For centuries Benburb Street was one of the city's most notorious red-light districts. Up until 1890 it was called Barrack Street. At its eastern end coming up to Queen Street it would also have included what was Tighe Street - see the old map above from 1798.

And what is now Collins Barracks was still known at the time as the Royal Barracks. The oldest inhabited barracks in Europe, and at one time one of the largest.

The large army garrison in the city attracted its camp followers and prostitutes. Even as far back as 1837 the United Service Journal and Naval and Military Magazine described the area in grim terms: rogues, riots, drunkenness, brothels and disease. It was, as the history blog Come Here To Me puts it, "an unflattering account".

Another notorious area of brothels that lived off the army garrisons was "Monto": Montgomery Street, near what is now Tyrone Street, just north of Talbot Street. But that's another story for another time.

The Victorian bureaucrats even acknowledged prostitution, semi-officially as it were, by listing it among people's occupations in the 1851 and 1861 census of population. The latter also listed 134 people as brothel keepers in Leinster.

In the late nineteenth century Dublin Corporation chose what is now Benburb Street for its first public housing scheme. The Monto followed soon after.

The 20th century

The red light district around Benburb Street was somewhat different to its counterparts on the southside. By the 1970s and 1980s the latter were scattered around Georgian squares and the Grand Canal, much posher areas of the southside - and always a bustling business district during the day. So it was only after the working day, as darkness fell, that these areas of the southside could transform themselves, and the kerb crawlers would begin to prowl around the likes of Fitzwilliam Square.

By contrast, Benburb Street's sex industry was a round-the-clock business. The area was tucked away; in a sense it was a bit of a canyon too, with the high stone walls of the barracks. Most of the shops had closed down, there were still some residents but mostly working-class people - all adding up to a sharp contrast to the fine houses and top-floor flats around the southside squares.

By the 1980s the Benburb Street area was in general decline. Artisan cottages were targetted by property speculators because they were unpopular at the time and relatively cheap, and in many cases the houses along the street still remain derelict and boarded or bricked up today.

Even after Collins Barracks became a museum in 1997 the area remained a red light district. Lines of long-distance lorries would park overnight by the large park in front of the museum - the Croppy Acre. It could be a scary area to walk through at night, and god knows what it was like for the desperate souls who had to ply for work on its streets.

Things slowly began to change around a decade ago. The red light gave way to the Red Line of the Luas, as trams returned to the city. As it happens, the Green Line on the southside was opened ten years ago this week; the Red Line on the northside had to wait until the following September.

But as work began on the new line - on the tracks and platforms, the overhead wires and streetscapes - the long-distance lorries were soon forced to move on. So, too, were the prostitutes.

Or so it seemed. For a time - much as flood defences often simply push a problem further up the coast - the sex trade was simply displaced into surrounding areas up around Arbour Hill. Angry local residents held street protests and night-time vigils, and these and a combination of other factors led to an apparently vastly reduced level of street prostitution.

Benburb Street today

The police also claim credit for much of that. Last February the newspapers reported that 161 people - mostly men presumably - were arrested in a garda clampdown ("Operation Kerb") targeting motorists or kerb-crawlers who attempt to solicit prostitutes.

The operation in Dublin's north inner city involved female gardai posing as prostitutes. It was co-ordinated by officers from the Bridewell Garda Station, which is two stops down the Luas line from Benburb Street. The undercover cops were also attempting to snare a notorious rapist in a van who had been prowling the streets trying to abduct and rape prostitutes.

While 161 arrests and 94 charges and summonses may sound a lot, you have to read down the news stories to put it in context: this total has been over "the past three years". Rather than a one-off swoop, that averaged out at around one arrest per week. Hardly a major clampdown.

But according to the papers that seemed to be the end of it. As a report in the Evening Herald put it at the time (with all those "sources say" clichés):
Sources say that it has 'practically ended street prostitution' in the Benburb Street area, a locality which would have been considered Dublin's red-light area.

'Public' spaces and the sex industry

So it seemed the street had finally become a good news story. Even as the recession kicked in the area managed to attract a new wave of little shops, diners and arts organisations. The Luas line had vastly reduced the amount of cars and lorries, liberating the area for pedestrians and cyclists.

But the sex industry hadn't gone away. It was rapidly changing shape.

As Denise Charlton, chief executive of the Immigrant Council of Ireland, put it in the same Evening Herald report:
"While these on-street operations have been a success, gardai are almost powerless to prevent the most prevalent form of prostitution which takes place indoors in brothels, apartment complexes and hotel rooms – it is here the thugs and criminal gangs make the big money."
Under modern Irish law - in particular the 1993 Criminal Justice (Sexual Offences) Act - street prostitution is illegal. It's a criminal offence to solicit or importune in a street or public place for the purposes of prostitution, and it's a criminal offence to loiter for the purposes of prostitution.

Here's how the 1993 Act defines these spaces:

  • "public place" means any place to which the public have access whether as of right or by permission and whether subject to or free of charge;
  • "solicits or importunes" includes soliciting or importuning from or in a motor vehicle, and cognate words shall be construed accordingly;
  • "street" includes any road, bridge, lane, footway, subway, square, court, alley or passage, whether a thoroughfare or not, which is for the time being open to the public; and the doorways, entrances and gardens abutting on a street and any ground or car-park adjoining and open to a street, shall be treated as forming part of a street.

With the advent of the Web and mobile phones, the city's sex industry has seen major changes in how business is done. No need for the punters to hang around a "public place" or "a street" like Benburb Street any more when they can call and text and click away.

In that sense maybe the definitions in the law are way behind the times. And even with the Internet and mobile phones, street prostitution is still carrying on. Who knows? I'm no legal expert. I just write fiction. About places like Benburb Street.