Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Take Her Up to Monto

- Child at play, Railway Street, Dublin, 1913
So far I've not woven any of the history of Monto into a Moss Reid story, but it's only a matter of time. Here are some of my notes about the area...

1. The red light district

After the Acts of Union of 1800 the city-centre area around Montgomery Street on the northside of Dublin went into serious decline.

Monto (or "The Monto") was also known as "the kips", "the digs" or "the village" or "the bad area" or "hell's gates". It took in an area of about a square mile, from Talbot Street in the east to Mabbot Lane, Railway Street to the west, Amiens Street, Gardiner Street and Seán McDermott Street (formerly Gloucester Street).

Montgomery Street itself - now Foley Street - ran parallel to the lower end of Talbot Street towards what is now Connolly Station.

By the end of the 19th century the area had the worst slums in Europe. In Buckingham Street in the heart of Monto, the 1901 Census recorded 16 houses in slum tenements. These 16 houses had a total of 499 inhabitants. And that was the norm.

By then Monto had already become the biggest red-light district in Europe. From the 1860s to the 1900s there were an estimated 1,200 to 1,600 prostitutes working within the district. It features as "nighttown" from the start of chapter 15 of James Joyce's Ulysses:
The Mabbot street entrance of nighttown, before which stretches an uncobbled tramsiding set with skeleton tracks, red and green will-o'-the-wisps and danger signals. Rows of grimy houses with gaping doors. Rare lamps with faint rainbow fins. Round Rabaiotti's halted ice gondola stunted men and women squabble. They grab wafers between which are wedged lumps of coral and copper snow. Sucking, they scatter slowly, children. The swancomb of the gondola, highreared, forges on through the murk, white and blue under a lighthouse. Whistles call and answer.
On the subject of prostitution, the 1903 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica noted that:
“Dublin furnishes an exception to the usual practice in the United Kingdom. In that city police permit open ‘houses’ confined to one area, but carried on more publicly than even in the south of Europe or Algeria.”
Many of the women suffered sexually transmitted diseases and ended up in the Westmoreland Lock Hospital. Others landed in prison or, in later times, in the notorious Magdalen Laundries.

The sex trade was fuelled by the number of British Army garrisons and soldiers in the city - just as the army barracks in Barrack Street (now Benburb Street) in Stoneybatter had become another notorious red-light district.

According to popular legend, the then Prince of Wales, Prince Albert Edward (later King Edward VII), lost his virginity in a brothel in Monto – he accessed the place through a warren of secret tunnels.

A rather awful old Dublin joke goes that the women of Monto did more damage to the British Army than the entire republican movement, and if there had been a rebellion in the late 1800s it would have had to contend with a Dublin garrison in which half the men were out sick with STIs.

But Monto the red-light district is no more. As Ronnie Drew of the Dubliners explains in the video below, “the whole place has been since closed down by legions of Marys or something or other.”

Between 1923-25 the clampdown of the madams and brothels was led by Frank Duff and the Legion of Mary, a right-wing Catholic lay organisation, with the co-operation of the Police Commissioner.

Popular wisdom today is that either (a) the raids were completely successful, or (b) by then the area's financial viability as a red-light district had been seriously undermined because the main clients, the British Army, had “packed up their troubles in their old kit bags”, as it were, and were long gone.

But that's not the full story.

Firstly, the brothels weren't just for the soldiers and sailors and the odd visiting royal: they also served the local Dublin bourgeoisie. Monto was immortalised as “Nighttown” in the “Circe” chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, when Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus visit a brothel.

There was also many a tale of the cattle dealers coming up from the country to the huge old cattle market in Stoneybatter and ending up being robbed in the "flash houses" of Monto.

Secondly, after the British Army left the slums didn't simply go away; nor did the sex trade. With the new State hardly even established, Monto continued to be a no-go area for another half a decade or more. As Ronan Sheehan puts it in the classic Dublin: The Heart of the City (recently reissued by Lilliput Press),
"Members of the anti-treaty forces hid there during the civil war, after which they were joined by some who had been their opponents, now demobbed from the Free State Army. Violence was frequent and often fatal, because many of these men were armed; and, inevitably, the guns were used for robberies. The Monto became not just a no-go area, but an armed no-go area. And it was not only doing violence to itself; it was a threat to society at large. As a policeman of the time recalls: 'We made some few raids before the final big one in 1925 - the raid that served to wipe out the bad area - mostly in pursuit of armed robbers. At that time there were about forty armed robberies per month in Dublin alone. The gunmen involved could lie low without much fear of detection in the Digs'."
After a series of raids on the brothels by the police and Duff, the Legion of Mary claimed outright victory. Yet, Sheehan concludes,
"The public perception of the middle class was that an unruly and morally unacceptable menace to society had been eradicated; little, however, had changed for those living in the area."
Monto has gone in another sense though: eventually the tenements were pulled down, most of the jobs in the docklands were lost after containerisation and road haulage, and most of the traditional working class was squeezed out of the city centre.

