Hidden History: Prostitution in Irish Society

By Niamh Puirseil

In 1968 the Radharc team made a documentary called Open Port. Using hidden cameras, it showed girls as young as fourteen going onto ships on the Cork docks and featured interviews with a number of girls who had taken to going with sailors. The programme, billed as an examination of prostitution in Cork city prompted such a furore at the time that it never made it on air. The Radharc strand often featured hard hitting documentaries on social issues, but prostitution was a bridge too far and so the Open Port film remained gathering dust for nearly 35 years until it was shown as part of a Radharc retrospective in the IFI a couple of years ago.  

Watching it in 2001, it was easy to see that it would have proved controversial when it was made, but not for the obvious reasons; the hidden camera footage showed girls and young women boarding ships and in interviews, silhouetted girls spoke candidly about their exploits, but one thing became perfectly clear at an early stage. These girls were not prostitutes. They may have been given a drink or two by their sailor friends, and perhaps a few cigarettes, but no money changed hands. The girls did not go onto the ships for pecuniary gain, they did it for fun and a bit of excitement.  

What was really shocking about the documentary was its refusal to countenance the idea that young women might have casual sex; it was easier to label them ‘prostitutes'. I thought that was a unique instance, perhaps an effort by the clerical film makers to spare their own blushes, but, as Maria Luddy shows in Prostitution and Irish Society, 1800-1940, informs us, this was in no way unique. In the language of the authorities, girls such as those featured in Open Port were ‘amateurs', in effect prostitutes who gave it away. It suggests the dichotomy of Madonna and whore was prevalent in Irish society, and if a woman did not choose the former course – married, children, devoted to her family – she branded herself as the latter.  

This apparent dichotomy is central to this study. Significant attention is given to women who are not prostitutes in the generally accepted sense of the word, but simply do not fit in with societal norms. Besides ‘amateurs' (a term also used in contemporary Britain), ‘separation women' (women on British army allowances) and the inmates of Magdalene homes are among the groups we are introduced to during the course of this study. There is also a suggestion that by the 1930s all it took was for a woman to live alone to become morally suspect, with certain moral campaigners calling for rooms occupied by single women to be classified as brothels. Perhaps ‘Socially and morally unorthodox women and Irish society' would not have the same appeal but at least the reader would understand where the book was going from the outset. Part of this book's problem is that it never makes this explicit until the final pages, which leaves the reader wondering why, for instance, when we have been told that most women in Magdalene asylums were not prostitutes, the homes warrant a full chapter.

This is not a study of prostitution, it is a thesis about patriarchy in Ireland. It attempts to trace attitudes towards unorthodox women from the Act of Union to the Free State, although the logic behind the choice of dates is never explained, with 1940 chosen as a random cut-off point. The oblique introduction combined with the unwieldy structure of the chapters makes the central argument of the book somewhat opaque but it seems to boil down to the idea that during the nineteenth century prostitution in Ireland was reasonably common but following independence the brothels were closed and women chased off the streets by the Legion of Mary and by the state in ‘an attempt to curtail any expression of sexuality, and to curb the consumption of sexuality'. Under the new state it becomes a case of no sex please, we're Irish.

It is a provocative thesis but not necessarily a convincing one, not least because of the absence of any international comparisons in the study. Irish moral attitudes and prostitution exists in a vacuum. We are given no idea how attitudes in Ireland compare with other Catholic countries, for instance, and the moral panic in the newly independent Free State is painted as unique rather than as part international moral crisis that followed World War I. Strangely, while there are references to the existence of prostitution in Belfast on several occasions, there is nothing about its prevalence or attitudes towards it in the north after partition.

Moral purity is painted as being the sole concern of Catholic nationalist Ireland; did Northern protestants take a stand on the issue or are only Irish Catholics capable of puritanism? The extent to which prostitution diminished after the 1930s is also unclear; was the attempt ‘to curb the consumption of sexuality' successful? We are never told, although reference to the inter-departmental ad-hoc committee on the suppression of prostitution (1947-8) suggests not. Finally, it's worth noting that throughout the study, prostitution is dealt with as a uniquely female occupation. Male prostitution is alluded to vaguely (in a contemporary quote) on a single occasion. How prevalent was it in Ireland, did it exist at all? This book gives no clues.

This is a frustrating study which prompts more questions than it answers. The failure to contextualise the Irish experience is one element of this, but perhaps more than that it is the book's failure to convey any sense of who these women actually were. With the exception of the descriptions of grotesque treatments for venereal disease, the reader comes away with little sense of the lives of the ‘prostitutes'. Luddy concedes this in her conclusion, noting ‘while this study has made some attempt to reclaim this most neglected group of women, for the majority their individual stories are lost to us' but at the same time, there does seem to be a sense in which the author's determination not to paint these women as victims precludes her from illustrating how wretched life must have been for many of them; it is only in the conclusion, for instance, that we are told that the majority of women in the brothels of Monto were alcoholics (mostly drinking methylated spirits). If the women fail to emerge very clearly in the text, we get even less information about their clients. It is ‘society' in the form of the rescue agencies who form the real focus of the study.

Society in the sense of the men and women and families who make it up never makes it out of the shadows.
This is a shame because a real desire exists at the moment to shine a light on these matters. In her introduction, Luddy recalled that during the late 1980s, a number of local shops in Galway and Limerick had refused to display posters for public lectures she was giving because the words ‘Ireland' and ‘prostitution' appeared together. 

After one talk she was accosted by two members of the audience who asked ‘in quite an aggressive manner, how [she] could possibly talk about such a subject, and thanked God the British had gone, as there had been no prostitution in Ireland since'.  Luddy tells us, ‘this self-belief in Irish purity and moral superiority has rarely been challenged.' Not so. It has been challenged openly and consistently over the last fifteen years. A more valuable exercise would have been to evaluate the degree to which it existed at all, but it would require a subtlety which is unfortunately lacking here.