An Irishman's Diary

 

IT’S A tribute to the skill of a former Irish Timesjazz critic that the ballad Monto, made famous by The Dubliners among others, is widely assumed to be about twice as old as it actually is.

The imminent British royal visit may, ironically, encourage the song’s revival. Because the most modern of the historical events mentioned in it was another such visit: Queen Victoria’s in 1900. Not that its lyrics treat the subject with due decorum, viz: “The Queen she came to call on us, she wanted to see all of us/I’m glad she didn’t fall on us, she’s eighteen stone”.

Other characters featured in its verses include “Buckshot” Forster, a chief secretary of Ireland during the 1880s; James “Skin the Goat” Fitzharris, who drove a cab used in the Phoenix Park murders; and Patrick O’Donnell, who in 1883 carried out the revenge assassination of James Carey, a party to the aforementioned murders, before saving his neck (temporarily) by turning queen’s evidence.

Given all this and the Victorian-era slang, it might be – and often is – mistakenly concluded that the ballad dates from about 1901. In fact, it was written in 1958 as part of a song cycle by musician and critic, George Hodnett. Each song was meant to lampoon one of the stock folk or ballad forms. Thus, Montopurported to have been composed around the turn of the century and, as Hodnett explained, to have been shamelessly tailored for a certain audience.

“The verses were constructed to include the pre-possessions that would appeal to the Dublin proletarian taste,” he said. “Hence the ingredients of hurler-on-the-fence; support for persons regarded as patriots (Invincibles verse); anti-police attitudes (‘the buggers in the depot’); anti-‘toff’ attitudes (Buckshot Forster); anti-Englishness (same); local allusions; and, of course, smut. This construction probably accounts for the song’s success, if that is the word.”

In some respects, he included too much period detail, as in the verse: “See the Dublin Fusiliers, the dirty ould bamboozeliers/De Wet’ll kill the childer, one two three.” Few people now – or even in 1958 – know much about De Wet, one of the British army’s more formidable enemies during the Boer War, in which the Fusiliers fought. So latter-day singers tend to provide their own phonetic versions, like Frank Harte’s: “They went and killed the childer, one two three.” Another example is the second – and even ruder – half of the verse about Queen Victoria: “Mister Neill Lord Mayor says she, is this all you got to show to me?/Why no ma’am there’s some more to see – Pog mo thon!” This is an anachronism, in fact, because the “Neill” referred to – Lawrence Neill, later O’Neill – did not become mayor until 1917. In any case, most singers now follow the lead of Luke Kelly, who rendered the line “Mister me Lord Mayor says she”.

Which is probably better than the original anyway.

I OWE THIS and most of my knowledge about the song to Dubliner Johnny Byrne, who studied the subject for a history project in NUI Maynooth and who shares his erudition on such themes during his day job as a tour-guide (byrnejohnny@gmail.com).

His project included researching the place as well as the song. And Johnny also reminds me that long before its descent into infamy, Monto had been an area of aristocratic pretensions: as witnessed by such addresses as Gloucester Street (now Sean McDermott Street), its one-time northern boundary, which was named for a duke and son of King George III.

The Act of Union hastened the neighbourhood’s decline. Then a combination of economic hardship and the militarisation of Dublin helped feed the growth of a sex industry, to which “Monto” became central. The area features famously in Ulysses, being the scene where, in a misunderstanding over a woman, Stephen Dedalus is assaulted by an English squaddie.

But that it had an international reputation even before Joyce is clear from the 1903 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which on the subject of prostitution, noted: “Dublin furnishes an exception to the usual practice in the United Kingdom. In that city police permit open ‘houses’ confined to one area, but carried on more publicly than even in the south of Europe or Algeria.”

The notoriety lasted another 20 years or so. Then Frank Duff and his fellow legionnaires of Mary succeeded in closing the trade down. Monto was gone by 1925 and was already a fading memory when the song immortalised it.

Hodnett’s own life was worthy of a song, at least. The son of an army colonel, he first studied law but was too much in love with music to persist. When not reviewing jazz, he played it: on piano, trumpet, and zither. And he was a fully paid-up Bohemian. Often lacking a fixed abode, he was well known for spending nights in his various places of employment: sleeping rolled up in curtains at the Pike Theatre, or on the floor of The Irish Times.

As for his most famous composition, like many offspring, it has long since taken on a life its parent could not have foreseen, at least in the maternity ward. The process was already happening in Hodnett’s own lifetime (which ended in 1990). Montohad now reached the point, he once told an interviewer, “when it has become the folk song it originally aimed at satirising”.