5 September 2002 Edition

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The miracle of Monto?

A chequered history, from prostitution to pilgrimages


Knock, Lourdes, Medjugorje, Monto - it's like one of those sequences in which the objective is to 'guess the odd one out'. But there isn't one. Monto - nestled in the heart of Ireland's heathenish capital, the place James Joyce called "the centre of paralysis", is alive with mysteries and now also promises salvation.
Local historian Terry Fagan is our unlikely prophet - his gospel, a tale of prostitution, dilapidation and a purportedly miraculous statue that locals are hailing as the "Sacred Heart of Monto".


An area of less than one square mile in Dublin's North Inner City, Monto has a rich local history. It got its nickname from Montgomery Street, now Foley Street. It was a place that, at the beginning of the last century, was notorious for prostitution and poverty, boozers and its despotic 'madams'. It is immortalised in the ballad 'Take Me Up to Monto', a Luke Kelly favourite. Although still an area of acute social disadvantage, it may now also become a beacon for the religiously devoted.

This summer alone there have been several heroin-related suicides in the North Inner City, adding to the over 150 deaths caused by heroin there during the last 20 years. It is an area that typifies the nature of 'The Celtic Tiger', new luxurious apartment blocks and business complexes juxtaposed against downtrodden corporation flats, excessive new-spun wealth cheek to jowl with the effects of generations of poverty.

Terry sees local history as a key facet in the regeneration of a community that, demonstrably, has lost a great deal of its identity and sense of worth. He got involved in compiling local history in the 1970s, while working delivering meals for the elderly.

"I always found when dropping in meals to them - they were lonely people, their families had moved on and they were left behind in the inner city - they always had a story to tell. And I found there wasn't anybody recording the local history, as such. From then on, I began to gather a lot of information and when the North Inner City Folklore Project was set up I got involved in it.

"Over the years I recorded history from one of the most important parts of the city - Monto - which was classed as one of the biggest red light districts in Europe."

Monto was in operation from the late 1860s up to 1925, and the area was run by successive 'madams' - women who housed, fed and generally exploited prostitutes and the population of the surrounding area with impunity. "It was estimated that 1,200 women operated [prostituted themselves] in the area," Terry says.

It was 1911 when the first Catholic Commissioner of Police, Sir John Ross, orchestrated raids on the madams, and he did succeed, albeit temporarily, in shutting down Monto's prostitution rackets. "But the madams basically said to the women, listen: 'we've no more business for you now, out you go'," Terry explains. "So the women made their way up to O'Connell Street, what was then Sackville Street, and were touting for business. And that shocked the mainstream; word spread to the likes of John Ross. People said that 'you can't have them operating in the middle of the city'. So basically what happened then is that the green light was given to them to go back again to Monto and they returned accordingly."

The second set of madams to take over the running of the area became infamous. Madams like Betty Cooper, whose brother was executed on the orders of Michael Collins for the betrayal of Volunteers Dick McKee and Peadar Clancy, and May Oblong, who is mentioned in Roddy Doyle's book 'A Star Called Henry' and in James Joyce's 'Finnegan's Wake'.

"Some of the clients were the cream of Engish and Irish society. King Edward VII accessed the place through secret tunnels dotted all over Monto, and was a frequent visitor there over a period of time. There's a few little King Edwards running around here, I'd say," says Terry. The aforementioned Joyce was also a regular.

Over that period of time, the madams made the bulk of their money from the British Army. "It was said that the girls in Monto done more damage to the British Army than the Republican Movement," Terry jokes. "Had there been an uprising in Dublin in the latter part of the 1800s, well, half the Dublin garrison were out sick with venereal diseases."


"When the Treaty came," Terry continues, "one man who was working for the British Administration at that time was Frank Duff. He worked mainly on statistics, and then, on the foundation of the Free State, for a brief time, he was actually a secretary to Michael Collins."

Duff had also joined the St Vincent de Paul (SVP), which was mainly set up to cater for the South Dublin Union, visiting men in workhouses. But Duff was also concerned for the welfare of Dublin's women.

"Originally he wasn't interested in joing the SVP, but what turned things around for Duff was his exposure to the conditions of women in the Monto area," says Terry. "As he was going down Chancery Street, he saw this group of women and, his suspicions aroused, he happened to go into their house and discover that they were prostitutes. He was so shocked that he pleaded with the women to give up prostitution, but they wouldn't do that. He then got the local priest - as if he was going to change them - to come down, and he appealed to the women's religious nature, beseeching them to give up their profession.

'If we give up prostitution,' they asked, 'who's going to feed us? Where will we get jobs? How are we going to live?'

"Duff then decided to try to find a convent that would accept the women for a retreat and give the SVP time to deter them from prostitution. After a great deal of difficulty, Duff managed to secure a convent in which to hold the retreat, but now he needed somewhere to keep the women so they would not lapse back to prostitution.

"So he went to see the head of the Irish Free State at the time, William T. Cosgrave. He agreed to give them a house - it was actually a house from which Michael Collins had escaped from the Black and Tans on many an occasion - 76 Harcourt Street. He gave them the house and got them a cheque for £50, which got furniture and which allowed them to set up a hostel called the 'Sancta Maria'.

"Everything went OK until 1923, when two of the girls left and went down to Monto - and Duff decided to go and get them back."

