PJ Delaney tells the story of how Frank Duff transformed Dublin’s infamous
There is a well-known Irish folk song, written by George Desmond Hodnett, made popular by The Dubliners, called Monto (Take her up to Monto).
Monto was the nickname for a part of old Dublin that occupied the area surrounded by Talbot Street, Amiens Street, Seán McDermott Street and Gardiner Street.
The name ‘Monto’ was a shortening of the name of the central street, Montgomery Street (now Foley Street). It was famously described by James Joyce in Ulysses when Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus paid a visit to a lady there.
Monto was, in its heyday, one of the most tragic places in Queen Victoria’s empire. There were up to 1,600 women and girls working as prostitutes in less than one square mile of Dublin’s North inner city.
Monto was in full operation from around 1860, and lasted until 1925.
The area and its inhabitants were run and managed by a group of ‘madams’ that recruited, housed, fed and thoroughly exploited the women therein.
In 1911, the new Commissioner of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, Colonel Sir John Ross, the first Catholic to hold this role, decided to tackle the open sore that Monto had become.
He targeted the madams with a highly effective series of raids and, in a couple of weeks, effectively closed Monto to trade.
The madams, however, had a card to play. They closed their houses and told the unfortunate girls that they could no longer keep them without money, forcing them to take to the streets.
The women moved down from Monto towards O’Connell Street (Then called Sackville Street) and began to tout for business. This led to public outrage and pressure was brought to bear on the Commissioner to adopt a “lightly-lightly” approach to policing the area, effectively reopening Monto.
The area was now taken over by a new set of madams and they were, if anything, worse than their predecessors.
The lot of the unfortunate girls was particularly hard. They had to pay for lodgings, food, protection and also had to rent the clothes they worked in. When all accounts were settled they had precious little for themselves.
The War of Independence ended in July 1921, and the signing of the Treaty ensured that Monto’s core market returned to barracks in England. This was a serious blow to the madams, and finally allowed external forces to intervene in the lives of the girls.
One man, Frank Duff, a former secretary to Michael Collins, joined The Saint Vincent de Paul, and became aware of the tragic situation of the women.
He held a meeting, appealing to decency, and calling on them to abandon prostitution. They explained that they couldn’t leave Monto without having a place to stay. They needed food and lodgings or they couldn’t leave their ‘situation’.
Duff prepared a retreat for the women of Monto and secured the use of a local convent for this very purpose. He then petitioned the new Irish Government, and William T. Cosgrave, agreed to buy him a house. He turned this house, 76 Harcourt Street, into a hostel and called it ‘Santa Maria’. He then turned in earnest to assisting the unfortunate women.
On September 7th, 1921, Duff founded The Legion of Mary and began a policy of active intervention in Monto. In 1923, however, two of the women staying in the hostel left, returning to Monto. Duff searched the area and finally found one of the two girls, seriously ill, in a bed in Monto. He carried her to a hospital in Townsend St. where she unfortunately died.
Duff then enlisted the help of the Jesuits who were running a retreat in the pro-cathedral. They agreed to help and organised the parish priest to condemn Monto from the altar. The Legion of Mary and the St. Vincent de Paul then began to spend increasing time canvassing the area and this resulted in several hundred girls leaving. Duff then called to the houses of the ‘madams’ and demanded that they attend a meeting with a local priest. These women were smart enough to realise that the new Free State Government wanted Monto closed and anyway, their core market had gone. The Madams agreed to receive the sum of £40 as a recompense.
The date of March 12th, 1925 was agreed upon for the final closure of Monto. On the agreed date a sizeable force of Gardaí marched in and arrested over 100 people, including several dignitaries and one T.D.!
The following week, after Sunday mass, Duff organised a march through Monto with over a thousand people marching behind a cross.
They nailed pictures of the Sacred Heart to doors and walls. Frank Duff dedicated the closure of Monto to the Sacred Heart and a statue was erected in the area that stood until very recently. The taking down of that statue is another story… a good story… for another day.