2. The ballad

Perhaps the best known of several great old songs about the area and its people is "Take Her Up to Monto".

It's a wonderfully rowdy ballad from a 1958 revue, written by the jazz musician and music critic George "Hoddy" Hodnett. He set the verse around the older air of “Johnny McEldoo”, and it was part of a song cycle in which each tune lampooned a stock folk or ballad form.

As Hoddy himself explained:
“The verses were constructed to include the prepossessions that would appeal to the Dublin proletarian taste. Hence the ingredients of hurler-on-the-fence, support for persons regarded as patriots (Invincibles verse), anti-police attitudes (‘the buggers in the depot’), anti-‘toff’ attitudes (Buckshot Foster); anti-Englishness (same), local allusions, and, of course, smut. This construction probably accounts for the song’s success, if that is the word.”
Hoddy later said that the ditty wasn’t seriously intended for public performance, but Ronnie Drew got wind of it, and he and the Dubliners resurrected the ballad for a gig at the Gate Theatre in 1966. It became an immediate hit. In fact it became so popular, even in Hoddy’s own lifetime, that he was later to admit:
“It has become the folk song it originally aimed at satirising.”
In his later life Hoddy became homeless and penniless, sleeping backstage at the Pike Theatre, then on the floors of newspaper offices.

3. The lyrics

Well, if you’ve got a wing-o, take her up to Ring-o
Where the waxies sing-o all the day.
If you’ve had your fill of porter, and you can’t go any further
Just give your man the order: “Back to the Quay!”

And take her up to Monto, Monto, Monto
Take her up to Monto, langeroo,
To you!

You’ve heard of Buckshot Foster, the dirty old imposter
He took a mot and lost her up the Furry Glen.
He first put on his bowler then he buttoned up his trousers,
And he whistled for a growler and he says, “My man”

(posh accent) Take me up to Monto…

When Carey told on Skin-the-goat, O’Donnell caught him on the boat
He wished he’d never been afloat, the dirty skite.
It wasn’t very sensible to tell on the Invincibles,
They stood up for their principles, day and night.

Goin’ up to…

You’ve seen the Dublin Fusileers, the dirty old bamboozileers,
They went and got (killed) the childer, one, two, three
Oh, marching from the Linen Hall there’s one for every cannonball,
And Vicky’s going to send us all o’er the sea.

But first go up to…

Now when the Czar of Russia and the King of Prussia
Landed in the Phoenix in a big balloon,
They asked the polismen (garda band) to play “The Wearin’ of the Green”
But the buggers in the depot didn’t know the tune.

So they both got up to…

The Queen she came to call on us, she wanted to see all of us
I’m glad she didn’t fall on us, she’s eighteen stone.
“Mister Melord Mayor,” says she, “is this all you’ve got to show to me?”
“Why, no ma’am there’s some more to see, Póg mo thóin!”

And he took her up…

4. The lyrics explained

  • A wing-o: a penny (the pre-decimal coin had a hen and chickens on one side)
  • Ring-o: Ringsend, on the south bank of the River Liffey
  • Waxies: cobblers (as in that other ballad The Waxies’ Dargle) – they used wax to waterproof the thread they used to stitch the shoes
  • Monto: Montgomery Street
  • ‘Buckshot’ Foster: William Edward Forster, English industrialist, philanthropist, Liberal Party MP, chief secretary of Ireland during the 1880s. The nickname came after he ordered the police to fire buckshot on a crowd. The bowler (hat) connects him to the crown and to Loyalism (think Twelfth of July parades)
  • Mot: Irish slang for girlfriend. Possibly from the Irish “maith” (good), as in “caillín maith” (“good girl”)
  • Furry Glen: a corner of the Phoenix Park (and possibly other meanings too)
  • A growler: a four-wheeled hansom cab (or its driver)
  • De Wet: Christiaan de Wet, a Boer general, rebel leader and bane of the British Fusiliers
  • Chiselers (in some versions):  cheats, swindlers, conmen, those who use chisels for picking things apart; or plain kids
  • Vicky: Queen Victoria
  • Carey: James Carey, a Fenian, founder of the Invincibles, involved in the Phoenix Park murders and later turned informer
  • Skin-the-goat: James Fitzharris, the cabman who drove the assassins to and from the Phoenix Park
  • O’Donnell: Patrick O’Donnell, or Pádraig Ó Domhnaill, an Irish republican  who carried out the revenge assassination of Carey
  • The Phoenix: the Phoenix Park in Dublin, one of the largest walled city parks in Europe
  • Childer: children
  • Póg mo thóin: Irish for “kiss my arse” (hence The Pogues)
- Childer in Monto