In part twelve of this series, Eugene Dunphy unravels the story behind a bawdy Dublin ballad
Just days after his death on the 23rd of September 1990, an Evening Herald obituary stated that the deceased, George Desmond Hodnett, wrote Take Me Up To Monto in 1958. I must say, this was news to me; I thought the ballad ‘about Dublin’s red-light district’ had its origins in the late 19th century or the early 1900s. Reading further, I discovered that Hodnett had written both words and music as a parody of a folk song; that it was ‘first sung in public in 1966 by the Dubliners, and became an immediate hit’.
Born on the 25th of February, 1918, in Bradford, Yorkshire, Hodnett (‘Hoddy’) developed a love for jazz music, but not just as a listener – he could play jazz pieces on piano, trumpet and trombone, even zither. He was educated in Ireland, at Catholic University School, Dublin, then at the Irish College at Ring, Waterford.
Those who got to know him at Trinity College, Dublin spoke of his eccentricities and Bohemian lifestyle, saying that he was often seen puffing on a cigarette while wearing two overcoats and a long Trinity College scarf.
His job, as music critic for the Irish Times, gave him ample opportunity to meet those involved in theatre and music. Apart from playing accompaniment for actors and singers at the Pike Theatre, he was a guest on the first broadcast of the Late Late Show in July 1962, the RTE Guide describing his contribution as one of ‘baroque eccentricity’.
Hoddy’s ballad reads like one man’s condensed history of the seedier side of Victorian Dublin. ‘Monto’ refers to the city’s Montgomery Street where the ‘ladies of the night’ regularly plied their trade.
The street retained its name until February 1906, when the Paving Committee of the Dublin Corporation decided to rename it Foley Street, in honour of John Henry Foley, the celebrated sculptor who was born in 1818, at number 6 Montgomery Street.
However, Montgomery/Foley Street continued as a ‘red-light district’, at least up until the 1920s when the Legion of Mary put paid to such disreputable activity.
The first verse mentions ‘wing-o’, an old word for an Irish pingín (the penny coin depicting a chicken), as well as ‘Ring-o’, another name for Ringsend, an area about five miles from Dublin city centre where the ‘waxies’ (shoemakers) often held their annual outings – the ‘waxies’ were so-called because they used wax to waterproof and strengthen their stitching thread.
Each verse of the song is followed by a chorus which includes the word ‘langeroo’, a derivative of ‘langer’, slang for a fool or wastrel.