The new Monto: history reclaimed by ‘working women in the arts’

Five galleries and studios in the former red-light district of Dublin’s north inner city have come together to acknowledge the area’s history and character rather than obliterate it

Monto was once the biggest red-light district in Europe. It was immortalised by James Joyce as "Nighttown" in the "Circe" chapter of Ulysses, and said to be the place where Prince Albert Edward (later Edward VII) lost his virginity. Monto has the kind of history many would prefer to see swept under the carpet.

Up to 1,600 prostitutes once worked in the area of north inner-city Dublin bounded by Talbot Street, Amiens Street, Gardiner Street and Seán MacDermott Street. The rear wall of the last Magdalene laundry to close in Ireland, as recently as 1996, runs along Railway Street.

So why have five contemporary galleries and studios, all of which are run by women, taken the collective name Monto to celebrate the area’s rebirth as a hub of artistic activity? Is there some history that can’t be reclaimed?

Not so, says Oonagh Young. "Maybe it's a little ironic, because we're all working women in the arts, but we have all this history, and it's important to acknowledge it, not to try to obliterate it."


Young set up her gallery in 2008, mortgaging her home to create a cutting-edge contemporary space. She has an engaging passion for art, which has given her the energy to ride out the issues that followed a decision to buy a gallery just as the recession hit.

She hosted Vardo, part of Anu Productions' Monto Cycle, during last year's Dublin Theatre Festival. "I offered them the gallery because I'm in the heart of Monto and I felt what they do is as close to art as it is to theatre. They discovered that a fortune-teller [Terriss Lee] used to work on this site, so they put one in the gallery. I love that connection. It's another reason why it's important to keep the name Monto alive."

Varied art world

The Monto group highlights how varied the art world is, with private and publicly funded organisations working together, in a way not always seen in Ireland.

On Buckingham Street, the Fire Station has been offering residential studios and a large-scale sculpture workshop to artists for 20 years. Under the direction of Tony Sheehan, it was one of the first arts organisations to connect with an area in deep crisis. In 1997 the ground-breaking Inner Art included a range of site-specific art and performances; the Memorial Project in 2000 led to the commissioning of Leo Higgins's Home, a memorial to all those who died as a direct or indirect result of heroin abuse, giving a voice to a previously silenced community.

Helen Carey, who is now the Fire Station's director, and works with arts programme manager Liz Burns, says the role of the studios has shifted. "From being a strong regeneration tool, it has become an artistic community within the area."

Carey says this mirrors a change in thinking about regeneration: from getting local groups to make art to how you create a mixed ecology within a city.

“Art can catalyse, it can play a part, but communities are very literate about what they want, so you’re not imposing something. There’s a parity of esteem in terms of concerns and how they’re going to be addressed.”

Elaine Grainger set up the Talbot Gallery in 2006 following the loss of her son by cot death. "I went upstairs and started painting. Then I thought I'd have to work towards something, so I opened a gallery below the studio."

With no Arts Council or Dublin City Council funding, the gallery supports emerging artists through exhibitions, enabled by income from five of the six studio spaces in the building. The other studio is given annually as a graduate award, this year to National College of Art and Design alumnus Sean Grimes.

“I don’t do it for money,” Grainger says, which could be the mantra of every member of the Monto group. Despite being “extremely different, with different agendas”, the group came about organically. “We decided to have our openings at the same time, and it went from there.”

New kid on the block

The newest kid on the block is Hilary Murray’s ArtBox, which came to be housed in the space once occupied by Flood Gallery through Dublin City Council’s Vacant Spaces scheme. Murray aims to link in with university courses to expand ways of engaging. Does the locality influence the work she shows?

“At first I didn’t think about it that much. Then Ella de Burca projected an archival image of the original tenement, when the street was Corporation Street, on to the front window. This lady came in and said, ‘I can tell you who those people are in that picture.’ After that more came and showed us photographs, and there was a sense that the renewal had scraped away some of the history of the area. I had a feeling that we could go against that.”

At the Lab on Foley Street, once Montgomery Street, from which Monto derived its name, Sheena Barrett agrees. "We've been collaborating informally for a while. It's an interesting area, with lots of new development, and part of the Lab's agenda is to provide support for artists to take risks, and the artists who work here are generally making work that relates to the world around them, not just pieces to hang on a gallery wall."

Part of that agenda includes projects run with Liz Coman, including visual thinking strategies developed by New York's Museum of Modern Art, in which children drive the agenda, facilitated by Lynn McGrane, and in the process slow down and learn to look at art. "People can dismiss visual art as elitist or alienating, but working with children you see that they really get it," says Barrett.

The Lab, which is 10 years old, is reviewing its programming, “because the city has changed over the years. Now there are so many more spaces for artists who’ve just left college to show.”

The city has changed, and so has Monto, “It’s a living place,” says Young. “You don’t want to get rid of the character of it.”

Or forget its background.

  • Picnic in Monto: On July 10th, Monto is holding the Monto Picnic at Liberty Park, Foley Street. Meet at Connolly Station at 11am for a guided tour of the area's arts spaces, or go straight to the park for the picnic from noon to 2pm. Opera in the Open will perform arias from Roméo et Juliette, plus live music from Dale O'Hanlon and art exhibitions. All events are free.


  • ARTBOX is the latest arrival. The gallery has a cutting-edge programme with a dash of intellectual intent. 3 James Joyce Street;
  • FIRE STATION ARTISTS' STUDIOS celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. Residential studios have housed an enviable roll call of leading Irish and international artists, together with workshop and digital media facilities. 9-12 Lower Buckingham Street;
  • THE LAB GALLERY is a Dublin City Council space offering opportunities to emerging artists and space for more established artists to experiment with new work. Foley Street,
  • OONAGH YOUNG GALLERY has a brilliant and eclectic programme of work by Irish and international artists, plus events and projects engaging with the area. 1 James Joyce Street;
  • TALBOT GALLERY AND STUDIOS shows work by recent graduates and emerging artists, as well as housing studio spaces. 51 Talbot Street;