Peg Plunkett: Memoirs of an Irish Whore review

It’s a shame Julie Peakman chose to sub-title this endlessly fascinating, informative and insightful biography Memoirs of an Irish Whore. ‘Courtesan’ might have been kinder

Sat, Jun 27, 2015, 01:06

   
 

Book Title:
Peg Plunkett: Memoirs of an Irish Whore

ISBN-13:
978-1782067733

Author:
Julie Peakman

Publisher:
Quercus

Guideline Price:
£13.99

These days every postal area in Dublin has its share of sexual services available on the internet. Contemporary female practitioners of the oldest profession in the world prefer to be called escorts, sex workers, hookers, or plain old-fashioned, “prostitutes”.

But in the Dublin of the late 18th century, they were known as courtesans, women on the town, demireps, nymphs and impures.

The latter two names were favoured by the fabulously feisty Peg Plunkett, a beautiful woman who was no slouch when it came to defending her honour, be it verbally or, on occasion, by indulging in fisticuffs.

One suspects you might have incurred the wrath of the lady if you called her a whore, harlot, slut or strumpet. As such it’s a shame Julie Peakman chose to sub-title this endlessly fascinating, informative and insightful biography Peg Plunkett: Memoirs of an Irish Whore. “Courtesan” might have been kinder.

Lord knows the woman already paid her dues. Born in Westmeath, some time between 1727 and 1740 – even her biographer can’t be sure – Peg was one of eight children. She came from a relatively privileged background but after her mother died, her father “lost heart” and passed over the running of the home to Peg’s brother Christopher, who “frequently horse-whipped” her.

By the age of 16 she had moved to Dublin, “gave up her chastity easily” to a Mr Dardis and later sagely reflected in one of her three volumes of memoirs, “How can I call him seducer, when I met the seduction halfway?” Very 18th century.

Peg got pregnant and Dardis promised her they would marry but she reckoned, “What reliance could I justly have on his honour, when I had weakly given up my own?” Some of the most fascinating parts of this book are the quotes from Plunkett’s own writings, which should be re-published in full.

However Julie Peakman, a historian of 18th-century culture and the history of sexuality, clearly delights in exploring these areas and provides the kind of socio-political context that, no doubt, Peg’s memoirs would lack.

On the other hand, Peakman is relatively reticent when it comes to the services available in Plunkett’s brothels, although we do learn that the contemporary synonym for ejaculation, “happy ending”, had its Georgian equivalent, “perfect enjoyment”.

Overall, the author has a lovely, light touch, and this book is devoid of the aridity often encountered in academic tomes.

Peakman’s evocation of Peg’s life during her early 20s – when she lived on Ranelagh Road, where she was “kept” by a “wealthy English gentleman” called Mr Leeson, while also including among her lovers a pair of scamps called Mr Lawless and Mr Jackson – makes one want to keep nix for the patently sexually assertive Plunkett.

And, once again, Peg’s rationale for her indulgences is irresistible. “Stolen pleasures are generally held to be very sweet and, in spite of his vigilance, I sometimes enjoyed them to compensate for the external constraint I was forced to assume.” That could almost be the mantra of any modern married Irish woman.

The book is at its best chronicling the period after Peg and fellow courtesan Sally Hayes opened a brothel in Dublin. Particularly telling – although not enough to warrant its in-depth inclusion twice in the narrative – is the description of the assault Plunkett suffered on her premises at the hands of a gang of well-to-do Trinity College thugs, called the Pinking Dandies.

It led to the death of the child Peg was pregnant with and the death of a second child who was traumatised by seeing her mother being beaten up. Peg’s feistiness and self-assertiveness, in the broadest sense, roared to the fore after that attack. She took the gang leader, Robert Crosbie, to court. He could have been hanged but sheriffs prevailed upon Plunkett to drop murder charges which she did and he was sent to jail.

This is just one example of why you come away from reading this book with an abiding sense of respect for Plunkett and utterly disinclined to see the woman purely in terms of the reductive label that is invariably slapped upon sex workers, namely victim. She “blitzed her way through balls and masquerades . . . leaving dukes, barristers and lieutenants smitten and stranded in her wake,” to cull a quote from the back cover of this book.

Her obituary in the Dublin Evening Post on May 17th 1797, reported: “She figured for a long time in the bon ton – and absolutely made the fashion. It was her practice to confine her favours to a temporary husband. In this state she lived with several gentlemen in the style of fashionable elegance.” Let’s erect in Dublin a statue of Peg Plunkett.

Joe Jackson recently presented the two-part RTÉ Radio 1 documentary Richard Harris Revisited and is completing a play, Pyramid of Light, based on his 30 years as a professional interviewer.