Duff had founded the Legion of Mary in 1921. "Its founding meeting was in an old store on Francis Street," recalls Terry. "He said to the three or four women attending, 'we're going to call ourselves The Legion of Mary and this will be great', he said. 'There'll be millions in this'. And the women looked around at each other and started laughing. But history would have it that 12 or 13 million people would join the Legion of Mary, in Ireland and across the world."

In his attempts to retrieve the two women from Monto, Duff was directed to May Oblong of 14 Corporation Street, who professed to have given up her business as a madam. Initially Oblong was helpful, and presented herself as a good-living Catholic, but when it was suggested that she could help the Legion remove the women from Monto, she angrily ejected Duff and an associate from her home. Duff saw racks of coats and hats on his way out "and knew there was too much there for one woman".

"May Oblong hadn't given up prostitution - but was a costumer to the women in Monto. The women in Monto used to rent out their clothes off the madams, and they had to pay that, plus their keep - so they never really made anything."

Duff eventually found one of the girls, sick in her bed in Monto, and he got her to a hospital in Townsend Street. She eventually died. Her's was one of the biggest funerals ever held in the Monto area.


"So, Duff started to take on the madams. It so happened to be that there was a retreat to be held in Marlborough Street Pro-Cathederal, by the Jesuits, at that time. Duff went up to see them and told them that not a stone's throw away from the church was one of the biggest red light districts in Europe. He asked a priest to condemn it from the pulpit, and he agreed.

"The Legion of Mary, together with the SVP, began to canvass the area, letting people know they were embarking on a mission against prostitution and inviting them to the retreat in Marlborough Street. And many people responded." Several thousand, in fact.

"The priest condemned what was going on from the pulpit and the retreat went on solidly for three weeks. In the meantime, the madams were getting worried: the writing was on the wall. The British Army had gone - their main source of funding - and the new Free State was becoming increasingly aware of Monto. So Duff, along with the Jesuit priests, set up a base in the Belvedere Hotel and from there they went down and knocked on the doors of the madams and summonsed them, one by one, to meetings with the priests."

The madams eventually agreed to the sum of £40 as recompense for them having to close their businesses, with even May Oblong acceding - only after having threatened to open a brothel beside the parish priest's presbytry, though.

Monto's closure was set for 12 March 1925 and, despite some Store Street gardaí who enjoyed the 'benefits' of Monto being reluctant to close the brothels, a threat of dismissal from the Garda Commissioner to the local superintendent ensured Monto did indeed close on this date. Gardaí rolled into the area, arresting 120 people, including a TD and other well-known dignitaries. Two madams were arrested, one, Polly Butler, spending six weeks in prison - the only jail term ever given to a madam in the area's history.


The following Sunday, hundreds marched behind a large crucifix through the streets of Monto, nailing pictures of the Sacred Heart to the walls. Frank Duff dedicated the closing of the prostitution rackets to the Sacred Heart. Some time after this, a statue of the Sacred Heart was erected above a building in Mabbot Lane, where it remained until an eerie series of events was set in train on 12 May last year.

It was a sunny afternoon when two workmen were sent up to take the statue down. One was on the roof holding its head, the other on a ladder, chiseling at its feet. Both claim, along with eyewitnesses, that when the statue shattered a dark cloud appeared, blocking out the sun. As they, somewhat unsettled, removed the statue to a skip below, gusts of wind circled the lane, lifting a picture frame from the skip and hitting the workman holding the statue in the neck. He dropped the statue and they ran inside.

Terry says that he was sceptical on hearing this story, but this was not the last of the strange occurrences. He did, however, contact the building developer responsible for the project and remonstrated with him for taking the statue down. "It's part of our history, and should remain in place," he said. The developer, unsettled by the incident, agreed to have the statue repaired

Local handyman Gerry Pickett, along with Terry, then spent six weeks putting it back together. One day Pickett contacted Terry, claiming that the statue was effusing water and a strange aroma. The aroma was the scent of roses. Terry couldn't sense this smell, but soon had a similarly weird experience. When he returned with photographs of the statue being fixed from the developers, one photo (pictured) added to the unfolding 'miracle'.

"There it is," Terry points, the revelation in hand. He points to what looks like the image of Christ's face, which can be seen clearly in the left hand side of the photo (circled). He compares it to another picture, one of the Turin shroud. The resemblance is remarkable.

Terry immediately consulted with four separate professional photographers, all of whom agreed that the image was inexplicable and could not be put down to double exposure. RTé followed the story up, and then TV3 - studio staff for the latter station even claimed that they also noticed the scent of roses from the statue.

Terry claims he's not a "deeply religious" person. "I don't go to Mass, but I do believe in God," he says. "I am a sceptic."

Temporarily housed in Pickett's workplace at Fairview Fire Station, the statue's alleged scent was also sensed by a cleaner. "It got so popular that people were going mad to get into the Fire Station to see the statue. And Tony Sheehan, the director of the Fire Station, was afraid that there'd be chip vans and pilgrimages outside the station. We had to get it rehoused."

Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Seán MacDermott Street now hosts the increasingly famous Sacred Heart of Monto; a story of relics from the statue curing a sick local has already emerged.

Terry's avuncular style and wealth of local knowledge make this and other stories he tells both engaging and entertaining. He is currently involved in setting up a heritage centre in the area and conducts Historical Walking Tours.

Contact the Inner City Folklore Centre at: +353 87 9222 491

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1